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“We started together, we studied together, we graduated together”

Andy and Tania Vanburen have recently completed their MBAs with The Open University. Although they studied side by side and graduated together, their routes to an MBA were very different.

Andy Vanburen left school after completing his GCSEs and joined a firm of accountants, studying one day a week for his AAT qualification. He gained chartered status with the ACCA, but had never studied for a degree. Tania Vanburen followed a more traditional route; studying law at a brick university and then gaining a postgraduate certificate in legal practice.

Different motivations

On the brink of an executive leadership post, Tania said: “I felt I need something that would give me the edge and allow me the opportunity to step up in my work discussions; that’s where my MBA came in.”

Andy hadn’t considered studying for an MBA until a colleague suggested the idea. “It had been nearly 15 years since I studied. I wanted to refresh some of my skills and the MBA included relevant finance modules.”

“Having never been to university before, I wanted to be able to say I’d got a degree. The thought of attending a graduation ceremony, and having my photo taken with the gown on, that was a focal point pushing me onwards.”

Flexibility matters

Both opted for an OU MBA due to the flexibility the course offered.  Andy had looked at a more traditional university, “but they wanted to do block release of 6 weeks at a time, a couple times a year. Whilst my employer sponsored me with the cost of the course fees, I wouldn’t have got the authority to have the time off as well.”

The flexibility helped during their studies, as Tania explains. “The flexibility of the OU really helped during my studies, as I changed jobs and Andy and I got married in the same year. We took six months out for the wedding, because the thought of having to read OU books while on honeymoon didn’t fill me with the joys of spring!”

“What I loved about the OU as a style of study was we could just take that six month period out to make the most of our life circumstances.”

Tutor support

Andy and Tania were grateful for the support they received from their tutors.

Andy said, “One in particular, Maggie, always offered to be available on the end of the phone or a Skype call or help with TMA preparation. She was so approachable. Even though I never met her in person, you felt like she really cared about the students and helping them progress.”

Tania agreed. “The tutors were just amazing. They recognised the challenges of studying and working at the same time so when they were able to they were flexible. If I had a query about anything, just being able to arrange a time to speak to them over the telephone was reassuring. Just knowing that there was someone there who understood and could empathise with where you’re at made the MBA less daunting.” She continued:

“I wouldn’t have a bad word to say about any of the tutors during that experience, I think they were wonderful, absolutely superb. Obviously, if you don’t ask you don’t get, but certainly the help that I needed I absolutely got, and I was really grateful for it.”

“In house study buddy”

Studying alongside each other was key to their success. Andy explained: “Having Tania alongside me helped. We’ve been going through the OU course together, but choosing different electives.  We complemented each other really well. I’m a facts and figures person whereas she’s more of the management spiel and, dare I say it, the ‘waffly’ subjects, and we were able to advise and help each other.”

Tania continued: “It was good to be able to bounce ideas off Andy.  There was a degree of overlap between some of the modules.”

“Some of the course material that I had in one of my softer skills modules also appeared in entrepreneurship for Andy, so the ability for us to look at the same sort of models from different perspectives and have that discussion was really valuable.”

They would study in the same office, at desks next to each other.  Andy said “We would head up to the office together. For assignments, we were able to read each other’s scripts and make suggestions and feedback whereas other students would have been less likely to have that option.”

Tania found Andy a huge support. “It was helpful for me having Andy doing an MBA as well. If I was having a bad day, he would push me through. I think we both probably pulled each other through it; particularly the prospect of both graduating at the same time.  On many an occasion I felt like giving up. I might have given up if it wasn’t for Andy. If he hadn’t been studying at the same time as me, I think there were definitely times where I would have stopped.”

Social sacrifice

Fitting their studies in, around their work and home life took careful planning and discipline.

Andy said “In hindsight, the MBA was a huge commitment.  I hadn’t appreciated that year one was 600 hours recommended study. It’s a big chunk of your life to commit to over three or four years so you have to be really sure you want to do it.  Having a supportive partner, or studying together really helped.”

Tania used her commute into London to do much of her reading.

“I’d squeeze things into my lunch hours at work. The great thing about the MBA is it’s so completely interlinked and critical to business that you also spending your working day thinking about things in the context of your study.”

“We had to study most weekends and often forfeited going to visit family,” Andy said.  “I used to plan out a timetable of what days we had available. We would put a few hours away in the morning on a Saturday to give us some availability later in the day; we barely watched any TV and our social life was pretty non-existent.”

Tania found the social sacrifice one of the hardest things to manage. “That was mitigated because Andy was studying with me, so we could both be miserable together, but you can’t have it all.”

Now they’ve finished Andy commented that they’ve gained back lots of time. “We’ve been able to pursue more cycling that we do together and other fitness activities whereas we had to forego those during our studies.”

Graduating together

The OU Social Media Team caught up with Andy and Tania on their graduation day; the proud recipients of two MBAs.

Lasting impact on their careers

Tania credits the MBA with changing her approach to her work, and to others. “I’m far more self-aware that I used to be and far more reflective. I think I am far more politically aware of situations and better able to read them than I was when I first started. That’s helpful both inside and outside of work and has helped me to get the role I’m in now. Doing my MBA gave me the opportunity to really look at what I was moving in to and use some of my strategy knowledge to build my team, and has broadened the way I think about everything. It was fantastic and definitely helpful in that regard.”

Andy also credits the course with supporting his career:

“Now I’ve come out the other side of the MBA studies, I can say it was a really positive experience. The OU, and the MBA qualification, have definitely changed me as a person. The MBA has really helped my career and given me a lot more commerciality than many of my colleagues.”

‘Bite the bullet’

To anyone thinking about starting an MBA with The Open University, Tania said:

“I would just say bite the bullet and get on with it, but make sure that you are in the right place in your career to make the most out of your MBA studies. A lot of the learning you undertake is related to your work and your ability to influence and change things.

Overall, it’s been brilliant and rewarding both personally and professionally, but it was hard work. I think you get out of it what you are prepared to put into it.”

About Author

Liz works in the Media Relations team within the Communications Unit at The Open University. She has over 15 years' marketing experience working across a range of sectors, from diamonds to shampoo. She has a BSc (Hons) in Management from UMIST. In her spare time, Liz is usually found on roller skates or off travelling, having adventures.

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