Hello Allison! It's great to meet you, and awesome that you're looking at a career in UX. We have a lot of great people on these forums, and I hope you'll come back for more once you're done with this particular project.
I'm happy to help with your project-- here are my responses.
How did you personally get involved in User Experience Design?
My previous job was designing interactive digital signs, which is heavily steeped in UX Design. Though I was a jack-of-all-trades there (I did design, development, deployment, training, team management, and project management), I worked on literally hundreds of projects for world-class companies and organizations. This gave me the opportunity to look several different ways when thinking about a new gig, and I decided to turn to a career in UX as it seemed the most appealing.
How long have you been a UX designer?
I just celebrated my 1-year anniversary with my current employer, though I've been doing jobs that required significant UX work for the past 8 years.
Where did you attend school?
I attended the Metropolitan State University of Denver, majoring in journalism and minoring in political science.
In your opinion, what is your favourite part of your job?
I love to learn, so getting to work on problems I didn't even know existed is always a lot of fun. In my current role I'm working on a system that supports registered investment advisors, and the world of the stock market was one I knew little about before I came in. I'm certainly no expert, but this gig has opened up a world of challenges to me that I couldn't even begin to fathom when I came here. It's been a tremendous learning experience.
Who is someone you admire in the UX field?
Apart from @HAWK for her tireless efforts on keeping this forum well-moderated, I really appreciate the contributions Daniel Burka and our very own @joenatoli have made to the industry. Daniel explains design in a way that's intuitive and sensible, while Joe works hard to share his years of experience with the community at large. Both have contributed to my own success in very different ways, but I couldn't thank either enough for what they're doing for the industry as a whole.
How do you balance the goal of the end user with those of the business?
I base my thoughts and arguments on hard data whenever possible. As a UX Engineer I'm well-placed to influence business decisions, and if I can find data to either support or refute a particular hypothesis I will certainly do so.
Have there been rough moments in your career path to get to where you are now?
Absolutely. You can read the full story here if you're interested. The TL;DR version is that I went to school for journalism, was unable to make it in that field and found myself homeless and working at a call center in 2009. I made a pitch to change our internal websites for the better, and was able to work my way up from call center phone jockey to Software Engineer. I eventually jumped ship for the digital signage gig, and then moved onto my current UX Engineer role.
The road to get here has not been easy, but I learned a lot in the process. It was absolutely worth it.
If you could improve UX on any site which would it be and why?
ESPN.com. I visit it enough that it annoys the ever-living daylights out of me. It's a giant, unorganized mish-mash of information and stories that make it impossible to find anything other than the night's current big headline. It's a shame because they have a ton to offer in terms of information and depth of coverage, but it all gets lost in the shuffle.
What's the work environment like as a UX designer?
For me, it's pretty great. I work in a decently-sized cube in a nice office on the quiet side of town. My coworkers are all respectful and smart people who are working to make a good product great. I have a lot of leeway on hours and work-from-home days. All that the team is concerned with is that I get my work done well and on-time.
Hope that all helps! Let me know if I can do anything else for you.