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Q&A with HBS Armed Forces Alumni Association, MBA Class of 2023 – MBA

The Association of Former Armed Forces (AFAA) is an on-campus, student-run club for service members and veterans of all military branches and countries. AFAA’s mission is to help talented veterans leave the military to join Harvard Business School, assist in the professional development and job search process of members, and educate and support the army among members of the Harvard University community.

In honor of Memorial Day weekend, we caught up with seven US Army AFAA students. Below are their thoughts on transitioning to the MBA, bringing military experiences into the classroom, and applying to HBS.

Katie Brennan (MBA 2023)

Hometown: Miami, Florida

Bachelor’s degree and major: Florida State University; Political Science/Criminology

military experience: active duty military intelligence officer; future instructor at the United States Military Academy (USMA)

Why did you decide to pursue an MBA? I decided to pursue an MBA because I wanted to immerse myself in a challenging program that would advance me personally and professionally. By temporarily stepping back from the fast-paced operational US military, I felt I could better learn and grow as a person and a leader. I wanted to develop a new skill set and gain new knowledge to make me a more effective and diverse instructor for the cadets I will be teaching at USMA.

What do you think helped you stand out during the application process? I think my authenticity and ability to stay true to who I was helped me stand out during the application process. Often we focus on trying to be the complete package, however, some of the biggest lessons I learned came from my weaknesses and failures. It’s not if you fail, but when you fail and how you react that really matters.

How does your military background set you apart from your non-military classmates? Being in the military allows you to adapt to any environment or challenge you may face and helps put things into perspective. When you are responsible for the livelihoods of your soldiers, you see how big and small decisions can impact their lives for better or for worse. These experiences help you better understand the responsibility you have to the most important asset of any business: people.

Andy Franklin (MBA/MPP 2023)

Hometown: Chesapeake, Virginia

Bachelor’s degree and major: United States Air Force Academy; Major story

military experience: US Air Force intelligence officer; current U.S. Air Force Reserve Intelligence Officer

What do you think helped you stand out during the application process? As an intelligence officer, I had the opportunity to lead multinational teams all over the world and work on some pretty tough problems. I leaned heavily on these experiences throughout the application process – they helped me solidify what I thought I could bring to the HBS class and shape the impact I wanted to have after completing my MBA. .

What was the hardest part of transitioning from the Army to a full-time MBA program? It’s hard to replicate the sense of community you feel in the military, and every veteran has to make that transition. Having the Armed Forces Veterans Association, my chapter, and the largest number of HBS students has really allowed me to create a new community here at HBS.

What advice do you have for other military members considering an MBA? Try to take your time when applying to business schools. All of us in the military have a habit of bowing our heads to complete a task. Move through this one slower. For me, the application process was an opportunity to reflect on my life experiences up to that point and to think seriously about what I wanted for the future.

Christy Talisse (MBA 2023)

Hometown: Visalia, California

Bachelor’s degree and major: United States Naval Academy; Quantitative economics

military experience: I spent 8 years in the US Navy as a weapons systems officer flying the back of F/A-18 Super Hornets

Why did you decide to pursue an MBA? I absolutely loved my time in the military and would do it all again in a heartbeat, but once my husband and I decided to start our family, we wanted more stability and time together and with our son. . An MBA seemed like a natural transition for me to develop my business acumen and explore the sectors that interest me.

What advice do you have for other military members considering an MBA? Do not self-select! Going to Harvard has always been a dream of mine, but I never thought I would be “worthy.” My husband encouraged me to apply and told me I had to give it a try. I hope you will do the same. Take your moon photo.

What surprised you most about your HBS experience? How many opportunities there are here for community and meaningful relationships! Between my chapter, the Armed Forces Alumni Association, and the MoMBA and Crimson Parents clubs, I have been able to connect with some of the kindest and most inspiring people who add color and meaning to the MBA experience.

