Sometimes, life can intrude on business school in unexpected ways. Robert Saylor is a board-certified endodontist who founded his practice in 2004. In his spare time, he is a self-described “exercise nut” who has competed in the Boston Marathon and the Ironman. These endurance tests would come in handy for the MBA, which he started at Penn State in 2018. However, his plans were altered in 2021, which he was hit by a car while riding his road bike.
“I was unsure if I would ever practice again or be able to complete my degree (I had three classes to go),” Saylor admits. “While I was unable to practice for the better part of 6 months to a year, I was happy to be able to continue to work towards my MBA at Penn State. The coursework and engagement with my peers brought meaning at an important time in my life and made me realize just how fortunate I was to still use my cognitive skills, even though I couldn’t work as a clinical Endodontist (a profession I love). The advising staff and faculty were truly supportive of my situation at that time, and I am so very grateful for that. While I may not be at 100%, I am doing great overall and importantly, I was able to complete my MBA and graduate with a 4.0. This, I am incredibly proud of!”
IMMEDIATELY APPLY WHAT YOU LEARN
Every online MBA curriculum will test students’ ability to manage time and change and adapt to discomfort and change. When those exacting moments passed, the Class of 2023 – to use the words of Kristen Lazard – “emerged even stronger.” That was certainly true of Lazard, who once appeared on two episodes of TLC’s Say Yes To The Dress. After being downsized, she was Inspired by Boston University’s MBA programming to start a consulting practice, which positioned her to land her dream job at Disney.
The Class of 2023 is packed with happy endings like Lazard enjoyed. Jessica K. Goeller, for one, earned a promotion to Clinical Service Chief of Pediatric Anesthesia, while she completed her online MBA at the University of Nebraska. Similarly, Lehigh University’s GiGi Ross moved from analyst to manager at Northrop Grumman as an MBA student. Indeed, the Best & Brightest reported honing skills during their time in business school that accelerated their careers. For Jill Bookman, that translated to asking better questions. After completing his dissertation on UK venture capital practices at Warwick Business School, Mohammad As’ad was prepared to open a consulting practice supporting early-stage startups. At the same time, Wing Pokrywka’s exposure to data-driven decision-making enabled her to hit the ground running when she was hired by Instacart as a senior marketing manager before finishing her final year at the University of Maryland’s Smith School.
One reason for these students’ success? Arizona State’s Chitray Eddy points to the online format enabling students to immediately apply what they learn to their jobs. “You go from learning topics and then mastering them in real-world business situations within days. I was taking something from every single class and using it in real-time to perform an analysis, make an argument, or exhibit a concept. This immersive learning was invaluable for me and has given me confidence that my skills are tested and refined, all of which would have only been possible for me with an online education.”
Terrica Gupton can even cite specific lessons she applied from the University of Illinois iMBA program to her executive position at Comcast: “Efficiency frameworks leveraged by Toyota to increase productivity and meet objectives; understanding and applying value proposition as a strategic advantage in a non-product capacity; and considering diversity through the lens of Hofstede’s Cultural Dimension Theory as the basis for inclusion and understanding.”
FLEXIBILITY TO GO ANYWHERE AND DO ANYTHING
Ask the Class of 2023 why they returned to business school and you’ll hear responses like gaining a bigger voice, greater authority, or higher pay. Still, they understood that pursuing an MBA was a big commitment. Time and money were just the start. Think about the competing demands of work and family – and the disruptions and trade-offs that school sometimes demands. Such realities are a big reason why these Best & Brightest students opted for an online format. In a word, they craved flexibility. With an online platform, they could study any time and any place – always at their pace. Not only were online MBA programs easily accessible, but the team dynamic made students accountable to each other. Even more, online programs were structured with the lives of working professionals in mind. As a result, the weekly commitment ranged from 10-30 hours depending on the course or time of year.
“Class was usually once a week for 3-3.5 hours, though it varied depending on the number of course credits and the course’s scheduling format,” observes GiGi Ross. “Outside of class, I’d spend about 4-7 hours per week on assignments and group meetings per course.”
The online format also buffeted MBAs when conditions changed in their lives. Jason Bateman, a husband and father, was able to continue his studies at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School despite re-locating three times in response to his wife’s military service. In December, Brandon Bessler was able to move to New Zealand with his partner. That wasn’t the only change that USC Marshall’s OMBA program accommodated.
“In the midst of this program, I changed careers entirely” Bessler adds. “This MBA was a catalyst in my “pivot,” both from an enablement standpoint as well as disruptor to my comfort zone. Chasing my passion for sustainability while getting paid to do so is both an empowering and marvelous thing.”
