VCU Online MBA measures success by student achievement

March 6, 2020 - Susie Burtch

Christie Bieber just became the new Deputy Director of CodeVA, a nonprofit working to bring equitable computer science education to Virginia schools.

Bradley Brookens had no trouble transitioning from an accounting firm in Washington D.C. to a firm in Nashville, Tennessee.

Darren Stevens was selected by VCU Health as the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) Man of the Year.

All represent the ascendancy of VCU’s online MBA program, recently ranked by U.S. News and World Report as #35 out of 335 online MBA programs nationwide. Considering the School of Business just graduated its first OMBA class last year, that’s quite an achievement.

“Breaking into the top 50 reflects the excellence of our faculty, staff and students. It’s an acknowledgement by our peers nationally,” says Dean Ed Grier. Yet even more importantly, says senior program manager Dr. Robert Clarkson, proof that the program succeeds is that its students succeed.

Christie Bieber ’19: first graduating class

“I felt comfortable enrolling in the OMBA even though it was a brand new program,” says Bieber. “The VCU School of Business had a good reputation, so I wanted to be among the program’s first graduates.”

Bieber had already worked for the Virginia House of Delegates, Young Democrats of America and the American Civil War Museum before she considered a master’s degree. “As Director of Strategic Initiatives at the museum,” she recalls, “it became clear to me that what I really loved was the business side of my job. I knew I needed more than work experience; I needed educational credentials.”

The year was 2017: the VCU OMBA program was admitting its first class of students. Bieber enrolled. “I’m a big fan,” she says now, looking back on her experience. “The professors were fantastic – all eager to help us succeed.”

Now flash forward two years. Bieber graduated with new skills and energy, which led to a new job. “I’m an aspirational person,” she explains. “I graduated in August of ’19 and started my new role in February of ’20. “CodeVA is in a period of rapid growth. Those two years in the program taught me how to build the operation of an organization – the finance scaffolding to support its core mission.”

Bradley Brookens ’20: second graduating class

Half-way through the OMBA program, Brookens was engaged. He decided to leave his accounting job in Washington D.C. and followed his fiancé to Nashville, where she is an Immunology PhD candidate at Vanderbilt University. He had no trouble finding a new position at a new company. “My work changed, but my education didn’t,” he grins. “Because the program is online, I could still keep up with my cohorts and projects. Enrollment in an online MBA program helped me take two important life steps.” Indeed, his plan is going to work out perfectly: Brookens will collect his degree this summer, exactly one week before his wedding.

“As an outsourced accounting person, I see a large variety of businesses,” he says, explaining why he sought an advanced degree. “I look at the big picture, and I see an MBA as a vehicle for options. If I leave accounting, I can move into management. I have choices, with core accounting to fall back on.”

Darren Stevens ’21: third graduating class

Having not yet completed Year One of the OMBA program, Stevens says he’s “already found a renewed sense of purpose and joy in the work I do as a pharmacist leader, and I’m excited to see where this journey will take me.”

He’s off to an impressive start. Darren currently works as the manager overseeing four infusion pharmacies across the VCU Health System. While balancing his coursework, professional career and a family life with two young children, he has led several major oncology-related projects. These efforts were recently rewarded when he was selected as the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) Man of the Year.

So far, Darren has been especially impressed by his class in mindful leadership. “Being a perfectionist by nature,” he says, “I would beat myself up for mistakes and mishaps. But now, using the reflection techniques learned in my class, I have significantly lowered my personal stress level.

“Today, the fight against blood cancers does not directly affect me or my family, but one thing I have learned is that life can change instantaneously. We all have the power to impact the world around us if we value others above ourselves and take a first step toward action. Because the online MBA program has had such a profound impact on me, both personally and professionally, I feel it’s important to share my story with others who may benefit from what I have learned.”

Senior Program Manager Dr. Robert Clarkson
responsible for all graduating classes

In fact, Clarkson may technically be the OMBA’s first student, in that he studied similar programs for 18 months in order to create the VCU prototype. “Putting this together may be one of my proudest career moments,” he says with satisfaction, having worked in the corporate and nonprofit world for 20 years prior to joining VCU in 2014. “It works. Our students succeed.”

Clarkson believes they succeed in part because the OMBA is designed as a high-engagement program. The weekly video classes and three residencies help to bring students together and set the VCU program apart. According to Clarkson, several case studies have found that online students develop a sense of community when they learn together. At VCU, the OMBA students are assigned to teams for group work, just as they would be on a project at their place of employment. Entering students currently average 13 years of career experience in a wide variety of industries. Because they start and finish together as a class, they get to know each other well – thus “networking and gaining the experiences of their fellow students, which they can rely upon for a lifetime.”

“So actually, we should not have been surprised that we obtained such a high ranking by U.S. News after being in existence for only two years,” says Clarkson. “Onwards and upwards for our students!”