All Online Exclusives

From the Military to MBA: Mastering the art of online learning at W&M

November 11, 2019
By Mona Sharaf '19

For military personnel, it is often challenging to take time away from serving their country in order to pursue higher education. William & Mary’s Online MBA program offers a unique option where one does not need to sacrifice one for the other. The program allows current servicemen and women to continue working while furthering their education.

The two-year Online MBA requires students to take 12 courses, each 7.5 weeks long, which have the same curricular content offered to full-time and Flex MBA students at William & Mary. However, they have the freedom to take classes wherever they are, as long as there is a computer and a strong internet connection.

While Online MBA students come from a variety of different backgrounds, from older professionals hoping to obtain a master’s degree to rise in the ranks to young adults just breaking into the professional world, almost a third of these students are veterans or currently serving military personnel.

Pam Suzadail, associate dean of online programs and the executive director for the Center for Online Learning at the Raymond A. Mason School of Business, said the value of the program for military students varies based on their individual needs and what they are looking to get out of the program.

“Around 30 percent of participants are military, whether that be active duty or veterans,” Suzadail said. “Most come into the program to transition out of the military and to learn how to use their skills outside of a military setting or to learn about concepts that will help them achieve business-related goals within the military.”

The program, which welcomed its inaugural class in 2015, is offered through the Raymond A. Mason School Center for Online Learning. The learning center is supported by private funding through a $10 million gift from Virginia Beach-based philanthropist Jane P. Batten L.H.D. ’19, HON ’17. Since its inception the program has gained popularity due to the quality and flexibility it offers students.

“Many students hear about us through word-of-mouth — recommendations from other students,” Suzadail said. “What attracts military students to the program is that they can start their MBA wherever they are stationed and then get deployed or move to another part of the country and still work on their studies.”

Jamar Jenkins M.B.A. ’18, an army captain, shared that when he decided to pursue a degree, he knew that William & Mary was the place for him.

“A William & Mary degree is globally known and carries a lot of weight,” Jenkins said. “So the moment I knew they offered an MBA online, I knew William & Mary was the place for me.”

With the exception of one weekend-long on-campus residency requirement, the entire two-year program takes place online. Despite this, student-faculty interactions are constant and meaningful.

“We’ve had our faculty say they feel just as close with our online students as they do with their residential students,” Suzadail said. “The facilitation is not necessarily face-to-face, but it’s happening every day online. Students have access to our faculty all the time through email or chat, and they are interacting on discussion boards. The amount of engagement that goes on online is really amazing. A big focus of ours is how can we enhance engagement online, and it’s something we prioritize and work to improve.”

David Long, an associate professor in organizational behavior, teaches courses both online as well as on campus. He finds that the Online MBA program offers a perfect combination for military students.

“The William & Mary brand is so strong, and to have a degree from such a prestigious program is really valuable,” Long said. “Our flexibility with multiple start dates and rolling admissions adds another layer of flexibility for students, as well as our accessibility to students worldwide. It’s rare to get that level of accessibility at an institution of high prestige, and I think it’s a perfect opportunity for anyone in the military hoping to earn an MBA.”

As a former U.S. Navy naval fight officer, the program carries extra meaning for Long.

“I’ve walked a mile in their shoes,” Long said. “I understand deployment. I understand sudden disruptions to a planned schedule that can occur when you are in the military. There is just a lot of unpredictability when you are serving in the military, especially when you are deployed. I try to be as flexible as I can, because I know what they are going through.”

The average age of students is 36 and they often have young families. Students are expected to spend 20 hours a week on classes. While professor flexibility and support help Online MBA students succeed, the program offers resources for students attempting to balance their identity as a student and as a member of the military. One of those resources is a success coordinator team that works with students to create a time-management plan.

For Jenkins, what he has gained from the Online MBA program goes far beyond just the knowledge he has gained.

“What William & Mary’s Online MBA program has given to me more than anything is two things: confidence and competence,” Jenkins said. “With that, I know that whenever I transition out of the military or whatever job that I have, no matter who I’m working with and where they got their MBA, I am proud of my William & Mary degree and they are going to know who I am.”