Best & Brightest Online MBAs: Class Of 2024

Lorien Stringer, University of Washington (Foster)

FOLLOWING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF A TWIN BROTHER

Outside business school, the Class of 2024 is as versatile as it is accomplished. Parag Murlidhar Shirnamé holds a PhD and speaks 6 languages – and the University of Illinois’ Padmarchana Kandi has mastered 5 languages (while holding 3 Master’s degrees). ESMT Berlin’s Jocelyn Tillner is a professionally-trained beer taster, while Durham University’s Mandy Gardner is currently learning how to walk a tightrope. The University of Washington’s Lorien Stringer has sung the National Anthem at the College Series. And Rice University’s Sunny Ahmed is a recording artist…sort of.

“I was in an R&B/pop boy band in my undergraduate years at the University of Texas at Austin. After winning multiple talent shows across campus, we recorded a full studio album of originally produced and written songs.”

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Erik Franey got married on Mount Rainier (in the rain in typical Pacific Northwest fashion). Outside of being a Medical Director and an MBA student at Southern Methodist University, Jason DeMattia raises cattle, chickens, and honeybees. And how is this for staying busy…

“In the last six years, my husband and I married, had two kids, traveled to eight countries, moved six times, flipped three homes, and I completed my MBA,” says Heather Forst. “We’re busy people!”

For Kitty Whitehead, earning her MBA degree from the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler School was a full circle moment. As an undergrad, her twin brother had studied at UNC, passing away before earning his degree.

ANYTIME, ANYWHERE

Ask the Class of 2024 why they chose an online MBA program and you’ll hear words like convenience, accessible, and especially flexible. This flexibility took many forms for the Best & Brightest. For some, the online format enabled them to work their education around their job and family. They could attend their classes and complete their assignments on their schedule. That way, they risked neither stalling their careers nor missing their children’s sporting events or recitals. Bottom line, online education enabled them to maximize their options and minimize their risks.

“In addition to working full time, I am a husband and father of three,” explains John Behrens. “Time is at a premium. I needed the flexibility of a program that could fit into our family’s schedule, not supplant it. A residential program that would have required pausing my career or relocating my family simply would not have been feasible.”

Not only could the Best & Brightest take their coursework anytime, but also anywhere with the online format. That was the perfect arrangement for Sunny Ahmed, a Global Alliance Director for Amazon. He says his role requires “constant availability” with its “travel, unexpected meetings, and addressing urgent matters across different time zones.” The format was equally advantageous to Rita Elizabeth Saikali, who often worked long-term assignments away from home.

Rita Elizabeth Saikali, University of Massachusetts Amherst  (Isenberg)

“The flexibility of the online format allowed me to live and work in various communities and provinces throughout my degree. My role often requires travel to construction sites for weeks at a time to oversee projects, and the ability to study from anywhere—be it airports, coffee shops, construction trailers, construction rooms, train/boat rides, hotel rooms—meant I could seamlessly manage job relocations and time zone differences without interrupting my education. I sometimes took my exams while on vacation; it was a great way to start my morning looking at the beach and sunrise!”

STUDYING FOR GROWTH, NOT FOR A GRADE

An online program has its ups-and-downs. There are late nights and early mornings. At work, the Best & Brightest grappled with the same unforgiving deadlines, unexpected departments, and unreasonable demands as everyone else. They had to learn to delegate and sometimes shoot for good over perfect. On the home front, children still fell sick and housework still piled up. Despite this, the benefits of online learning made these situations more tenable. The Class of 2024 operated at their own pace, learning in ways that worked best for them. Better still, they were taught by the same professors and completed the same projects and courses as their Full-Time and Executive counterparts.

“The professors do an excellent job ensuring that the quality of education is the same,” explains Joseph Pinkney. “Multiple times, I was in classes where the online and the in-person students were combined, taking the same assessments. This means that we were receiving the same high-quality education, just in the format that works best for us.”

For John Behrens, the online format allowed him to interact with a more diverse cohort, with his classmates hailing from countries like “Germany, Australia, Egypt, Morocco, India, Japan, Indonesia, Mexico, [and] Costa Rica.” More than that, adds Samantha Choy, students have evolved far beyond their narrower pursuits as undergrads, further enriching the online experience.

“I think my undergraduate experience was full of “studying for the exam” and figuring out where you fell on the grading curve. An MBA, especially online, is all about learning from each other and not so much about trying to be in the top 10% of the class. As online students, we are all striving to complete an MBA while balancing everything else life has in store for us. My classmates were much more focused on sharing knowledge and applying what we learned in class to their current work situation and less worried about if the answer to question 30 on the final exam was A or D. It was extremely refreshing to have more open dialogue and be able to bounce ideas off other working professionals.”

