By CANDY DENOUDEN
It’s not just business as usual for Dakota Wesleyan University.
As DWU staff and faculty prepare to resume classes next week, a growing contingent of students won’t roll suitcases into dorm rooms or trudge across a snow-covered campus with books. Instead, they’ll log on to DWU’s online offerings.
Last year, DWU launched its online master’s in business administration program, the first graduate program in business for the college, and will kick off a new online degree completion program this spring. It enables the university to reach a niche audience, and serve a growing need for working professionals, university officials said.
“We recognize that college no longer ends at 22 for people,” Dakota Wesleyan President Amy Novak said. “Education, ongoing learning, is absolutely vital and necessary to being competitive.”
Novak said the decision to start an online MBA program at Dakota Wesleyan was generated by interest from business leaders in the region who were interested in graduate-level education geared toward small- to mid-sized businesses. Novak said many MBA programs cater to corporate America, or larger business models when most of the business owners and managers in Mitchell and the area serve small, often family owned, shops.
“We recognize that the heart of South Dakota, and frankly, the heart of our region, are small and medium enterprises,” she said.
The professors come from a range of different backgrounds and industries, Novak said, but they all bring a practical, real-world relevance that helps set DWU’s program apart, she added. Finding a balance of people who are qualified to teach, but who also have real-world experience was a major goal for the program, Novak said.
“Our courses are taught by people who have been in the workplace,” she said. “We want people who have been really good in business, but educated as well.”
Monty Bohrer, an associate professor of business administration and economics at Dakota Wesleyan and the director of the business graduate program, said while the traditional MBA model is valuable, DWU’s program seeks to fill a unique, niche role for people in smaller business and leadership roles.
“We feel there’s a need to fulfill that aspect,” he said. “Not everybody’s going to get a corporate job.”
In a corporate job, Bohrer said people’s jobs are likely more distinct. For instance, he said someone developing a marketing strategy at a large corporation would be surrounded by specialists, and would likely have a large pool of resources. In a small- to mid-sized business, one person might be in charge of executing an entire marketing strategy.
“What we’re trying to develop is a well-rounded expert in the area of marketing. You’re able to handle the branding side, the strategy side, distribution side,” he said. “You’re going to get a little bit broader perspective.”
Another difference, he said, is the focus on the practical. While some MBA programs may focus on the theory behind concepts, Bohrer and the other professors with DWU try to focus on how to apply those concepts in day-to-day job scenarios.
“Instead of talking about all the strategies there are involved, we’re going to take it down one more level and say, ‘OK, how do you apply those in a small- or mid-sized business?’ ” he said.
Bohrer’s work experience includes time with businesses like General Motors Acceptance Corporation, Godfather’s Pizza, Oracle Software, Holiday Inn and Gateway Computers, among others. He said those jobs have given him a wide range of experiences, and help him understand how the different components of business work together – which he can communicate to his students.
“I understand how marketing and accounting and finance and economics and management all integrate, and how one can effect the other,” he said.
Novak said in addition to the online MBA program, DWU offers four master’s in education degrees online, a bachelor’s degree completion program for associate’s degrees in nursing. This spring, she said the college will also kick off an online bachelor’s degree completion program for students with two-year technical degrees, or who had to quit halfway through college before obtaining their degree.
She referenced it being a good option for students from Mitchell Technical Institute, who might have a two-year degree, who later decide they’d like to get a four-year degree. With the online program, Novak said those students can complete the remaining two years at Dakota Wesleyan to receive a bachelor’s degree in a flexible, online format that allows them to continue working.
“We’re excited about that,” Novak said. “This recognizes that what they earned in that technical degree is very strong, we just want to build on that and give them some additional leadership and business skills so they can advance professionally within their organization.”
Novak said the online programs have been growing. Bohrer said seven people have graduated from the MBA program, and Novak estimated about 120 students are enrolled in online programs, out of Dakota Wesleyan’s 875-student enrollment.
Fredel Thomas, director of the Kelley Center for Entrepreneurship at Dakota Wesleyan, was part of the first class for the new MBA program, and finished in August.
Thomas, 36, said she worked for CHR Solutions for 12 and a half years before DWU, and said she enjoyed the knowledge and real-world experience she gained during that time. But once she started working at Dakota Wesleyan, where some of her duties include teaching undergraduate entrepreneurship classes and working with small businesses and organizations to encourage entrepreneurship in the area, Thomas wondered if it might be time to further her education.
“One of my jobs is that I help small business – well, what a better way than to be educated with my MBA?” she said.
Thomas said students have the option to finish the program in one year or two. She hesitated to tackle the one-year program, fearing how she would balance a full-time job, family – she is married, and has four children under the age of 7 – and a full course load.
After learning she could switch to the two-year program if she decided the one-year was too intensive, Thomas said she decided to give it a whirl. Now that it’s over, she’s glad she went for it.
“I gave it a try, and I was really glad I did it in one year,” she said.
Thomas said it’s a lot to do in one year, and it did necessitate a few sacrifices on her part. She got a little less sleep, and had to say no to a few other things for a while. Evenings worked best for Thomas to work on assignments, and the time commitment varied with the assignment and the course.
“Sometimes it was 45 minutes, other times it was two hours a night,” she said.
She had a corner set aside in her house, with her computer and books. When Thomas was there, her family knew she was working on school. When she put her computer away for the last time after completing the program, she said her daughter exclaimed, “You’re really done.”
“She was so excited,” Thomas said.
During her courses, Thomas said she was able to learn about different tools businesses can use, and things that are relevant to her own work at Dakota Wesleyan.
“I was able to use those to really research and dig in my MBA program, so I was getting work done and school done all at the same time,” she said.
The online program includes the traditional reading and writing aspects of education, Thomas said, but doesn’t end there. Students had hands-on projects and simulations, like a realistic analysis of financial statements or a simulation where students ran their own airline. Having professors who come from a business or entrepreneurial background meant students didn’t just learn concepts and theories – they learned application.
“It was never just theory. It was very practical,” she said.
Thomas also appreciated the program’s incorporation of Christian values and ethics into the curriculum, which she said made the education feel more “wholistic.” She said in one course, the students read several books pertaining to different views on leadership, and then had to choose their own personal leadership style. Thomas was able to build a model of her own that was Christ-centered, and reflected her own values.
“We didn’t shy away from talking about that, and what that means from an ethical standpoint,” Thomas said. “I was able to tie my faith into my education, in that scenario.”
Novak said that has always been a priority for the program – to make the curriculum not just practical, but in line with Dakota Wesleyan’s faith-based values, as well.
“It’s of course grounded in our mission to develop strong, ethically minded leaders,” Novak said.
Thomas also praised the professors in the program, noting they lend real-world, practical experience to the coursework, and were accessible to students who needed extra help. She also admits that even though she wasn’t sure what to think of the online format at first, she now believes it was the best option for her.
“It will really work with your home life, because it’s so flexible,” she said of the MBA program as a whole. “It has a good structure.”
Now that she has her MBA, Thomas said it has expanded her opportunities at DWU. She could possibly teach for the MBA program, and is on a strategic team for the college.
“It gives me tools I need to serve Dakota Wesleyan better,” she said. “My job doesn’t change, but some of my duties have been enhanced.”