How I Fit an Online MBA Into My Life: A First Generation Graduate Success Story

You might say Angie Hernandez’s path to completing her online Master of Business Administration degree began with the kernel of an idea.

By age 19, her career prospects were already popping. The daughter of a military family, Hernandez helmed a popular kettle corn company on Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, CA, in partnership with her parents’ already thriving barbecue business.

Hernandez made success look easy in those early years of the 2000s. She took classes at a local community college while working only about four days a month. But when Hernandez moved to Sacramento in 2007, the economy cooled and so did her income. Instead of the $3500 a month take-home pay she had been enjoying for a relatively small investment of time, her income plummeted to $200 a week. She knew she had to do something.

“It was becoming pretty obvious I was going to need more income than being a carny,” she laughs. Despite being ready for a change, Hernandez wasn’t sure what her next move would be.

But First, the Bachelor’s Degree

Inspiration to go back to school came from an acquaintance who was both working full time and studying law. “Well, the time’s going to pass anyway,” Hernandez’s colleague told her, “so, if I don’t go to school, the time’s going to pass. If I do go to school, then I have a degree at the end of that passed time. So, I’m just going to go.”

That logic, Hernandez says, triggered a light-bulb moment to complete her bachelor’s degree.

She was reluctant to return to the community college where she had earned her associate’s degree – in large part because the culmination of that program had taken her by surprise. One day, she recalls, her academic advisor had casually informed her, “Oh, by the way, you’re graduating this semester.” The lack of formality unnerved her, as did the prospective expense of additional schooling.

Hernandez isn’t alone in feeling overwhelmed by the costs of college. Tuition has been rising steadily since 2000. Today, four out of ten adults age 18 to 29 are saddled with student loan debt. But nine out of ten millennials polled by Pew Research say the payoff lies in better job security, work satisfaction, and higher earning potential.

Although Hernandez was adamant about finishing her degree, she was feeling unsupported by the same community college professionals who were supposed to help her pay for it —particularly when it came to the search for financial aid.

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” Hernandez says. She recalls it took about a year to understand what financial aid she was eligible for at the community college and how to go about applying for it. She was frustrated by the lack of responsiveness and assistance and was determined to find a better way moving forward.

The National Difference

During a visit to her local mall in 2012, she ran into National University representative Rosalie Montoya. From the start, Hernandez says Montoya took a vested interest in her education. As the two women talked, Hernandez felt comfortable enough to be honest about her lack of direction.

“I really don’t know what I want to be when I grow up,” she recalls telling Montoya. “I own my own company. What do I not know?”

This rudderless feeling was new to Hernandez, who had graduated early from high school in 2003. When she was enrolled in community college, she had been studying mechanical and aeronautical engineering — topics, she says, that came easily because of her natural talent for math.

It was Montoya who suggested that the then 20-something Hernandez focus her attention on accounting.

At first, Hernandez was skeptical. She wasn’t sure that a path in accounting could rival the personal joy and excitement of owning a business. “Is it boring?” she remembers asking, and laughs.

“If you like math, you’ll be fine,” Montoya reassured her.

“Fine” may have been an understatement. Today, job seekers with bachelor’s degrees in accounting face a career outlook that is downright bright. In 2017, the median starting salary topped out at $69,350 annually, with growth in the field expected to rise 10 percent through 2026, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (In California, the 2017 annual mean wage stood at $83,540 for this employment category.)

In addition to the advice on a possible career path for the numbers-savvy Hernandez, Montoya helped the new National student maximize her financial aid package of federal Pell grants and state Cal grants to pay for her tuition and related expenses.

Understanding these awards had a profound effect on the price tag for Hernandez’s bachelor’s degree: Because the grants she received do not require repayment, her bachelor’s degree was essentially free. Hernandez’s experience is a sharp contrast to the many students struggling to fund the rising costs of college and the college graduates attempting to stay afloat amid record-breaking student loan debt — now the second-highest consumer debt category in the United States.

