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When they began pursuing advanced degrees in 2019, professionals in the VCU School of Business Executive MBA (EMBA) program and Master of Decision Analytics Professional Track (DAPT) anticipated that classes in their executive weekend program would be held in person, every other weekend.

Yet, in the second of four semesters, the Class of 2021 was thrust into an entirely virtual educational environment.

An unexpected transition to virtual learning

Sam Dortch, co-owner of Libbie Market, an independent grocery store in Richmond’s West End, selected the VCU Executive MBA program because it was designed for working professionals and offered a return to the in-person learning he had enjoyed as an undergrad.

“I liked being in class, asking questions, leaning over to talk to my classmates,” he says. “Going virtual [as a result of the pandemic] was challenging. None of us saw this coming, but we all did the best we could.”

Liliana Castillo, also, was intentional in selecting an executive weekend program when she enrolled in the VCU Master in Decision Analytics Professional Track (DAPT), five years after completing her VCU EMBA with a Healthcare Management Concentration in 2014.  

“The pandemic was unexpected,” she says. “But I got used to virtual learning and bonding with my classmates over Zoom. VCU did a great job and had people to help students with technology issues. The transition was flawless.”

Still, having completed an in-person EMBA, she found her pandemic DAPT experience to be more challenging. A single mother with two school-aged sons, she concedes, “It was more stressful with everyone at home, trying to rearrange our lives in different ways.” She also regretted cancellation of the class trip, a popular component of VCU’s executive programs. “My EMBA class went to China. We missed our trip with this [DAPT] program. But quitting was never an option.”

Leading more than 100 front-line grocery workers through an unprecedented health crisis made 2020 “the hardest year of my life,” Dortch says. Despite all these challenges, he decided to stick out an uncertain second year in the EMBA program largely because of the meaningful bonds he had forged with his cohort during their first year.

COVID-19: A time to strengthen credentials

According to Bill Miller, VCU executive director of business and alumni development for executive graduate programs, COVID-19 had an unexpected impact on enrollment in the Executive MBA Class of 2022.

“When COVID got real, we had accepted students waiting to see what would happen. We had some deferrals, but far more enrolled and filled our incoming class. It was clear some professionals were taking this opportunity to strengthen their credentials so they were well positioned for whatever came out of the pandemic,” he says.

“Last year’s class had record applications – for both of our executive programs,” adds Butch Sarma, VCU director for the Executive MBA program. “Some people found themselves with extra time because they couldn’t travel. Others decided to invest in and position themselves for new opportunities.”

Executive students certainly achieved that objective. Between 50 and 75% of VCU DAPT students get new jobs or promotions while still in the program. Such was the case with Castillo who recently accepted a position as data and financial analyst for Atlantic Vision Partners. It’s the very type of role she envisioned when she enrolled in the DAPT program.

“In this digital era, it’s incredibly rewarding to have the skills to interpret data and glean insights that help organizations and leaders make decisions,” she says. “My degrees are my passport to the future and to key opportunities.”

This June, just one month after earning his MBA, Dortch will take over general management of Libbie Market. He will leave VCU with a strong alumni network and skills he never anticipated. “I have a much better, broader business acumen. I now study our financial statement deeper than the top-line review I used to give it. If I’m remodeling, as we are doing now, I’m looking closer at everything from negotiating contracts to long-term payout.

“There are so many things this program opened my eyes to, but learning about leadership style was a big piece I didn’t expect at all. So much of leading and managing organizations is learning what your style of leadership is, reflecting on ‘How am I leading and how does that affect my relationships with employees and coworkers?’ That’s critical. I’m better equipped, now, to lead Libbie Market and our 100+ employees into the future.”

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