First Gen: Inspiring Stories Of MBAs Who Beat The Odds

Justin Long

University of Michigan, Stephen M. Ross School of Business

Class: 2020

Hometown: Yuba City, CA

Fun Fact About Yourself: I won a dual-gender hula-hoop contest at the end of my junior year in college.

Undergraduate School and Major: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Economics

Most Recent Employer and Job Title:

Nike, New York City

Retail Marketing Specialist

What did your parents do for a living?

  1. Mother – office secretary
  2. Father – construction worker/framer

What was the highest level of education achieved by your mother and your father? They both graduated from high school.

Which of your family members is your biggest inspiration? Why? My grandfather was my biggest inspiration, and somewhat of a hero to me. He led an incredible life because of his amazing work ethic and desire to provide for his family. At the age of 14, he hitchhiked from Arkansas to California to make money by picking peaches in the fields. The day he turned 18, he married my grandmother (whom he was married to for over 50 years) and joined the United States Navy. After serving in the Korean War, he moved back up to northern California to raise his family and settle down. My grandfather was not only a self-taught carpenter who eventually ran his own crew, but also started his own business selling light and ceiling fixtures. He was incredibly generous with his time and money, and always put family first. My grandpa helped raise me and had a big influence on my development as a young man. Having had the opportunity to be around him and see his passion for life is something that has continued to motivate me throughout my life.

What was the moment that led you to decide to pursue higher education? Growing up, I didn’t know many people who had gone through the college experience. But, for some reason, I always wanted to earn a college degree. That mindset was further solidified by my high school summers, during which my dad had me work with his construction crew. Although it was very rewarding to experience this sort of hard work and to see the project from inception to completion, I quickly realized that the lifestyle of a construction worker was not for me. My father enjoyed his work, but it was also something he chose because his options after high school were somewhat limited. Watching his body break down after so many years of tough manual labor was very eye-opening for me. After my first summer working with my dad, I realized that pursuing a college degree would create so many more opportunities for me, so I really buckled down in school to make sure I had that option.

What was your biggest worry before going for your undergraduate degree? I was really concerned about deciding what I wanted to study. I didn’t have a sharp focus on what a degree would help me achieve career-wise; I just knew that I wanted to go to college. I had always viewed it as this “magic key” that would open every door. As the first day of classes approached, I remember panicking about falling behind in comparison to all my classmates, who, in my mind, knew exactly what they wanted to do in life. However, once I got to school and was able to sit down with advisors, my concern started to slowly disappear, and I was able to pick a major that I felt really made sense for me: economics.

What was the most challenging part of getting your undergraduate degree? The most challenging part of my experience was determining what I should be doing outside of the classroom to set myself up for future success. To lessen my college loans, I started at a junior college out of high school. Although this was a financially practical approach, it also meant that I would miss out on certain experiences that are critical for first year students. It was easy to know that doing well academically in class was a precursor to job opportunities. However, I knew nothing about internships, career fairs, networking events, or what clubs would make the most sense for my goals. I felt like I was lacking the understanding of how to make myself a more desirable employee.

What didn’t your family understand about the higher education experience that you wish they would understand better? Some people in my family couldn’t understand that going to college was not just about taking more classes and getting a job, but that the entire experience helps teach you about yourself as a person. Every aspect of college is an opportunity to grow. My education took place as much outside the classroom as it did inside. I met people from parts of the world I had never been before, participated in events that were not prevalent where I grew up, and was exposed to different ways of thinking. I know it is possible to get a job without going to college, but the growth you experience as a person during those four years is something that is equally as important as the degree.

What led you to pursue an MBA degree? I have had the opportunity to work in several different industries: military, recruiting, and consumer products. I have also had the chance to work in a variety of functions within these industries: management, marketing, business development, and account management. Combining all the things I liked about these roles helped me realize what career path I wanted to follow, and led me to a choice: utilize my network and make that transition on my own, or try to switch careers through an MBA.

I ultimately decided on the MBA for two reasons. First, I wanted to continue to expand my network with people who bring new experiences, perspectives, and ideas to the table. The network I have built over the years will always be there, but the opportunity to add a network of a top-tier MBA program was extremely important. Second, looking back on my undergrad experience, it became apparent that pursuing an MBA was not just about the job at the end. The experiences that I could get while pursuing the MBA were just as important. Classroom discussions with business professionals from every industry imaginable, projects with real-world companies tackling different business challenges, exposure to global markets and social impact ventures: these are just a few examples of what I will have access to as an MBA student, as opposed to attempting to jump into a new career where these sorts of resources are not always available.

 How did you choose your MBA program? It was an easy decision for me: the people! I visited every school I applied to and got to interact with both students and faculty. I met great people at each school, but I felt most at home at Michigan. I knew going into the application process that any top 20 school would open doors for my career. Those schools all have great faculties, class offerings, and recruiting opportunities. For me, it boiled down to the culture of the program. The current students, the incoming students, and the admissions team at Michigan Ross were all so amazing because they were welcoming, down to earth, and fun to be around! It was easy to picture myself loving the next two years there. That’s why I made my deposit as soon as I got the official email.

 What was your biggest worry before starting your MBA? My biggest concern was getting accepted into a great program. I had done so much research, had many conversations, visited every campus, and even talked to coworkers whose opinions I greatly valued. I was certain that the MBA path was the right one for me. At that point, it was just a matter of waiting to hear if any of the programs I had applied to liked me as much as I liked them.

As soon as I got my first acceptance, all the stress and concern went away. Since the day I got that email, my focus has been on preparation and proving that my future school made a fantastic choice in selecting me. Waiting on the decision was very stressful, but since that stage ended I have felt great and am excited about what comes next!

How were you able to finance your MBA as a first-generation student? I was fortunate enough to make a smart decision when I was younger, and that decision meant the cost of my MBA will be covered. After college, I commissioned as an Infantry Officer in the Army. Part of that commitment meant that I could either choose to have the government pay off my undergraduate loans, or, participate in the GI Bill program that would pay for my pursuit of a graduate degree. Even though, at the time, I had no idea what advanced degree I wanted, I thankfully had the foresight to opt for the GI Bill program. That decision, made 8 years ago, means that my MBA degree will be fully paid for. It almost feels like I hit the lottery!

What advice would you have for other first-generation college students? Use your resources and don’t be afraid to ask questions. As a first-generation college student, I was very naïve about what questions to ask and where to go for help. Looking back on it, I know that was more a result of my insecurity than a lack of available resources. During the application process, I could have talked with more school counselors or done more research online (even though this was way back in 2003). Even once I got into school, it would have been very easy to sit down with my classmates, who seemed to have a much better grip on how to navigate school. However, I always felt a little embarrassed that I had these uncertainties that they didn’t seem to be experiencing. So, in hindsight, if I could change anything about my college experience, I would take more initiative to ask questions so that I could learn how to get the most out of my college experience.

What do you plan to pursue after graduation? Post-MBA, my plan is to move into product management with a leading tech company. When I look back on the elements I have really enjoyed about each of my past roles––working on small and collaborative teams, understanding the market and consumer needs, working cross-functionally in an organization, and being at the forefront of innovation––it is clear to me that Product Management would be a great fit.