While borrowers across all demographics are under pressure to make sky-high student-loan payments, Hernandez credits Montoya and National University’s assistance in helping her make her online degree a reality, without the financial strain.

“I’m the first person in my family to go to college,” Hernandez says, her voice bursting with pride.

Two years later, she had completed her degree in accounting and was snatched up from her office tech job at the state’s Treasurer’s Office to a role working directly with lenders. But the new work was not nearly as challenging as she had hoped it would be.

Although a degree was necessary to get a foot in the door, Hernandez maintains it wasn’t necessary for the work she was doing. “People could do my job right off the street if you trained them,” she laughs. Buoyed by her own experiences at National, she recalls encouraging colleagues in school to make the switch.

It wasn’t long before the self-appointed one-woman recruiting department had convinced herself to return to National University — this time to pursue her online MBA.

Flexibility Is Always Key

Like many adult learners considering furthering their education, it was important to Hernandez to remain working full time as she completed her graduate coursework. National University’s online MBA program allowed her the flexibility she needed to give her studies the proper attention after the workday was over.

That flexibility proved critical. Getting her assignments at the beginning of the week and attending classes via Skype meant Hernandez could direct her own pace. She didn’t have to rush to class or search for a parking space. On busy days, she could opt to do nothing. Hernandez says that simple choice had a huge impact on her health and morale.

“I was never stressed and that really helped me,” Hernandez says. “I was able to get my homework done in a day rather than wait for the weakest link in the classroom.”

That self-direction National University offered enabled her to remain a productive and valued contributor in her full-time role while she pursued her online MBA.

Having her tests scheduled on the weekend also reduced the pressure of studying while juggling the workload and expectations of her job. “That made a huge difference,” she says.

Applicability to “Real” Life

Hernandez says the coursework associated with getting her online MBA was a refreshing reflection of the realities she had experienced as a business owner herself.

“To have professors who weren’t just professors teaching me really helped. They were actually out there doing the work,” Hernandez says. “All of the work we were doing applied to real life. It wasn’t just regurgitating stuff.”

Her professors not only understood the concepts and theory behind their instruction, but also the practical application. And if Hernandez had a question, they took the time to answer and explain without condescension, helping to bring clarity to even the most convoluted concepts.

“I’d ask them a question and say, ‘Well, this is the way I see it and I’ve seen it. Can you help me understand why it’s this way?’” Hernandez recalls. “They would understand the context of what I was asking and explain the reasons.”

Although she had the benefits of her own real-world experiences to draw from, Hernandez says her professors expanded her horizons in understanding global markets and the global economy. They pushed her academically and stretched the limits of her knowledge.

“They were able to help me understand where I went wrong or where I went lazy,” she says.

The Downside of Online

While a growing number of students are opting for online degrees, it isn’t a path for everyone.

For Hernandez, the biggest struggle resulted from the lack of face-to-face interaction with her peers and professors.

“I have to admit sometimes I missed being in a classroom where I could look someone in the face and ask them a question and understand their body language and what they’re trying to say without saying it.”

But where technology sometimes faltered in reflecting those visual cues, National University came through with superior faculty support, she says. She never felt alone.

“The professors are there anytime you need them, day or night. If you text them, they will answer you,” Hernandez says. “Everybody is there to help you.”

For Hernandez, the benefits of going online for her MBA far outweighed the lone hurdle.

“The speed at which I got this degree and the way it pushed me to have real, applicable education —- you can’t get that in a normal classroom,” Hernandez says.

Efficiency and Pace

Hernandez says her National University advisor helped her determine the right schedule of classes that fit her needs for the month. And although she rocketed through the coursework of her online MBA in a year and a half, she appreciated the ability to direct her own pace.

“You can press pause if you want and skip a month,” she says. “There is always going to be somebody there to hold your hand. When you’re an adult, you’re the one who is supposed to be holding everyone else’s hand. But National will help you. Everybody’s there to help you, and you’ll get it done faster. It’s a fast pace at your own pace.”

