A Recent Graduate’s Reflections on the Executive MBA Experience

people walking up the stairs inside of bloch executive hall

Since 2015, a student from each graduating class has been invited to write an entry into the Bloch Executive MBA Legacy Journal reflecting on their journey and offering advice to future students. Thomas Kepka, Director of Marketing at U.S. Engineering Company Holdings, prepared the following reflection for the Class of 2018.

“It’s August 2016, and I’m walking parallel to Brush Creek on the Plaza. Approaching Seasons 52, the sun is bright above the western horizon. People crowd the sidewalk, some moving with purpose to destinations awaiting them. Others meander without any apparent target in mind. Each seemingly unaware of the story that is unfolding for the person next to him or her. I am among the purpose-driven. I have a specific destination in mind, but as I reach for the door, I momentarily pause to acknowledge the sounds that would soon be muffled. The traffic, the splashing fountain, the conversations. I pass through the threshold, and I am briefly blinded by the darkness. This is definitely a different world than the one I had just left. It is quiet; the rush of dinnertime has not yet arrived. But that rush will assuredly come, and as I navigate my way through the empty restaurant, I question how this will go.”

The paragraph above was adapted from the reflection paper I submitted during the Leadership Residency. I confess that because this is my first tip: If you’ve written something in one class that works for another, repurpose it. You’re busy, and you have to manage your time. It doesn’t happen all that often, but when it does, embrace it.

That said, I deliberately reach back to that moment because that team meeting at Seasons 52 was a very important one in my EMBA experience. Entering the program, I was a little unsure whether I belonged. Perhaps you feel that way right now too. Or perhaps you’re beaming with confidence. Either way, at Seasons 52 during the Leadership Residency, I sat at a table with a group of people that were essentially strangers. We got to know each other. We sized each other up. We began the process of acclimating to the grind of the EMBA and the people that would share that experience. Maybe you’re wondering if these people are going to compete with you or try to help you. In my experience, classmates are your support system, not your rivals.

For me, I realized that I belonged in that seat. And while I didn’t realize it at the time, the people that sat at that table—as well as the rest of the cohort—became the most important part of the EMBA experience. The people are the experience. You’ll have wonderful times as well as painful ones with classmates. You’ll be amazed by people in both good and bad ways. You’ll grow. You’ll see others grow. You’ll develop great friendships. You’ll learn so much from them. You’ll teach them as well. Of course, it’s OK to mute the group chat that’s buzzing through the night, especially if you’re trying to sleep in Washington D.C. while others are still learning about what the nation’s capital has to offer.

In addition to the people, the program presents unique opportunities that I will always cherish. Obviously, the residencies away from Kansas City stand out. Our class went to Central Europe, visiting Budapest and Prague. The class before us went to Vietnam, and the class after us appears to be headed to Portugal. It’s incredible to experience the cultures, talk with local people, learn from international business people, and witness how classmates interact outside of Kansas City. By the way, if the letters “SSSS” are printed on your boarding pass, expect special attention from airport security.

For me, much of my success in the program is because of the support system at home. Clearly, if you have a family, the EMBA is an investment and a commitment from more than just you. While I understand everyone has a different situation, and this might not be applicable to you, I wanted to give my wife a platform to share her thoughts on how we were able to get through the program as a family. She is a saint who has incredible patience and strength, and I owe much of my success to her.

Dear EMBA adventurer,

Congratulations on the 2-year journey upon which you are embarking. I am the spouse of a recently graduated student and was asked to share my perspective. Though the journey was foggy on my end, I have just a few items of advice:

Keep the communication open and honest about expectations on a weekly, if not daily basis. Start in the very beginning. If you are holding a full-time job during this time, you will basically be unavailable. It was incredibly helpful for Thomas to put in expected study/school times in our shared Apple calendar, including actual class time and homework time during the evenings/weekends. It helped keep things balanced, as much as it can be (we have two young and involved children). Communication also includes making each other aware of how grateful you are for each other’s hard work and dedication to your goals. Verbalize the gratitude constantly. It’s simple and offers daily saving graces.

Share experiences. Any of them. It helps guarantee face-to-face time and eliminates the alienation of your spouse. Talk about frustrations, successes, classmates you enjoy, classmates you have trouble with, fascinating teachers, anxieties and especially things that you will undoubtedly learn about yourself throughout the grind.

Towards the end, I remember a simple conversation that describes the last couple of weeks. It went like this: Spouse: “I have some work to do, is there anything you need first?” Me: “NO! Just go get it all done!” (This ship was sinking.)

It’s not about grand gestures. If you find you have five or ten minutes of free time, you can save the ship by simply asking that very question – what can I do before I disappear again? Doing seemingly small tasks frequently is exceptionally helpful and maintains your awareness of each other’s struggles.

Blessings and Good Luck!

Again, your experience and situation will be different. I just encourage you to make efforts to give time to those you care about. You will have a life, by the way. You’ll just have to manage it well. The workload does ebb and flow. Enjoy the summer, and just keep pushing when you get back for Year 2.

I’m actually writing this in July, which means I have had a couple months beyond graduation to reflect. The first thing I’ve noticed since graduation reiterates what I have said earlier. When you graduate, you’ll miss those friends you gained along the way. Keep in touch with them. I’m not very good at keeping in touch, but I’m going to be deliberate in doing so. I suggest you do too.

However, while you miss the people, I have not found a single person that has missed the work. There was a lot of energy at that table in Seasons 52, but eventually it turned into a grind, and the enthusiasm turned to surviving the marathon. To be clear, everyone I have talked to is glad they took this journey (even the vocal complainers), but everyone was ready to move on by the end.

Except, of course, when it’s all done, you might find something is missing or you might be asking yourself, “Now what?” My wife tells the story of the first marathon she ran. She trained for months; she worked her ass off. Then she finally ran the race, and she did great. The only problem was that all the work she had done culminated in this one moment and now it was over. She likened it to postpartum depression. I don’t have the qualifications to make that kind of comparison, but there have certainly been mixed emotions since May. There’s the joy of being done. There’s the satisfaction and pride of the accomplishment. There’s also the question of what’s next. There might be a void because something that was so integral in your life is now gone.

I’ve drawn the parallel to a marathon a couple times, so in concluding this entry, I will stay on the theme. Completing a marathon is just about taking steps. That’s easy. You can take steps. Likewise, there’s no task in the EMBA that is too difficult for you. You can do everything the EMBA has to throw at you. The trick is to do it over and over again over a two-year period. You can do it, and you will be better for it. You will have a lot of fun, and you will have frustration, but just keep stepping.

Good luck on your journey. You’ll be glad you took it.

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