From Marine Captain To Kellogg MBA: My Journey

Tracey Fetherson took the leap to business school after a successful career in the Marines.

In 2018, the year I turned 30, I was at a crossroads.

By then I’d spent seven years in the Marines, ascending to captain. On one hand, I knew there were a lot of benefits to staying in the military. Continuing as a Marine for just one more year would have meant choosing the military as my long-term career after completing a follow-on professional development school. A future as a career military professional was easy to imagine.

But on the other hand, I yearned for a new challenge. In the Marines I’d gained lots of intangible skills, especially around problem solving and leadership. But I wanted to put those capabilities in fuller context, and learn some new, more tangible skills to complement them.

What I wanted, I realized, was to challenge myself in a very different environment — one that involved broader kinds of organizational management, strategy development, forecasting, and other skills and tools to drive real results.

I also had an idea of where I wanted to direct my experience and growing capabilities: a future management role in the education sector.

All of my thinking motivated me to apply to MBA programs, and I joined the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management earlier this year.


Tracey Fetherson. Courtesy photo

Since joining Kellogg, my career vision has crystallized further. I seek to drive impact in the K-12 education space, understanding and influencing decisions made at the state, district, and school levels, to create brighter futures for as many kids as possible.

To work toward that goal, I’m aiming for internships in management consulting and brand management. Either path would provide key skills and insights about using strategy, finance, operations, and leadership skills to shape desired outcomes.

While I haven’t worked in K-12 education as a teacher or in any other position, I have gained highly transferable skills through the Marines. For one, I’ve been an instructor at The Basic School for the past three years. I teach adults, rather than children, but have found that the challenges I face illuminate some of the general challenges in the education sector: curriculum development, classroom management, budget constraints, and others. So this experience will inform my future efforts.

More broadly, in the military I’ve become comfortable making decisions with only 75% of the information that it would be ideal to have. It’s about being flexible and developing contingency plans. It’s about making judgment calls and ensuring you have the information to back them up. When you do, your leaders will always support you.

My experience as a Marine has also helped me to better read the room and my people, to understand what they need and provide it, and to be a better advocate for them in their absence. I’m able to say, “I remember being in your position,” using empathy to understand their perspective and truly become their ally.

All of this has helped me succeed at Kellogg so far, too — whether making decisions in case assignments (where we never have 100% of the information) or being an ally for my section-mates or other peers, making sure people are OK and have what they need. Just like I tried to be more than a commander in the Marines, I work hard to be not just a classmate but a friend and advocate, to help us all not only survive but thrive.


As hoped, I’ve gained lots of new skills and perspective at Kellogg.

I’ve become more capable with task management, not just time management. Along with that, I’ve learned to become a strategic critical thinker rather than just a critical thinker. A lot of that growth has come from Kellogg’s truly “student-led” culture. Programs and events here don’t happen unless we, the students, make them happen. So we’re all learning how to manage our priorities better and how to hold ourselves accountable for doing what we’ve committed to.

There’s strong alignment between how we thought of strategy in the Marines and how we’re learning about it at Kellogg. In the military, strategy is about trying to stay two steps ahead of the enemy. In business, it’s about forecasting market trends or staying ahead of competitors, and gaining the foresight to act decisively. For example, this past summer I was an Education Pioneer Summer Fellow for a charter school in Memphis, Tennessee. I had to think several steps ahead of the partner vendors, and my supervisor, to make sure we opened on time!

In some ways, Kellogg has made me realize that I underestimated the value of strategic thinking in the Marines. It’s about not sitting back and waiting for things to happen, but proactively making them happen — and thinking about the consequences of decisions, whether related to suppliers or competitors.

My introductory Business Strategy course really emphasized that point. I’m also getting really comfortable with numbers through our Business Analytics class. They say “The numbers don’t lie,” but they can and do if you’re using the wrong data or not providing full context. I’m learning how business leaders really need to push back on data analysts — to analyze the analysts’ work and make sure the right questions are asked about demand, performance, and other critical areas.


I want to mention the deep influence of the Kellogg Veterans Association on my thinking about business school and specifically about Kellogg.

Two club members from the Kellogg Classes of 2017 and 2019 went above and beyond in supporting me throughout the application process. They told me about their (great) Kellogg experiences, literally spending hours on the phone with me, including while one of them was driving to his new city! They helped me think about my application materials, especially the essays. They were with me every step of the way.

In a sense, it was what we as servicemembers are taught to do: to extend a helping hand, to support in any way possible. That theme continues today, as Kellogg alumni veterans routinely come in to talk to us about our job searches. That support continues to provide deep value to me; it is the reason I’m here, and I’m eager to do the same for those who come after me.

I couldn’t be more thankful that the crossroads I faced nearly two years ago brought me here to Kellogg. I’m learning what I hoped to learn, using and building meaningfully on my military experience, and excited about the future impact I’m preparing to have.

Tracey Fetherson was featured in the latest Kellogg Meet the Class feature. Prior to joining Kellogg, she was an ascending captain in the Marines. 


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