First Gen: Inspiring Stories Of MBAs Who Beat The Odds

Benjamin Strickhouser

Carnegie Mellon University, Tepper School of Business

Class: 2019

Hometown: Biglerville, PA

Fun Fact About Yourself: I have SCUBA dived on ship wrecks from World War I and World War II simultaneously in Guam.

Undergraduate School and Major: United States Merchant Marine Academy – Logistics and Intermodal Transportation

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: United States Navy – Operations Security Officer

What did your parents do for a living? Father – Feed Mill Supervisor, Mother – Nurse

What was the highest level of education achieved by your mother and your
father?
Father – High School, Mother – Associates Degree

Which of your family members is your biggest inspiration? Why? My sister. She had her family first and then went back for her associates degree while having young children. I knew that if she could do it with so many obstacles, I could succeed in higher education as well.

What was the moment that led you to decide to pursue higher education? There was no one real moment. My family always assumed that I would go to college, although we couldn’t plan for it much financially. This had a lot to do with my decision to attend the United States Merchant Marine Academy, where I could attend college at a very low cost in exchange for service in the U.S. Navy Reserve.

What was your biggest worry before going for your undergraduate degree? If I had been properly prepared in high school for the academic rigor of a military academy.

What was the most challenging part of getting your undergraduate degree? It was a combination of an extremely rigorous academic program and a strict military regimen. It’s hard enough taking 21 credits in a trimester as a freshman. It’s even harder when you must get up at 6 a.m. every day and clean the barracks.

What didn’t your family understand about the higher education experience that you wish they would understand better? There were never any issues with understanding. If I had to reach, I would say that they could understand better that every course has a purpose, even if they think it’s silly.

What led you to pursue an MBA degree? I had been working in fairly tactical roles since undergrad. I wanted to put myself in a position to be able to affect organizational change and strategy rather than just carrying out someone else’s plans.

How did you choose your MBA program?While I earned a Bachelor of Science from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, I felt that I still had a lot to learn about the quantitative aspects of business. It’s well known that Tepper has an excellent MBA program, and one of the best when it comes to quant and analytics. I felt that it would be a great complement to the front-line leadership experience I already had and help round me out professionally.

What was your biggest worry before starting your MBA? While I chose Tepper because of its quantitative rigor, it was also a bit frightening. It had been almost a decade since I had done college-level math.

How were you able to finance your MBA as a first generation student? Graduating from undergrad without debt had a lot to do with being able to go back for my MBA and be comfortable with the expense. I started saving money as soon as I started working after undergrad when I knew my expenses would be low. I also ended up volunteering for some active duty time through the Navy Reserve and am fortunate enough to be partially eligible for the GI Bill. Lastly, Tepper was generous enough to offer me a merit scholarship.

What advice would you have for other first-generation college students? Don’t be discouraged or worried about being first-generation. There is significant value placed on those with diverse and interesting perspectives, both in education and the workforce. Being the first person in your family to go to college is certainly something that gives you a unique perspective compared to your peers who aren’t in this situation.

What do you plan to pursue after graduation? I am hoping my past leadership and operations experience, coupled with what I’m learning from Tepper in the concentrations of technology, finance, marketing, and strategy, will allow me to pursue a career where I can make meaningful strategic decisions.