Unique situations: couples work
toward EMBA degrees together

January 29, 2013

Pursing an Executive MBA degree is demanding, sometimes stressful and requires a great deal of dedication and hard work. But for some of our students, a bit of that stress is mitigated – or at least able to be vented – thanks to a spouse going through the same demands. These two couples have dedicated themselves to one another, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health. But perhaps they should have included "in homework and in studying" to those vows.

How Do You Eat an Elephant? One Bite at a Time

Joe and Danielle DeLong

For Joe and Danielle DeLong, the key to keeping it all together is taking things one day at a time.

"We talk about this all the time," Joe said. "We deal with today, look at tomorrow and don't look beyond tomorrow." Any more than that, he said, and it all becomes too overwhelming.

And their sense of overwhelming is quite understandable. In addition to their full time jobs (Joe is the Executive Director of the West Virginia Regional Jail Authority and Danielle works in the State Auditor's Office), the couple has two small children ages three and one, and they are participating in WVU's Executive MBA program in the College of Business and Economics.

Joe, who will complete the program in spring 2013, attends evening courses in their hometown of Charleston. Danielle just began the Online EMBA last July.

Danielle said that even though family life was already busy with work, kids and Joe's school commitments, she decided to join the program due to the flexibility of the online course, which was recently ranked #29 in the country.

"Joe was really enjoying the classes. It was definitely tough, but he was enjoying the curriculum. The workload was compatible with his work schedule. It was tailored to the working professional. It's something I've always wanted to do, and WVU offering it online was a clear way for me to do that," Danielle said. "I would never have joined the program if I didn't have the good words from Joe," she said.
"Having the ability at her own pace on her own schedule to work it into our busy lives certainly made it more attainable," Joe added.

The fact that Joe is a couple semesters ahead of Danielle in the curriculum has been an advantage.

"Instead of struggling together at the same time with the kids, my having a head start allows her to lean on me," Joe said.

"Joe helps me prioritize. He will say to me ‘You really don't want to fall behind in that' when it's a more difficult class," Danielle said.
On the flip side, Joe has enjoyed seeing how the program has evolved since he began, as well as the differences in the delivery of the information in the online program versus the weekend program he is a part of.

"One thing that's funny to me," Joe said, "(is that) we get competitive about ‘who's got the better end of the deal' as far as the type of workload."

But despite the fact that Joe's head start has made the program more manageable for the pair, the couple said there are some drawbacks they must work through.

"There are always sacrifices. I don't know what we did before we had children, but we enjoyed each other's company and stayed busy and active," said Joe. "But now with children and constant homework, the drawback is that we are so consumed that when we do have a rare moment together, we just look at each other like ‘What are we supposed to be doing?'" the couple laughed.
"It seems like every time I'm with my kids or spouse, my computer's always on. It's a sacrifice for the whole family. Our life will be a lot easier come May when Joe is done," Danielle said.

But the joys outweigh the sacrifices according to the DeLongs.

"The most enjoyable part is really learning from my team, learning from people that are more seasoned," said Danielle, who hopes that the EMBA degree will fulfill her goal of career advancement. "I felt I needed it more to advance my career and open up other opportunities, and get myself a competitive edge."

For Joe, participating in the program is more about the networking and continuing education. "I have a fairly strong and diverse resume," he said. "I had built the leadership and experience component to my resume, but one thing that's always been lacking is the education component. I've also met different people and developed contacts and resources that I otherwise wouldn't have," said Joe.

And despite the stressors such an intense program can put on an individual and the institution of marriage, Danielle and Joe have figured out how to make it work.

"I tend to think my priorities are so important but I don't always realize that Joe is under the same restraint. Work on being a good listener and not talking all the time. Take a moment and listen," said Danielle.

"A big part of it is laughter," Joe added. "We live very intense, serious lives full of enormous amounts of responsibility, and yet at the same time we stay very loose and jovial. Take time to smile and laugh and make light of things. If you can't take the time to laugh at yourself then I think the stresses can start to weigh you down. We just stay very light hearted. I think that's good for a healthy marriage, and good for the soul and good for life. We're not on this planet for that long. We've got to enjoy it," he said.

