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Husband-and-wife MBA students Amanda (left) and Justin Ehlenbeck got to partner as news anchors, too, when their Media for Organization Leaders course visited the Fox 11 newsroom.

Learning Is All Business for One MBA Couple

While families throughout northeastern Wisconsin were camping, gardening or grilling burgers on Memorial Day, Amanda and Justin Ehlenbeck hit the books.

They had a final week of class coming up, and a day off – plus a free babysitter – meant available hours to prepare for tests and write papers.

Few moments can be wasted by the young couple, who are not only raising a toddler and working full-time jobs, but also are seeking advanced degrees through the St. Norbert College Master of Business Administration program.

“It’s not as overwhelming as it seems,” Amanda says. “Once you make that decision to go back to school, you find the discipline and focus to use your spare time for studying.”

Justin was the first to head back to the classroom.

He works second shift as a sanitation coordinator at Johnsonville Sausage in Sheboygan Falls, Wis., and has anticipated returning to school since receiving his undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh in 2009.

“I’m definitely someone who wants to learn,” Justin says. “I want to increase my business acumen and learn ways to improve on things I do on a day-to-day basis.”

He began classes at St. Norbert in August last year, and his leap into the program pushed Amanda to take her first class in October. She works in human resources at Sargento Foods Inc., and says graduate work will help her to improve her leadership abilities and prepare for the future.

“I was really impressed by the St. Norbert program,” says Amanda, who received her undergraduate degree from Marquette University. “I like that classes are held in a physical classroom and in person. I liked the demographics in the classes, with some in similar industries and some different. The knowledge sharing is very important to me.”

The timing was right to take the plunge, they say.

“We are lucky to have family that is really flexible about babysitting, and we have daycare,” Justin says. “With Eden being 1½ years old, she’s young enough that we can study while she is sleeping or with a babysitter.”

After Justin goes to work and Eden goes to bed, Amanda spends time with her studies.

“It requires discipline,” she says. “When she’s in bed I have to do homework and not watch TV or check out Pinterest.”

Justin adds, “You cut your time relaxing, and choose to use that time to go to school.”

Their employers also are flexible with hours, and Justin says he will come in early or stay late to make up time. The companies also provide tuition reimbursement.

“This allowed us both to go to graduate school without two loans,” Amanda says. “That’s the only way we could both go.”

Since becoming a dual-student household, the couple has tried to schedule classes for the same night so they can drive to and from St. Norbert together. 

Master’s classes are eight-week sessions, and students must be in class at least one night a week. The hour drive from their New Holstein home and back gives Justin and Amanda a chance to catch up and catch their breath.

The most recent class provided a twist, however, as the pair found themselves in the same “Media for Organization Leaders” class.

“We get a good number of laughs,” Amanda says. “We sat next to each other in class. It’s nice to have feedback or share an idea with each other. It’s an ‘oh, this was interesting’ sort of dynamic.”

Before, when each of them worked at their own pace, one might have more homework in any given week than the other. But two months in the same class meant they both were preparing notes, presentations or reading on the same schedule.

That meant working on homework together over the Memorial Day weekend. The couple says they don’t compete with each other, but encourage one another.

“I think there’s sometimes the exchange of a gentle reminder, ‘Do you have any reading?’ Having that accountability is good,” Amanda says. “ With grades, we celebrate each other’s successes. We both want to do well.”

The two have different levels of detail when it comes to homework styles.

“I’m more of a focused reader,” Justin acknowledges. “I don’t like interruptions. When I come out of that, I need to go away and do something else for a while. She’ll stick to it until it’s done.”

Even when they’re taking different classes, Justin and Amanda have good discussions about their studies, they say.

“It’s nice to be going through this experience together,” Amanda says. “We’re both going through the same things, and I think that makes it easier. Otherwise [your spouse] doesn’t know what you’re going through. Amanda anticipates graduating in January 2019. The couple would like to graduate together, but Amanda may finish first because her work schedule allows her to enroll in more than one class at a time, and Justin would have to take time off from his job to do that.

Many students with full-time jobs must make similar decisions to balance graduate work and their careers, but that shouldn’t stop them from seeking a master’s degree, says Brenda Busch B.A. ’93, M.L.S. ’13, associate director of graduate recruitment at St. Norbert College.

“I went through my master’s while working full time,” Busch says. “I tell students, ‘Yes, you can do this. I know your plate is full, you have a husband or wife and kids. Many of our students are very engaged in their communities and most likely sit on boards. But we really stress that the program is on their pace, and they can do it. I get that they’re apprehensive, but once they take that first step, they see that it’s very doable.”

St. Norbert doesn’t have many couples taking the same class, but Busch says she’s not surprised to see Justin and Amanda both enrolled in the graduate program.

“When I was in my master’s program, all of my classmates were married with kids,” she says. “I imagine going through it when your partner is going through it makes it harder, but also a bit more satisfying.” St. Norbert graduate classes run in eight-week sessions rather than traditional semesters, Busch says, because many working students find it easier to do a deep dive in one or two classes at a time and then move onto another one rather than juggle four or five classes at once. 

There is no online component for St. Norbert’s three graduate areas: liberal studies, theological studies and business administration. About 70 students are currently enrolled.

And although Amanda and Justin support each other 100 percent, that could change in coming months, Justin says jokingly.

“I’m taking the summer off and she’s not,” he says. “There might be some jealousy there.”

Aug. 1, 2017