THE PROFESSORS UNDERSTAND
For most Best & Brightest MBAs, the online format represented the best of two worlds. On one hand, it enabled them to continue drawing an income and accumulating work experience. At the same time, they could still be around their family and pursue their interests. This brought a consistency to their lives, notes Stephen Stanwood. “Being able to do my day job, work towards this degree, and stop every night at 6 p.m. to have dinner with my wife has just been a total revelation.”
Even more, the online platform made it easier for MBAs to better explore, understand, and retain key takeaways, adds Juanjiangmeng Du. “We have both synchronous live classes and asynchronous sessions in the Global Online MBA program. In an asynchronous session, a professor puts a lecture video online. I could watch it at any time and watch it again if I did not capture something that the professor said. I could also conduct a pause and reflect session to absorb the content. Such time flexibility transforms my learning into a personalized knowledge-brewing process.”
Despite COVID pushing the world online, you’ll still find skeptics questioning the quality of online learning. In reality, online MBA programs use the same professors, readings, projects, and expectations as their full-time and executive cohorts. In terms of faculty, Santa Clara University’s Niyati Raghavan was impressed by how “approachable [and] adaptable” her professors were, be it office hours or beyond. The same was true at the Kenan-Flagler Business School, adds Alex Blain, a member of the U.S. Army Inspector General’s office.
“The professors were understanding of the fact that we were working professionals juggling a 40+ hour workweek with schoolwork.”
BEST OF TWO WORLDS
That doesn’t mean the faculty went easy on the Class of 2023 – certainly not at the University of Illinois iMBA program, observes Terrica Gupton. “[I never felt] as if the content or the experience was substandard. We had enough breakout rooms, group projects, office hours, and interactions during live lectures to still feel like an in-person classroom. There was always opportunity for passionate debates, questions of curiosity, and real examples shared by classmates in relevant professions which helped enhance the online learning environment.”
Most often, online MBA students enjoyed many of their perks of their on-campus counterparts. At Southern Methodist University’s Cox School, Valecia Harris served as the president of both the Graduate Entrepreneurship Club and the Graduate Women in Business organization. Down I-45, Trent Alan Kostenuk participated in Rice University’s New Enterprise Accelerator to prepare him to launch and scale his own energy tech startup. He also joined in on several weekly “Partio” gatherings that bring together full-time, evening, weekend, and online business students.
“I was pleasantly surprised by the level of engagement and collaboration that was made available across the MBA cohorts and programs. By taking advantage of in-person social and networking events, I was able to have the best of both worlds – a flexible and efficient online learning experience with the added benefit of in-person interaction and networking opportunities.”
In some programs, such as Indiana University and Carnegie Mellon University, online MBAs return to campus for a weekend or longer for in-person instruction, presentations, and networking. In other cases, online MBAs can join their counterparts for school-sponsored events. At Arizona State, for example, Sara Schwartz spent a week in Washington, DC taking a business and public policy course. “I was able to meet several MBA students, not only from ASU but from several other programs across the country. We heard directly from a lobbyist, members of special advocacy groups and policymakers, and members of Congress. It was truly an eye-opening and special experience that I will never forget.”
THE LESSONS AHEAD
Long-term, the Class of 2023 have high hopes. Baylor University’s Janise Brooks, a COO, plans to finish a Master’s in Organizational Psychology and hopefully grow a firm to a billion dollars in assets under management. Valarie Tran intends to live the MBA dream: found a company, retire early, and travel the world.
Of course, there is always someone brave enough to share the “unpopular answer. This year, that honor belongs to Caitlin Bristol. “I am less interested in climbing a career ladder and don’t have “the” dream job in mind, per se. I hope to be a part of upending the status quo and redesigning and rebuilding systems that work for people rather than exploit them.”
When it comes to advice to future online MBA students, Jill Bookman reminds them that they will get out what they put into the program. That’s particularly true with networking. More than that, she adds, she urges MBAs to give themselves grace.
“Going back to school, working full-time, and trying to manage relationships (family, friends, etc.) is HARD, and there will be times when things will slip; your inability to participate in events and gatherings will be disappointing to you and to friends/family – you have to make hard choices – you have to study! So give yourself grace while doing something that is harder than most people realize.”
And take nothing for granted too. That is a lesson absorbed by Zoriana Adamovych, a senior product manager for Visa and MBA candidate at IE Business School. While she had relocated to Dubai in 2018, she has watched from afar as her native Ukraine be torn apart by war. For her, the best advice is for future MBAs to focus on the bigger picture – and what truly matters in the long run.
“Be bold, be open-minded, and be genuine! Stay true to yourself and always value other perspectives – the people in the program are a true gem!”
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