2020 First Generation MBAs: Ashley Johnson, Indiana University (Kelley)

Ashley Johnson

Indiana University, Kelley School of Business

Class: 2021

Hometown: Martinez, California

Fun Fact About Yourself: I have walked in over 10 elephant walks.

Undergraduate School and Major: University of South Carolina, Sports and Entertainment Management

Most Recent Employer and Job Title:  Regional marketing manager, Feld Entertainment, owner and operator of Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, Monster Jam and Disney on Ice

What did your parents do for a living? Mom was stay at home. Dad owned a construction company.

What was the highest level of education achieved by your mother and your father? Both have a high school degree

Which family member or mentor is your biggest inspiration or role model? Why? My Mom. She had an addiction that she struggled with throughout my childhood. Despite the ugliness of drug addiction, she always strived to be positive for my brothers and I. She never sugarcoated her struggles and was very open to discussing what was going on. Her inner strength, resilience, and drive is what shaped the type of person I am today. No matter what, you never give up, and its ok if you don’t know the answers because you will get through it. She is my inspiration every day.

What was the moment that led you to decide to pursue higher education? I’ve always liked going to school so I knew I wanted to go to college. For me, getting a higher education was also my way of escaping from my crazy childhood and getting away to be on my own. My older brother didn’t graduate from high school and I had four little brothers that were looking up to me. I wanted to do something for myself but also to serve as an example to them.

What was your biggest worry before going for your undergraduate degree?  Financial Aid. We came from a middle-class family, but with six kids saving for college was never a thought in my household. My biggest hope was to get financial aid of some sort.

What was the most challenging part of getting your undergraduate degree? Paying for college. My first two years, I was lucky enough for my Mom to take out loans but that started to become a huge cost. In my sophomore year at University of Oregon, I decided to transfer to South Carolina where they had my desired major. I remember how excited I was to finally get in and even more ecstatic when I was able to go visit the campus. During my campus visit, I went to the financial aid office and I remember sitting in the office being told that I did not qualify for any state/federal loan programs and I would be about 30-40K short of tuition.

I was devastated. My parents had already said they couldn’t afford to take out another loan especially since they still were dealing with my younger brothers.  I remember calling my aunts and uncles pleading for them to co-sign a loan for me and of course they couldn’t either since they had their own children to think about. So, I had to drop out of university after my second year of school. To say I was devastated was an understatement, especially since school was always my reprieve from my home life. But I didn’t give up. I decided I would enroll in the local community college to get some of the pre-requisite classes out the way and started working full time at Office Depot. I worked in my hometown for a year, until I could save up enough money to transfer and move across the U.S. to take up residency in South Carolina. By becoming an in-state resident, I knew I would be eligible for grants and loans that could help pay for college. Three years after leaving the University of Oregon, I was able to enroll full-time into University of South Carolina as an in-state resident.  I continued to work full time at Office Depot while going to school full-time. I was determined to get that bachelor’s degree in Sports and Entertainment come hell or high water.

What didn’t your family understand about the higher experience that you wish they would understand better? There were so many things I wanted them to understand the value and importance of having a college degree, the growth that you experience during those years, and where you blossom into an actual adult (Though I think we can all agree that being an adult sometimes is not fun!) and the opportunities that you are able to create. My dad was very traditional and he was raised with the notion that women were to be in the home. It also didn’t help that I was the only girl out of five boys. He didn’t understand for a long time why I wanted to go to school. It really wasn’t until I got my degree and my career where he finally started to see that there is some value to getting a higher education.

What led you to pursue an MBA degree? As an undergrad, I was so focused on sports management and getting through my program that I didn’t give myself a chance to explore other classes or learn about other functions. As I got older and more involved in my career, I started to see that there were other jobs and experiences that I was interested in. Going back for my MBA would allow me to explore and learn about a variety of industries and functions that I wasn’t aware of. I also knew that it would propel my career to the next level.

How did you choose your MBA program? I first started looking at schools that had a diverse curriculum, dedicated alumni, great career resources, and global experiences. But what really set other schools apart was the actual fit and how I felt by interacting with the staff, alumni and students. The Kelley School of Business immediately felt like home and a place to be myself.

What was your biggest worry before starting your MBA? I worried about how I was going to finance it without working for two years. It would be my first time not working since I was 15. I didn’t have any big savings to fall back on and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get anyone to help me pay for it. While I was looking at schools, I also had an open conversation with a recruiter about financial aid and how there was a trend of people dropping out of their second year due to financing issues — especially among African American students.

How were you able to finance your MBA as a first-generation student? When I finally decided to pursue my MBA, I had to really look at the costs and what my budget would look like. I had to decide early on how I planned on paying for it, even if I didn’t get a scholarship. I knew I was a strong candidate to receive financial aid, but I knew that wasn’t a guarantee. I knew for a fact I wanted to go full time and I didn’t want to work. I did that during undergrad. Though I don’t regret my decision, I missed out on a lot of events and networking. I knew MBA is all about building your network and I wanted to give it my undivided attention. So, I started to take inventory of all my debts and little by little I began to pay it off.

I knew that I had to have a strong credit score to qualify for a loan that didn’t require a co-signer. I started this process about two to three years before I applied. I went to as many MBA conventions and fairs to talk to a variety of recruiters, not only about their programs, but also about the type of financial support that they provided for their students. These MBA fairs always had companies and organizations that provided financial services specifically for people who were looking at obtaining their MBA. That is how I was introduced to the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, an organization dedicated to providing fellowships to people who value and demonstrate diversity and inclusion. I was fortunate to apply and be rewarded a full-time fellowship as a Consortium Fellow at the Kelley School of Business.

The fellowship covers all tuition and fees. For my housing, books and living expenses I had to take out a federal loan. I was able to get the loan on my own because I did take the steps early to get my credit in order. Since coming to school, I knew living within my means was going to be crucial. Bloomington is a lot less expensive than DC, where I was coming from, but I had to keep in mind that the loan that I was getting was it. I had to budget that lump sum for the entire next 12 months. I decided to live a little further out than many of the grad students and rented an apartment with a roommate. This summer, I am using my income from my internship to pay off any remining credit card balances as well as making sure I have a savings cushion for the upcoming year.

One great piece of advice that I received from a second-year student was to make sure to have something saved by the time you graduate from school. A lot of job offers won’t start until a few months after you graduate and in the case of COVID some offers were even pushed back even further by six months to a year.

What advice would you have for other first-generation college students? A few things. Don’t let financing be the only reason why you don’t decide to get your degree or anything else for that matter. There are so many resources and organizations that are looking to sponsor or give money for anything and everything. It is quite amazing! You are unique for a reason and there is someone somewhere who will value that. It may take some digging on your end, but it is out there. Talk to your financial aid office and become very close with those key people who will fight to get you that extra money.  Don’t look at anybody else’s timeline but your own. It took me seven years to get my first degree. It took me almost four to finally get through the GMAT/GRE and get accepted into my MBA program. If you want it enough, you will figure it out. Don’t get discouraged, because when you do get it, that is the right time for you. You will be amazed and proud for your perseverance and you will learn a lot about yourself in the process.

What do you plan to pursue after graduation? I am currently interning for a bio-pharma company in their international market access role and completely loving what I am doing. This is one of those industries that I would have never entertained looking at without going back to get my MBA and I cannot be any happier that I chose to work there for the summer. I do plan on pursuing this role full time, but regardless of where I end up, I know my MBA will play a huge role in my career progression.


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