They’re equally adventurous. Mark Wehde of the University of Wisconsin MBA Consortium is a rock climber, whose conquests include “Devil’s Tower, Castleton Tower, and Yosemite in the U.S. and Mount Arapiles and Moonarie in Australia.” To call Lehigh University’s Dan Zanghi a “roller coaster enthusiast” would be an understatement. He has ridden over 300 different ones across the world. Zanghi isn’t the only member of the Class of 2018 who likes to take a plunge. Ohio University’s Joe Fernandez Jr., a rising star at Sherwin Williams, has logged over 40 scuba dives across the world. His classmate, Mario Henrique Brilhante, has already mastered scuba diving and skydiving. That’s why he is taking on a new passion: Training for an IRONMAN. In that area, he may want to touch base with Sinema, who competed for the IRONMAN World Championship three years ago.
Their talents, shall we say, can be offbeat as well. Florida’s Aguon Hock is a fencer. Her classmate, Andrew Spradlin, plays classic guitar, while Indiana’s Dodaro strums the ukulele. Before enrolling at Syracuse, David Campos was so talented that he dropped his engineering gig to spend over two years touring as the singer and percussionist in a rock band. If you’re looking for a Netflix fix, check out Staten Island Summer or High School Musical 3, which includes USC’s Katie Cockrell in prominent roles.
GRADUATING CLASS HAS ALREADY LEFT MARK WITH LEADING COMPANIES
It is a highly accomplished Best & Brightest class as well. In downtown Nashville, the Bridgestone Tower – a 30-story glass marvel nestled alongside the Country Music Hall of Fame – was opened in 2017. For that, a heavy dose of credit goes to Drexel University’s Albert Acevedo, who spearheaded the site selection, development, design and construction of Bridgestone’s Americas headquarters, which included re-locating three centers boasting nearly 2,000 employees “under one roof.”
Similarly, Carnegie Mellon’s Brown helped to develop Tesla’s distribution network. As a senior analyst, Brown’s fingerprints are found everywhere in the site selection, inventory, and shipping methods of Tesla’s distribution network. “It was extremely rewarding to see how my decisions impacted the company’s growth, especially during my visits to the newly-opened distribution centers,” Brown writes.
That doesn’t mean the class’ achievements were restricted to splashy brands and headlines. Some graduates, such as Carnegie Mellon’s Small, focused on the long view. At Nike, he co-founded #Hack72, an internal hackathon competition for tech interns. Broken into teams, the interns were expected to build working prototypes to address the issues assigned to them. The hackathon was so successful, Small says, that the interns’ work is now in production, earning one of Nike’s most prestigious internal awards in the process. “Seeing them recognize their ability to create meaningful and valuable work so early in their careers is always something I look forward to,” Small admits. “#Hack72 enabled each team to discover that feeling in a two-day period and be recognized for their ability to break down barriers and deliver an impact quickly.”
ONLINE MBAs DEVELOP STRONG SENSE OF COMMUNITY
As a whole, the concept of learning an MBA online is riddled with myths. Conventional wisdom has it that you don’t get to know your classmates, you have scant access to your professors, you do little teamwork or project work, and you leave without a valuable network of support. Turns out, the Best & Brightest were headed for a huge surprise…in a good way.
For one, says Ohio’s Fernandez, the online MBA is built on group work. Despite the distance and differences, he notes, his teams worked together “effectively and efficiently.” Even more, observes Carnegie Mellon’s Breidenbach, the teams quickly jelled and grew close. “While we had spent time together in-person during Access Weekends, which helped foster those connections, the online environment further strengthened them. I can say that I formed some life-long friendships during the course of the program.”
Beyond the esprit de corps, the Class of 2018 was also surprised by just how much they learned from their classmates. “The peer-to-peer knowledge transfer is immense,” notes the University of Maryland’s Zaneta Purvis. “You can learn from your teammate’s post or brief comments. In many cases, reading chapters of content does not come close. Someone who manages a production facility is going to have first-hand, applied knowledge in the area of shift scheduling and line balancing. I remember greatly benefiting from my teammate’s extensive expertise as an ER physician when we had to work on a triage-intake-bed process flow simulation for an inner city ER operation.”
INDIANA MBA PITCHES IDEAS…TO THE “MOST POWERFUL MAN IN MARKETING”
At the same time, online MBA programs rely on a support and service model, where delivery and experience are treated as equals to content in providing educational value. That comes through the faculty, says Florida’s Spradlin, who was thrilled with their quality and responsiveness (not to mention regular office hours). It is also reinforced through immersive models that pulled students like Indiana’s Michelle Niblock away from their monitors and plopped them into the heart of business.
