Vanderbilt Business

A Word from the Sponsored

My nonprofit management sponsorship through the Owen School

by Michael McSurdy, EMBA'09 | Fall 2009, Student Experience | Comments | Print Print |
McSurdy earned his Executive MBA while working at Oasis Center, a nonprofit that helps Nashville youth overcome challenges such as homelessness, violence and depression.

McSurdy earned his Executive MBA while working at Oasis Center, a nonprofit that helps Nashville youth overcome challenges such as homelessness, violence and depression.

When I first learned about the possibility of earning a sponsorship to the Vanderbilt Executive MBA program, I was intrigued. The Owen School and the Center for Nonprofit Management in Nashville had just launched an initiative offering full tuition for one nonprofit executive a year. As Vice President for Programs at Oasis Center—a nonprofit that helps Nashville youth overcome challenges such as homelessness, violence and depression—I was eligible for the sponsorship but wondered whether I’d be a better administrator with those letters following my name. I already had a graduate degree and was doing just fine, I thought. However, my wife—an MBA herself—and my boss both encouraged me to give it a shot.

I took the first step and completed the online application. I then had a follow-up interview with Tami Fassinger, Associate Dean of Executive Education at Owen. Although Tami was charming, she was not one to sugarcoat the process. I quickly realized that if I were going to make even a halfhearted attempt at this, I actually would have to study for the GMAT—something I hadn’t done since taking the GRE years before when No. 2 pencils were still used.

I always introduced myself as the “nonprofit guy” somehow separating myself from the “real” businesspeople. Now I know I am a real businessperson. I’m just in a different kind of business.

—Michael McSurdy

I started giving up my evenings and weekends to pour over The Official Guide for GMAT Review. I also attended an open house for nonprofit candidates and then ventured into the deep waters at a preview day for general candidates—people with “real” business experience. It was a little intimidating, but I left feeling confident that I could succeed at Owen. I went back to my studies, and finally the day of the test arrived. Then came the waiting.

Several weeks later I received a call from Tami saying I had been accepted to the Executive MBA program. It was a great feeling to know that I had made the cut, but for me that was not enough. I had to get the sponsorship before I could even consider attending Owen. Unlike other students I would not see large raises in my future even with an MBA, and my employer had no funds to offset the expense of my tuition. Finally in May 2007 I got another call from Tami. I had been awarded the sponsorship! I accepted, of course, and soon hit the ground running.

The first hurdle, called Math Camp, came during the middle of that summer. Designed as a refresher course for those of us who were a little rusty with basic computations, Math Camp was a sobering prelude to first semester. I started to wonder what I had committed myself to, but with the gracious support and guidance of Rita Sowell, the instructor, I made it through.

From Math Camp it was on to the Week-in-Residence at New Harmony, Ind., where I was introduced to my group—Jason Gunderson, Jarod Scott, Navin Karwande and Kenn Gindin (all EMBA’09)—four classmates who would be my lifelines, my colleagues and my friends over the next two years (and beyond). New Harmony also marked the beginning of the first semester, which placed an emphasis on quantitative coursework.

That first semester I spent night after precious night trying to bend my mind around stats, economics, finance and accounting. For someone used to offering support to others, I was unaccustomed to relying continually on the assistance of the members of my group and Isaac Rogers, BA’02, MBA’08, a gifted stats tutor. I began to wonder if I’d ever get past the first semester. And of course I did.

During the second semester I found the qualitative classes to be more in my comfort zone. I was able to offer the members of my group a little wisdom, and I felt like I was carrying my weight more than I had before. The coursework was tiring nonetheless, and by the end of two semesters, I wondered if May would ever arrive. And of course it did.

Over the summer I reconnected with my family and dug back into work. There was no Math Camp or Week-in-Residence in New Harmony to worry about. I only had to look forward to the second year, which I anticipated with much less trepidation as I knew what to expect. Just like the summer before, I wondered if fall would ever come. And of course it did.

oasiscenterUpon returning to Owen as a second-year student, I found myself giving advice to Mark McCaw, the new recipient of the Executive MBA/Center for Nonprofit Management sponsorship. “You will get through this,” I told him. Meanwhile I was as busy as ever. My strategy and finance classes were all-consuming, and the changing economy and a relocation for Oasis Center were making my job more demanding. At this point, though, I had my feet solidly beneath me. Somehow I had survived accounting, economics, finance and statistics, and was actually putting what I had learned to work. In my third finance class it became clear that concepts and theory were of greater importance to me, and I was able to track what we were discussing and actively participate. Had I actually learned something about finance?

This third semester was also the proving ground for my group. By this point we had formed a good team. Each member knew the others’ strengths and needs, and we respected and supported each other. We began to think ahead to our strategy project in semester four. We had moved from focusing on our classes to focusing on how we could use the total of what we had learned to accomplish a more complex goal—creating a viable strategy for a real company. At times my group and I wondered if we would get it all done. And of course we did.

During the final semester everything really came together. Each of my classes relied on what I had learned in all the others. The whole was becoming greater than the sum of its parts. The journey ended with a successful strategy presentation and the international residency, and much celebration. That final semester is still a blur.

Since receiving my diploma from Dean Bradford under the tent on Magnolia Lawn, I have had some time to think and reflect, and I have even used a few things I learned at Owen—like strategies for depreciation and maximizing human capital. Who knew this stuff was really applicable to the nonprofit world? After four semesters and some reflection, I realize I made the right decision to pursue an MBA. Up to this point I always introduced myself as the “nonprofit guy” somehow separating myself from the “real” businesspeople. Now I know I am a real businessperson. I’m just in a different kind of business.

As I look back with great pride and accomplishment, I am immensely grateful. I am grateful for my classmates who grew with me and supported my growth. I am thankful for the staff and professors who saw the potential in me. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my employer, staff and board who have all supported me and cheered me on through the past two years. And I appreciate so much the great opportunity that Owen and the Center for Nonprofit Management gave me in awarding me the sponsorship.

Lastly and most important, this journey was made all the richer because of my family. To my wife, Cecily, and my children, Michael, Harriet and Eloise, I say thank you. I appreciate so much the sacrifices you have made and the love and support you have given me over the past two years.

photo credit: Daniel Dubois

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