Hernandez says that efficiency helps with the balance of full-time work, family and all the other elements of living a 21st-century life. “National is going to be there to help you get through that,” she says. “They work at the speed and pace that you need them to.”

Reputation and Accreditation: Two Musts

A degree from a school with no accreditation is rarely worth the paper it is printed on. It can leave students deeply in debt and unprepared for the realities of the workforce. Since 1977, National University has been accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC).

Founded in 1971 by retired U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. David Chigos, National also has a long-established reputation as the largest nonprofit university in the San Diego area. In addition to its online catalog of options, it offers on-campus programs at 20 physical locations in California and Nevada.

While other universities have rushed to join the distance-learning market, National University was already on the leading edge, opening its enrollment to online learners more than 20 years ago. Today, its students come from all 50 states and 65 countries to complete their undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Students considering an online MBA will be pleased to learn that National University has received specialized accreditation for its business programs through the International Assembly for Collegiate Business Education (IACBE).

Support

Despite being one of approximately 150,000 alumni worldwide, National University never treated Hernandez as a mere number while she worked on her online MBA and doesn’t treat her like one now.

“I’ve never had a school actually care,” she says. “I always had an email from Rosalie, checking up on me, seeing how I was doing.”

Now that her husband is retiring and considering bolstering his own education, Hernandez is eager to push him toward an online degree from National University, following in both her and his mother’s footsteps. Hernandez’s mother-in-law earned dual master’s degree in the on-campus programs.

“It feels like a big family, being with National,” Hernandez says, because of the personal attention she experienced from the Montoya and the rest of the staff.

“[Rosalie] remembered who I was. She remembered that I was one of a handful of people who got my entire degree paid for by financial aid. She remembered my degree program. She remembered where I was working. She remembered my last name and my email address.

It was crazy!”

Once a degree is in hand, National University helps graduates and alumni land their dream jobs by offering career counseling, resume and cover letter critique, and even mock interviews.

Outlook

For Hernandez, though, opportunity knocked on her door — not the other way around. Following both her completion of her bachelor’s and her master’s degree, recruiters came calling.

Unlike peers who focused solely on schooling or dove right into the workplace without a degree, the flexibility of getting her online MBA from National University meant that Hernandez’s resume packed a double punch of education and experience — a combination her current boss says landed her the role she has now.

“The coolest thing ever is being recruited by agencies that are federal government super-top-secret awesome,” she says. “It’s because of my degrees and it’s because I was able to get them so quickly with National.”

As the saying goes, you earn more when you learn more, and Hernandez’s experience with recruitment is not an anomaly. The decision to pursue an online MBA yields promising results for a long-term career outlook. According to research conducted by the Graduate Management Admissions Council in early 2018, 81 percent of responding companies plan to hire MBA graduates this year. Those offers tend to come with the promise of higher compensation. The GMAC also reported U.S. companies offered a median starting base salary of $105,000 USD to MBA graduates in 2018.

Thanks to her online MBA, Hernandez is also less likely to experience unemployment. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported an unemployment rate of just 2.2 percent in 2017 for those who hold master’s degrees, vs. 3.4 percent of associate’s degree holders. In the current rosy glow of low unemployment rates and booming job creation, this job security may seem like a lower priority. But for workers like Hernandez who lived through the pains of the 2007-09 Great Recession, it provides added peace of mind.

Beyond the Degree

Hernandez has no regrets about her decision to attend National University online for both her bachelor’s and master’s degree. The relevance of the courses taught by professors who had lived and worked in the real world, plus the affordability, efficiency, and support she received created the perfect package. National was as a no-brainer.

“Tomorrow is going to happen, so just do it,” Hernandez says.  “If the time is going to go by regardless, then you might as well get it done now.”

For more information about National University’s online MBA programs, please visit the program page.