As the daughter of a U.S. Army Colonel, Jennifer Keith witnessed first-hand the process of buying and selling real estate. Each time her father's job moved the family to another city, Keith furthered her education.

“That's what got me really interested because I got dragged along with my parents to every open house,” says Keith. She also learned about the pain of having to sell in a down market and how to deal with tenants.

What was the appeal? “It's something that's concrete,” says Keith. “What personally drives me is that real estate is a business where you can eventually go off and do your own thing.”

With an undergrad degree in economics from the University of Virginia, Keith's mind was already firmly planted on real estate. “I started in the real estate group of an investment bank,” says Keith. “My motivation was to do some time on the finance side and then hopefully move to real estate from there.”

The investment bank was Deutsche Bank in New York, where Keith was an analyst from 2002 to 2003. From there, she moved on to Arch Street Capital Advisors in Greenwich, Conn., a real estate-focused private equity firm, where she did due diligence and acquisition work.

It was also at Arch Street that Keith learned her most valuable lesson: the importance of understanding the goals, objectives and motivations of the multitude of players in any given deal.

With an already burgeoning resume, Keith decided to go back to school because of the growing complexity of the real estate industry.

She applied and was accepted to the University of Southern California Master's in Real Estate Development program, an intensive 11-month program with 44 lecture hours per week.

“In the last few years, the caliber [of applicant] has gone up,” says Raphael Bostic, the program's director. That is, the standardized test scores, undergrad GPA and years of experience in the industry.

Bostic got to know Keith over the eight months she served as his graduate research assistant. In that role, Keith was given the task of finding all available data on predatory lending. “In a lot of regards she made herself an expert in predatory lending,” says Bostic.

After a course load that included design, economics, finance and operations, Keith began interviewing in early March, and by mid-April already had an offer on the table. She plans to go to work for a private equity fund.

The graduate will live in Denver with her future husband, Coley Brenan, an associate at KSL Capital. The fact that the couple are both in real estate is a good thing, according to Keith, because there is a built-in understanding of long hours and travel.

In the end, Keith will accelerate her career by four to five years with the new master's degree. “The attitude among my peers and the adjunct professors seems to be that the smart people are the ones who are going to make money in the real estate industry — even in a downturn.”

Jennifer Keith

Age: 25

Degree: Master's in Real Estate Development

College: University of Southern California

Long-term career goal: To build a solid network within the real estate industry and to eventually run her own business.

Most admired real estate professional: Bruce Ratner, CEO, Forest City Enterprises