How I Fit an Online MBA Into My Life: A Military Vet Success Story

Every day, approximately 1,300 new Veterans, spouses, and their children transition from a highly-structured life in the military into a much less predictable life as civilians. The challenges Veterans face can be daunting — ranging from finding a job to managing finances to addressing mental health issues. There can be uncertainty about where to start, which path to take and what direction to head in. However, for many Veterans, they’re finding a place and a purpose in the Master of Business Administration (MBA) program at National University. Thomas McGreevy, a U.S. Navy Veteran, is one of these vets.

How I Fit an Online MBA Into My Life: Life After Active Duty

McGreevy enlisted in the Navy in 1986 and served on active duty until separating from service in 1996. For the next four years, he took time exploring new opportunities and searching for his place in a life outside of the military. But then 9/11 happened. At that point, there was no question in McGreevy’s mind about what he was going to do. He returned to active duty with the Navy in 2001 and served proudly for the next ten years. In April 2011, he transitioned from active duty to fleet reserve.

After separating from the Navy in 2011, life looked different for McGreevy than it had after his first separation. This time, he had more life experience to draw from — and he was completely committed to discovering what this next stage of life would look like for both him and his family.

Although the military provides significant support and guidance about navigating the transition from active duty to civilian life, the process can still be quite difficult. “You take an individual who has spent their entire adult life in the military institution with its processes, management, and mechanisms,” says McGreevy. “Some (individuals) are incredibly challenged when transitioning to civilian life because, for so long, their identity has come from the uniform they wear.”

McGreevy doesn’t claim that the transition process was easy for him. But he did stay incredibly focused on the future once he re-entered civilian life for the second time. “I took a few short months looking at what the best path for me would be,” says McGreevy. “At that time, in 2011, the employment market wasn’t that positive. So, I decided to use the GI Bill to pursue my MBA. I mean, it’s hard to turn down a free education and using the GI Bill to help me gain more knowledge and skills was the best thing.”

Under the Forever GI Bill, which was signed into law on August 17, 2017, educational assistance benefits received by Veterans have been expanded beyond those such as tuition assistance and an allowance for books and supplies. Qualifying Veterans can now receive a monthly housing allowance, priority enrollment, elimination of the 15-year time limit to use the Post-9/11 GI Bill Program, and other significant benefits. (To learn more about benefits available through the GI Bill and qualification requirements, information is available through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.)

During active duty, McGreevy had earned a master’s degree in project management. However, as he began exploring the new opportunities and possibilities available to him as a civilian in 2011, he knew one thing for certain: He wanted to diversify his skill set to better position himself in the marketplace and he wanted to gain new skills that he could use in his personal life — skills such as personal finance. McGreevy determined that earning an MBA (with finance as his core area of study) would be the solution to both, and that led him to National University.

The MBA Program at National University: A Perfect Fit

There were several reasons National University appealed to McGreevy. “One of the factors in choosing National was that it was here locally, so I could earn my masters of business administration MBA onsite,” he explains. “I wanted to sit in class with individuals I could network with and enjoy a shared experience with and I also wanted to meet the professors. Additionally, National University is GI Bill-accredited — which was really important — and the compressed schedule with four-week courses appealed to me.”

Although he attended the majority of his MBA classes onsite at National University in San Diego, McGreevy also benefited from having the choice to take classes online. “There was a life event that led to me needing more flexibility with my schedule,” he explains. “The online option for MBA classes offered that. The technology was awesome and the flexibility was exactly what I wanted.”

While McGreevy enjoyed the in-person networking he experienced in his onsite classes, he found that online MBA classes also provide similar opportunities. “There were people from all over the world in the (online) class,” says McGreevy. “I really enjoyed the experience. My virtual classmates were even more diverse than (those in my classes) on campus.” In the online MBA program at National University, students are often surprised to find that the discussions they participate in through online forums can be even more robust than what they’ve experienced in a physical classroom. Additionally, professors who teach in the online MBA program are diligent in their efforts to make students feel connected, supported, and heard.

The online MBA class option allowed McGreevy to continue his studies despite the disruption that came as a result of the life event he experienced. He completed his MBA in 20 months — including taking two one-month breaks. He’s currently in the process of earning his accounting certificate through National University and is planning to complete a portion of his classes for that online also.

Opening Doors and Revealing Opportunities

For those transitioning out of the military, an MBA can be the key they need to open doors that lead to expected and unexpected opportunities alike. Veterans find that earning an MBA plays a significant role in preparing them for employment as civilians.

An MBA curriculum provides a solid foundation for understanding how business works and for developing the professional skills required for success. But, beyond the coursework, earning an MBA is an ideal way to develop and build a network of new colleagues, professors, employers and others who can be helpful throughout an individual’s entire career. Having been in the military for a significant portion of their lives, Veterans are often lacking a network that will benefit them as a business professional. An MBA program provides an opportunity to get that network in place much faster than they might be able to do without the connections formed during their studies.

Another benefit of earning an MBA is that it can help Veterans earn higher salaries versus peers who only have a high school or undergraduate degree. The average salary in the U.S. for an individual who has an MBA can range from $61,136 per year to $125,637 yearly or higher.

McGreevy is now working for a consulting firm, supporting software delivery for the Navy. “My core pieces of work includes training sailors on how to use the software, assisting developers and testers, and consulting with middle management regarding how to understand what the software is telling you,” he explains.

