A Baby Boomer Goes Back to School…and Loves It

by Gina Fleitman

Ronald Reagan was president; the AIDS virus had just been identified, and the Soviet Union decided to boycott the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. It was spring 1984: the last time I set foot in a college classroom. I’d graduated a month shy of my 21st birthday and co-founded a publishing startup with the boss for whom I’d been working since my sophomore year. I’d never had a class in business, but in the 35 years that followed, I managed to build a strong career as a VP Sales and Marketing and consultant.

From day one of my business life, I was obsessed with learning best practices in sales, marketing, and leadership. I gobbled up books in print, on tape, or CD. I listened voraciously during my work commute and bragged that I had my MBA from the University of Toyota. I’m ashamed to admit it now, but I made fun of people with actual MBAs. Almost none of the CEOs or sales/marketing directors who were my customers had advanced degrees, so it didn’t seem important. I was convinced that my work for my company was ‘real,’ and that what was taught in business school was at best theoretical and at worst totally irrelevant to my profession of publishing a scrappy little B2B trade journal in a niche market.

Fast forward to January 2020. I’m blessed to be married to a Duquesne professor, so I’m able to enjoy discounted tuition. I’m aware of the environmental movement and anxious to do my part. And for five years I’ve lived in envy of my nephew Josh who got his undergrad in Environmental Policy in order to help save the world. I applied for the MBA-SBP program and lost sleep every night until I heard back that yes, I’d been accepted. And now my new life could begin.

When the first day came, I was both excited and terrified. Like anyone who’s been out of school for a long time, I was nervous about tests, homework, and any course that involved math. But I was equally concerned about the age gap. Most of my cohort were in their early or mid 20s, with little or no professional work experience — and here I am, old enough to be their mother, with a big ego based on all I’ve learned in 35 years. What could I possibly learn from 20-year-olds? How could I treat them as respected peers when my nature would be to treat them like my kids?

I’m gobsmacked at how much I’ve learned – and how much I’ve changed. A few thoughts:

The learning experience at Duquesne is amazing. When I was in undergrad, we were terrified of our professors. And their feedback on our work was one-way: you turned in a test or paper, and if you did badly, it came back with lots of red ink and I didn’t learn from the experience. But here at Duquesne, every professor is gorgeously committed to our success. They love their topics and are passionate about us learning the content. And I am grateful and amazed they let us turn in an assignment early and offer the feedback and advice we need to turn in a better final product. I learn so much more in this process than I did as an undergrad.

My cohort is flippin’ brilliant. When you’re my age and looking for a job, age discrimination is top of mind. And the question we Baby Boomers dread most in the interview is, “how will you deal with having a boss who’s 20 years younger than you?” Before this program, my answer would have involved a lot of mumbling and looking sideways. But now, I can answer that every day in this program, one of my fellow cohort says something so brilliant it takes my breath away. Much to my surprise, I do truly see them as my peers — peers I admire greatly.

The value of working with a team. I spent decades leading a sales team. While we were all committed to the big goal of making the annual budget, sales is not a team sport like football or baseball. It’s more like a wrestling team: each individual’s work contributes to the overall score, but while you’re out on the mat, it’s just you vs your opponent and no one can help you. So in my 30+ years of work, I never needed anyone to help me get my own work done. But holy smokes, that changed with the summer project. I was blessed to have three teammates with fabulous and complementary talents – including skills I did not possess. Thanks to each individual contribution, we turned in a product I was very proud of – and I was keenly aware that I could not have done it on my own. In the many team assignments I’ve had since, this lesson has played out again and again. The teams I work with continue to put out a far better product than I could have done myself. Wowow what a learning experience!

This MBA curriculum is incredibly relevant and important. It started with that first Monday 9 am Accounting class this summer and hasn’t stopped since. The content we are learning is priceless and insanely relevant to my work experience. If I listed everything I’ve learned in just five months that is spot-on, laser-beam, bullseye applicable to the challenges and decisions I’ve faced in business, I’d run out of room. If you ask me which course is my favorite, I’d say, “whichever one I’m working on now!” BTW: no one should be allowed to graduate without an ethics course; every student who’s 40 or older should be required to take Bill Spangler’s Information Systems class lest they be discarded as a business dinosaur; and even for students my age, Christine’s Career Practicum offers nuggets of pure gold that will be invaluable in my job search.

In summary, enrolling in this program was the biggest and best decision I’ve made since May 1984. When I graduate, I will be a better business person and prepared for a new career that involves making the world a better place. To borrow from the Palumbo-Donahue School of Business’s tagline, I will be a difference-maker. And I will be so proud to follow the careers of my cohort, and hopefully get the privilege of working with a few of them.