“As part of the Kelley Direct MBA program, I’ve been able to learn about the burgeoning tech hub in Bangalore, India, consult with entrepreneurs in Cuba (yes, they do exist), dive in to the structured success of the German Mittelstand, and even conduct marketing research and strategic recommendations for arguably the most powerful man in marketing: P&G’s Marc Pritchard. The flexibility the program has offered to design a course load that’s relevant to you and your career goals.”
The online MBA experience was also a far cry from their undergraduate days, argued many Best & Brightest. Syracuse’s David Campos describes his live classroom back then as “rigid, stale, and tedious.” In contrast, the online approach, argues Carnegie Mellon’s Small, adapted to him instead of the other way around.
“I sat in on classes from a beach in Maui, hotels across the country, airplanes and airports, boats, planes, coffee shops, and everywhere in between. As long as there was access to the Internet, I could be in class. In undergrad, if you missed a class, you’d better have hoped someone could take good notes for you. At Tepper, I never felt limited by my life and obligations.”
“I FELT LIKE I WAS SEEN”
Although Tepper was 2,500 miles away, Small never felt isolated. Instead, he experienced a sense of involvement with the program and connection with his peers. “I felt like I was seen at Tepper,” he points out. “In class, despite the online setting, professors knew who was engaged, whose interest piqued on a certain topic, and when they needed to pivot to a more resonating topic. It could be the format for how they teach – in a studio staring at a massive screen and collections of faces, but I always was confident that the professors knew me. That wasn’t always the case in my undergrad.”
Living in Chapel Hill, Taylor Meyer was able to sample both live and online classes at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. He preferred online all the way. “I felt that the online platform was more efficient in a variety of ways. I could control the speed at which material was taught; I could take breaks when needed to catch up on note taking that I might have otherwise missed; and I could learn on a flexible schedule depending on what my work week looked like.”
Were the sacrifices worth it? You won’t find a Best & Brightest who would’ve done anything different. Campos gave a “100% yes” answer, asserting that the MBA@Syracuse online program “has shown me just how far I can stretch myself.” For Indiana’s Niblock, the experience was transformational, where the real learning took place far from case readings and virtual discussions. “It’s the people you meet and the places you go that truly open your mind to all of the potential in this world. I’ve had the chance to grow both personally and professionally through this program, and I can only hope that others have experienced the same impact I have.”
SPARE MOMENTS ADD UP IN KEEPING PACE
One of Niblock’s classmates would certainly agree, noting that the MBA degree was just the start of his journey. “This educational journey has reinvigorated me in all areas of my life,” says Dodaro. “So much so, I almost feel like it’s not really ending. Of course, the formality of the lectures and the exams and the projects have concluded; but these past two years have cultivated a strong foundation within my core to always learn, to always ask questions, and to always connect with others.”
Looking ahead, this year’s Best & Brightest have some advice for incoming students – both hard-boiled pragmatic and starry-eyed romantic. Count Arizona State’s Sinema in the first category. Her advice? “Find a group member who can help you learn the math.” In contrast, Campos urges his successors to use every bit of spare time on class – and save the rest for what’s most important.
“Attending live classes late at night, I sacrificed sleep and leisure time rather than sacrificing time with my family or allowing it to impact my job performance,” he shares. “I used every flight, train ride and run on the treadmill to complete my readings and view lectures. I would often complete homework, papers and study in my hotel rooms with room service rather than going out to dinner with colleagues. You can thrive by making the program part of your life without making it your entire life.”
NEVER FORGET THE BIG PICTURE
Just don’t forget that the work is more of an opportunity than a task, advises the Wisconsin Consortium’s Wehde. “Don’t just do the homework. Don’t just do the assignment. This is a wonderful opportunity to explore new ideas, to learn from others, and to grow and develop your own personal philosophy of leadership. Take advantage of it. It is very hard to develop this sort of nurturing environment in a workplace.”
Most important, adds Carnegie Mellon’s Breidenbach, future MBAs should never forget what drove them to pursue their degree in the first place. “The best piece of advice I can give to an applicant for thriving in an online MBA program is to stay focused, identify your support team, and remember your reasons for doing this in the first place. Life happens – during my program there were engagements, weddings, divorces, births, job changes, cross-country moves; you name it, it probably happened – and regardless of the happy or sad occasion, you might feel like you cannot possibly do it all. When you feel that way, take a step back and re-focus, reach out, and remember why you wanted to get your MBA.”
Go to page 3 for 40 in-depth profiles of this year’s Best & Brightest Online MBAs.
DON’T MISS: THE TOP 25 ONLINE MBA PROGRAMS IN THE U.S.