FAR MORE THAN WATCHING RECORDED LECTURES

Marcus Brown, USC (Marshall)

The Best & Brightest weren’t just relegated to playing lectures online, either. At USC Marshall, Marcus Brown was attracted to the “Flipped Classroom”, where students met live twice a week with classmates and faculty to discuss what they’d learned. In contrast, Cameron Porter took advantage of the opportunity to learn about international business by joining an excursion to Dublin, Ireland and Belfast, Northern Ireland.

“We partnered with the vast international Auburn Network. Here, a [Senior VP] at AFLAC provided a unique insight into what it is like to expand a U.S business into foreign markets leveraging local commerce programs, incubators, and other innovative ways to drive growth in other areas. We also had the opportunity to meet Belfast’s High Sheriff and other business leaders, where we learned about their future growth strategies, economic propositions, and the amazing work the city is doing to attract high-quality talent.”

During his time at the Kenan-Flagler School, Ken Frederick participated in extracurricular activities, such as serving as a student ambassador and a member of the Student Advisory Board. Despite being in the Online MBA program, he could also take courses from the Full-Time, Executive, and Masters of Accounting programs. Best of all, the school’s support will continue long after he crosses the stage and collects his diploma.

“An attractive aspect is UNC Kenan-Flagler’s “Business for Life” mantra,” Frederick adds. “As a part of the school’s commitment to lifelong learning, alumni are offered the opportunity to return to the classroom and further their business education at a reduced rate.”

THE GOAL: BE IN THE ROOM

Time-wise, the Best & Brightest MBAs committed heavily to their MBA programs. On the high end, Hofstra’s Jason D. Hanks broke it down to 2-3 hours a night on weekdays and 4-6 hours on weekends. In contrast, Boston University’s Rachel Grusin, who works in legal aid, would peg the commitment at 8-10 hours a week. That said, the Class of 2024 stands by the return they received from their varying programs. At Microsoft, Kathleen McLellan was among the few engineers tapped to review the firm’s FY24 Initiatives and FY25 Priorities and Values. In addition, the Tepper grad was selected to be a member of Microsoft’s v-teams – which she says “drives culture at the organization level.” IE Business School’s Marisol Morales Martínez was given the chance to launch a new sales channel as the “direct result” of her MBA. For John Behrens, the biggest return has been something intangible: Confidence.

“One of my goals in earning my MBA was to learn the language of business. Every day since I started the program, I have come to work with a better understanding of the needs of the business and the perspectives of executive leadership. I’ve learned to ask the right kinds of questions and gained a deeper understanding of how my role plays a part in the bigger picture of our company’s operations.”

John Behrens, University of Illinois (Gies)

Where does the Class of 2024 hope to go now that they’ve earned their MBAs? Parag Murlidhar Shirnamé pictures himself someday starting his own private equity firm. Daniel Rodriguez may have found a home in academia: he imagines “inspiring future generations” as a college professor. Joseph Pinkney set two ambitious goals after graduating. He plans to climb to Vice President in a corporate environment – and become a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force along the way. While John Behrens isn’t focused on a specific company or role in his future, his eyes are fixed on making a difference.

“My long-term professional goal is to be in the room where the biggest challenges are being tackled, the hairiest problems solved, the most meaningful change initiatives considered, and the most important strategies devised. I’d like to maximize the impact I’m able to have in the lives of others.”

ADVICE TO FUTURE MBA STUDENTS

When it comes to future Online MBAs, the Class of 2024 offers advice ranging from the practical to the idealistic. Baylor University’s Greg Woolen urges students to be “reasonable” with their course loads so they don’t shortchange themselves in learning. Jocelyn Tillner – who enjoyed her experience at ESMT Berlin so much that she took a job with the school – cautions students not to go it alone; there will always be times when you’ll need to leverage another’s experience (or vent to them when times grow difficult). When you can, return the favor, adds Jason DeMattia.

“Ask every question you have because everyone else has the same question but is too afraid to ask.”

Whatever the next class does, adds Rice University’s Elizabeth Garrett, the best thing they can do is stay focused and push through the discomfort. It doesn’t last.

“Get into a study routine early, establish the non-negotiable times for family, for work, and for school. Be realistic about the support you need, and make it a priority to engage others early (tutors, babysitters, family, friends) to help you through the day-to-day. Stick with it through the hard days, and the prize at the end will be so worth it!”

Go to next page to access in-depth profiles for over 50 Best & Brightest Online MBAs.

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