Is McGreevy applying knowledge and skills he obtained in the MBA program to the work he’s doing in his current position? Absolutely. “Because the firm is project driven, I’ve been able to utilize the accounting information I learned at National to assist with Financial Improvement and Audit Readiness (FIAR) Guidance,” says McGreevy. “I also help the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, working closely with the ordinance disposal community, on processes that include identifying outflow and tracking lifecycles.”  He also said that the cross-functional skills he gained during his MBA studies at National University have opened up even more opportunities for him within the firm.

In addition to the accounting and operational skills he acquired as a student in the MBA program, McGreevy says he also benefited from the people skills he developed. “In the military, it’s really easy to figure out who’s in charge,” he explains. “Whoever has the biggest collar device is who people defer to 100%. That person speaks and you don’t speak back. You do exactly as he or she says. And if you don’t, you’re in trouble. This dynamic doesn’t transfer to private industry. There are no visual identifications that let you know who’s in charge.” Through group projects and other activities within the MBA program, McGreevy and his fellow Veterans gained new skills to adjust their communication style and successfully transfer leadership skills gained in the military to the work they’re doing in private industry.

The online MBA program at National University teaches a comprehensive curriculum that prepares Veterans for success in the business world — from working in large corporations to starting a business of their own. Skills learned by students include those related to leadership, ethics, multicultural business environments, economics, critical thinking, decision making, and presentations.

Taking the First Step in A New Life

According to a white paper published by the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, easing employment challenges is one of the keys to successful reintegration of Veterans and their families into civilian life. This finding is reflected in McGreevy’s own experiences. “Education is one of the key criteria that will allow you to speak from a base of knowledge about a topic,” he says. “You can then bring a studied and learned perspective to what you do after leaving the military — one that will help you move a team forward. This is important because you’re no longer listened to and deferred to just because you have a higher rank.”

When looking back at his time of transitioning from the Navy to life as a civilian, McGreevy identifies lessons he learned and that might benefit those who are just reaching that stage of their life. “Ideally, you want to pick your program based on finding something you like to do,” says McGreevy. However, he was quick to explain that choosing a field of study based on enjoyment rather than practicality might not always be the best path. “One of the most valuable things I learned [when going back to school] is that if you’re getting a degree in a field you’ve worked in [while in the military], that dovetails nicely,” he says. “It allows you to vertically integrate with an area of study you’re already familiar with and you can use your prior experience to your advantage. For example, if you were in logistics in the military, look for a program that will allow you to use those skills.”

However, McGreevy explains that some skills learned in the military — like building bombs — might not necessarily transfer to civilian life. “For me, the MBA was a complete departure from what I had done, particularly the financial part. It was incredibly challenging. But you have to decide if you’re at school to learn, or if you’re there to demonstrate skills you already have. I truly learned.”  At National University, counselors are available to assist prospective students in determining which area of study will be the best fit.

McGreevy compares the adjustment required of Veterans when entering civilian life to learning to play well in the sandbox. “You have to do it,” he says. “And to do it successfully, you need to gain new skills, you have to network, and you have to expose yourself to those who have experience in private industry.” The MBA program at National University provided that for him.

Finding the Time to Follow the Dream

Life after active duty is busy — and it can also be stressful as Veterans and their families transition into a life that’s unfamiliar to them. From new jobs to school and extracurricular activities for children to family responsibilities, it often doesn’t seem like there are enough hours in the day to get everything done. So, how can it be possible to find the time to add one more thing — even if that thing is pursuing the dream or goal of earning an MBA? It’s possible, as proven by McGreevy and other Veterans who have done it.

“You don’t have 100% of your time to focus on studies,” explains McGreevy. “And that means you need to achieve a life/work/education balance.” While that can be challenging, McGreevy explains that it’s not impossible. “You just have to focus,” he says. “Remove as many life distractions as you can.” Because the online MBA degree program (as well as the on-site program) at National are taught on a month-by-month schedule — one which allows students take and finish one class in a four-week period — focusing is made much easier. Students are able to concentrate on one subject area at a time instead of three or four simultaneously.

McGreevy also espouses the benefits of the adult learning environment he found at National University. “You have classmates who have more life and work experience and who can bring that into the classroom,” he says. “You’ll also meet others who are working in the areas you want to work in, which makes the classroom discussions much richer.”

“There’s also much more cultural diversity at National,” says McGreevy. “That provides a lot of other valuable learning opportunities.”

McGreevy acknowledges the role his professors, both onsite and online, played in making his experience at National University an enjoyable one. “Overall, professors are approachable and accommodating,” he says. “They want you to pass as much as you want to pass. They’re not going to give it to you — but they also understand that this is adult learning and that students are trying to balance a lot of different things.”

The online MBA program at National University was designed with the busy adult student in mind. Students take only one class at a time, with each lasting four weeks. This allows them to take a deep dive into a single topic and provides an opportunity to focus on learning rather than just memorization. Additionally, the online MBA program provides a great deal of flexibility in that students can log into classes anywhere there’s an internet connection and at times that are convenient for them, whether it’s early in the morning, late at night or anytime in between. For students who need to take time off to attend to other responsibilities, the online MBA program is an ideal solution because it provides flexibility for students to come in and out of the program at their own pace.

Accepting (and Embracing) the Challenge

Challenges are inherent to the process of transitioning from military life to civilian life. And earning an MBA is no exception. But Veterans are wired to seek out and embrace challenges. It’s what they do — and it’s what makes them uniquely qualified to pursue an MBA at National University.

McGreevy has found — for those willing to accept it–the challenge of earning an MBA is worth it. “It’s an opportunity to challenge yourself to learn something new,” he says. New skills, new perspectives, and new connections that will lead to new and rewarding opportunities.

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