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MBA Programs Help Veterans Make Transition from Military to Business

VeteranWhile serving in Afghanistan in 2013, Ryan Stierwalt, a former captain in the U.S. Marine Corps, realized that the wars he had joined the military to fight were coming to an end.

"I knew that if I stayed in [the military] my wife would have to continue to endure deployments and the stress of me being gone for long periods," he says. "That's a burden we are both willing to bear in a time of need but, as that time is ending, it seemed like the first reasonable time to refocus my energy on my family and on myself since I joined the Marine Corps in 2005." So, he signed up for the MBA program at Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management.

Stierwalt's story is similar to many others. As members of the armed forces complete their service -- sometimes in war zones -- they often use their GI benefits to seek additional education. And after leading comrades in the field or playing other integral roles in large-scale military operations, business management can seem like a natural fit.

Business schools have recognized this attraction, and some have even launched programs aimed specifically at active military personnel and veterans, including online MBA options that can be completed overseas.

The Owen school recently released a brief video with alumni who originally came from the military, each sharing a bit about their experiences with potential applicants in the same boat. Undergraduates in Indiana University's Army ROTC program have the opportunity to apply and possibly be accepted as MBA candidates at the institution's Kelley School of Business as part of an early admissions cycle. Their spots will be held until they complete their military obligations.

Those with military experience are a great fit in and out of the MBA classroom, says Ray Luther, who is the executive director of the Kelley MBA Program, an MBA grad, and a former first lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

"They help establish the right professional tone throughout the class and can often demonstrate to other students how to keep your cool under pressure," he adds. "Military veterans are also highly sought after by some of our key recruiting companies for the exact same reasons."

Usually, service members are drawn to business school either because they want to take on more management roles within the military or they want to transition into business roles in civilian life.

"Ensuring that we have the most competent, capable, and ready force on the planet requires leaders well versed in concepts like diplomacy, negotiating, organizational behavior, competitive strategy, and quantitative analysis to help shape the military of the future, says Robert Massey, a major in the U.S. Army and a 2014 graduate of the University of Rochester's Simon Business School.

As a contract specialist in the Army, Massey says he has conducted negotiations for multi-million dollar defense contracts, applied business law to contracts, and worked on market research to ensure the government was getting the best deal from industry.

Far more common are veterans who enter b-school looking to move into the private sector. "I certainly realized that I had a gap in my education," says Shawn Faulkner, a senior consultant at Admissionado, alumnus of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, and former Marine Corps officer. "I had great leadership experience, but I had never set foot in corporate America, nor did I have an undergrad degree in a business-related subject."

While military students definitely have a background that suits b-school, they still face some challenges. The first order of business is figuring out how to leverage their training and skills in the corporate world.

"Once I determined how to translate and apply my military skills to business, virtually everything that I did in the military could be applied to business," says Chad Storlie, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Special Forces and 2002 graduate of Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business. "Competitive intelligence, teaching, coaching, mission planning, creating alternate plans, etc., all are needed in commercial business."

Many veterans, especially those who experienced war, are interested in using their education to further contribute to the greater good. For instance, Randall Madsen, a former senior airman in the U.S. Air Force, who is expected to graduate in 2015 from the MBA program at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, wants to start a nonprofit that matches rescue dogs with veterans transitioning into civilian life, because he found that his two dogs helped him.

"I feel that animals are often able to understand the difficulties that veterans face in a way that most humans do not," he says. "My military background, in addition to my MBA, would give me the insight needed to meet both the business needs as well as the personal needs of this nonprofit."

Still, the business schools themselves say they are the big winners when veterans join their ranks. "They're natural leaders," says Luther, "who do well in influencing others to raise the standard -- be the best possible version of themselves."

Administrators at top business schools say they are more than happy to welcome men and women who have served their country through military service because they contribute to the classroom and are among the darlings of recruiters. MBA candidates who plan to grow a military career see business school, with its focus on numbers and polished leadership, as an edge over the competition. And for veterans, management is an obvious choice of profession after they've led colleagues in peacekeeping and battle.