Playing to Each Other's Strengths

Kris and Carrie Lilly

For Kris and Carrie Lilly, the hardest part of the Online EMBA program was getting started.

The Lillys, of Morgantown, just graduated together from the program in December. Participating in the same cohort was old hat for the couple, who originally met at WVU by working together in their undergraduate courses in the mining engineering program.

After undergrad, Kris began his career in mining engineering while Carrie went on to law school, where she finished in 2005. Carrie currently works at MEPCO, a privately owned coal company in Morgantown. She has done legal work for the company for about five years, but just recently upon receiving her EMBA degree, has been able to expand her responsibilities to some financial work as well. Kris has worked at and operated Red Bone Mining Company just outside of Maidsville, W.Va., a family-owned underground coal mine that his father founded and employs about 45 people.

"My dad told me, ‘You can do anything for a little bit of time,'" said Kris. "It wasn't too long. It just took a time commitment and discipline. The hardest part for me was signing up."

Once they overcame that hurdle, however, the couple had to work on prioritizing.

"There's only so much time in the day," said Carrie. Carrie was used to pouring herself into school work (she admits she is type A plus – plus – plus) but that priorities had to be tweaked this time compared to what she was used to while obtaining her previous degrees.

"We had to remember what pays the bills," said Kris. "It's not just an education, it's also a sacrifice. We both work a minimum of 50 hours per week, if not 60. Prioritizing is key. We thought we would have conflicting schedules, (but) we were lucky to be on the same team."

Being teammates on top of spouses was fantastic for the Lillys.

"We had the same deadlines to meet, so we were constantly reminding each other about what we were supposed to be doing," Carrie said.

Kris elaborated, "It was a different angle of learning, because we could ask each other questions. We were our own sounding board. All the classes were the same, travel arrangements were the same. It was one less thing in our lives we had to balance," he said.

Although their school schedules were the same, Kris and Carrie have many differences when it comes to personality and work experience, which they there able to use to their benefit. Although they both work in the mining industry, each plays a different role in the success of their company. "We have different perspectives on the same subject, so we would each say things that the other hadn't thought about (while completing an assignment)," Carrie said. Personality differences also helped the couple mesh well on assignments.

"I am type A and he's the opposite," Carrie said. "As far as that goes, we're a great balance. Our differences enabled us to split up the work accordingly (in the group)," she said. While Carrie enjoyed waking up early on Saturdays to finish her homework, Kris preferred finishing his on Sunday evenings- another aspect of the balance that the Lillys enjoy.

"It allowed us to each have some ‘me' time to get things done while the other was studying," Carrie said.

The Lillys feel that the time spent in the program has passed quickly. "It's this big relief," said Kris. "The end came and went. We've been busy for so long."

"I thought we would have all sorts of free time now that we don't have homework, but I'm not sure where it is yet," Carrie laughed.

When it came time to graduate, the Lillys attended the EMBA Convocation Brunch to celebrate their accomplishments. Although they had both been through graduation rituals before, Carrie said this time was different.

"Both of our parents came to the luncheon. But Kris and I were the ones supporting one another through the program this time around," she said. "The sense of going through it together is nice," said Kris.

For Carrie, completing the degree was about taking on new responsibilities and expanding her qualifications.

"Everybody wants to do better at what they do," she said. "I was hoping to get more involved in business and finance work. Even in law school, I wasn't really taught how to apply the knowledge to a business. So this was an opportunity to broaden my work experience," She feels that continuing her education has allowed her to pursue her own interests while simultaneously meeting the company's needs.

"My hope for the experience is that it makes me more valuable to my employer," said Carrie. Kris nodded. "The more valuable you are, the better," he said.

Kris said he had wanted to complete this degree for several years. "I was able to help myself out by gaining the tools to continue what I have been doing in my career and to move forward. We were able to complete the course without a formal business background. There was no intimidation. It makes me well-rounded and better able to do what I need to succeed in current and future business practices," he said.

Despite their busy lives, the Lillys are very calm, collected and matter-of-fact. Their desire for balance is reflected not only in their approach to completing the EMBA program, but their marriage as well. According to Carrie, that sense of balance is her secret to a happy marriage. For Kris, it's about not sweating the small stuff.

And as the saying goes, "It's all small stuff."