Eric Deng (MBA 2023)

Hometown: Salt Lake City, UT

Bachelor’s degree and major: University of Southern California; Political science

military experience: Aeronautical Maintenance Officer, US Air Force

Why did you decide to pursue an MBA? Instead of pursuing an MBA directly after my service, I decided to join an edtech startup in San Francisco after leaving the Air Force because I thought learning on the job would be the best way for me to learn the main drivers of a business. And yet, after a while at work, I began to see that there were several areas of the business that I couldn’t quite contribute to, including marketing and growth challenges, strategy and general corporate positioning, as well as corporate finance and fundraising. I also realized that in an academic setting, I could have extra time and resources to study certain subjects, especially if I wasn’t busy putting out fires every day.

What advice do you have for other military members considering an MBA? If you are considering an MBA, reach out to veterans to chat through the Armed Forces Veterans Association (AFAA) here or even directly with veterans. We are always happy to help you determine if an MBA makes sense given your particular situation and career goals. If you have decided to pursue an MBA and are considering applying to a school like HBS, apply. Experiences that may seem mundane and ordinary to you may hold real insights for others and, perhaps especially from an American perspective, not everyone will have had the opportunity to interact with veterans and to learn from them. The case method certainly facilitates this, and you shouldn’t count yourself out of it.

Ken Sullivan (MBA 2023)

Hometown: Evanston, IL

Bachelor’s degree and major: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Economy

military experience: I worked in finance in Chicago for three years before joining the United States Marine Corps as an infantry and intelligence officer. I served for 8 years completing two overseas tours in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

What do you think helped you stand out during the application process? What helped me stand out during the application process was letting the admissions committee know who I was apart from being a Marine. They understand that we know how to lead, so I focused on representing my personal side: my passion for reading, market research and my family.

What surprised you most about your HBS experience? I was shocked at how friendly and approachable everyone is. We all go through the same changes starting in a new school, we just come from different backgrounds.

What advice do you have for other military members considering an MBA? Contact the veterinarians of the schools you wish to attend. They know how to approach the application process.

Kristin Wihera (MS/MBA Biotechnology 2023)

Hometown: Littleton, CO

Bachelor’s degree and major: Boston University; Human physiology

military experience: Navy Surface Warfare Officer, Nuclear

Why did you decide to pursue an MBA? Before I left the military, I started looking for jobs I wanted in 5-10 years. I quickly realized that an MBA would help me get them. Then I found the MS/MBA Biotechnology: Life Sciences program at HBS and knew right away that it was the perfect fit for me.

What was the hardest part of transitioning from the Army to a full-time MBA program? There is a certain loss of identity on leaving the military and little time to process that change in an extremely busy environment like HBS. Anyone leaving the military will be able to handle the stress of recruiting or studying, it’s making time for reflection and planning that can be difficult.

What surprised you the most about your HBS experience? I expected to learn only about business, but I learned so much more. I really feel like I have a better understanding of the global context around me, thanks to the incredibly diverse program and group of students. My classmates taught me so much.

Orry McDonald (MBA 2023)

Hometown: Somerville, TN

Bachelor’s degree and major: University of Mississippi; Company

Military experience: naval artillery officer

How does your military background set you apart from your non-military classmates? I’m not sure there is a quantifiable difference. As a veteran participating in HBS, you generally have the ability to work hard, be on time, and get the job done. These skills will be very useful to you. Are you doing well.

What surprised you most about your HBS experience? How quickly we understand. Showing up for HBS is analogous to showing up for OCS, The Basic School, MOS school, etc. There’s a brief moment where you’re lost in the sauce, then a few weeks later you’re walking and talking the talk. Veterans learn fast and it was fun to watch everyone reinvent themselves as professionals.

What advice do you have for other military members considering an MBA? Just do it! There are so many opportunities for veterans. You can make an impact and make a positive difference in the world after leaving the military. Bet on yourself and chart your own path.

Learn more about the HBS military community by visiting the Members of the Army page or watching a conversation about the military community at HBS.