Getting my MBA 30 years after my MD

After my term as a lieutenant colonel in the United States Air Force, I could join the Air Force Reserves, go back to school or work as a pediatrician. I chose school and work.

I had no specific “why,” since I earned the VA educational funds, it was more like “why not?” My friends and family had mixed reactions. Never one to dwell on a thought, I jumped in before I lost my nerve. Coincidentally, I was in great company since my son and spouse were both students as well!

I wondered how I would manage work, school and “mommy-ing.” I initially wanted the combined MBA/MPH program, but fear and doubt discouraged me — so the MBA it was. I put my best “Naija Igbo Woman” foot forward and started the regular MBA. The first semester was a breeze (or was it?) I was going back to school in the tech age! What?

It was reminding me of when I first came to the USA; attending an American school was full of new experiences.

I was the oldest student in a class with millennials. What struck me was their attitudes towards the work. They showed up late and didn’t often do their portion of the schoolwork. This bothered me so much that I considered disenrolling. Luckily, my adviser suggested the executive MBA program instead.

Once I understood what an executive MBA was, I was sold. However, some “friends” queried the “executive-ness” of it. “Is it a watered-down MBA? “Is it an online/electronic EMBA?” “Are you going to have a real MBA degree afterward?” and, “Why are you going back to school, aren’t you tired?”

Hmm … how does one respond to all that love?

Either way, I got in, and I was already enrolled in the school of business, I only needed an intradepartmental transfer.

My executive MBA cohort were people closer to my age — adults. We had a lot in common. They were experienced and wanted to do their schoolwork — my kind of people. We were different yet similar. There were veterans, foreigners, parents, divorcees, and one other one black person, a Nigerian like me.

The school system was a challenge for me. Folks call their professors by their first names. Huh? Not in Nigeria, tufiakwa! I graduated in the early 90s. We had real chalkboards, not smartboards. Our blackboards were not virtual; they were black and present in the classroom. I had no concept of office-hours or what it meant to access library books online and to “check them out” virtually.


As the only physician and one of only two blacks of the cohort, I had no one else wearing my exact shoes. I had to weather statistics alone. (I had biostatistics in med school, sensitivity and specificity — not ANOVA or covariance analysis). Since I hate numbers, accounting and finance and Excel were nightmares! They made for many a tear-filled day at the professors’ offices. Every now and again, I felt lonely and left out, but my resilience and adaptability would kick in, and I would win little battles.

Macroeconomics was good, but not micro. The professor works for the federal reserve; he is a kindly older gentleman with a thick Texan accent and a friendly smile. I spent many afternoons in his office at the federal building in downtown San Antonio. Corporate Restructuring was okay until we got into the calculations. As a wordsmith, organizational behavior was great. Ethics was a bit confusing. Marketing, negotiations, business strategy, and international business studies were easy. Executive coaching, an elective, was with one cool chica who once worked for NASA. She is equal part brains, beauty, class and control.

I love reading and discussions, so my favorite subject was leadership. Our professor was cool and soft-spoken, the cases were interesting and thought-provoking. I enjoyed learning about exemplary leaders and about my own flavor of leadership. The TEDx talk we each had to give at the end of the class was the icing on the cake.

Mine talk was on the power of the word “no.”

The highlight of the program was our 12-day international trip to South East Asia. The 17-hour flights only fueled the excitement I felt in seeing Singapore and Vietnam. I can’t quite articulate Singapore — its clean streets, ultramodern architecture, eclectic suburbs, fine dining, high-end shopping, educated minds, and multiracial indigenes all living harmoniously despite differences in religion, language, customs, and cultures. A hard lesson for all African countries to learn (sadly). Singapore welcomed me with open arms. I even sang karaoke with a local band at a pub.

Vietnam was different. More real, dirtier, noisier, almost “happier” than Singapore. We visited the Crocs factory, dined with locals in a traditional Vietnamese home, and took a canoe ride on the river to the coconut village, where our senses were mesmerized aromas of coconut. Since I am a tropical chick, this was home. I ended the trip, by finishing the final edits of my first book on the plane ride home.

I shall miss school. I am proud to say that I completed the MBA and can now print out my new business card with all five letters in their proper order MD, MBA. I earned it — albeit 30 years after my MD. I am hopeful for the doors it will open for me.

I had no reason why I did it: I did it because I could, because the funds were available, or simply just because.

I’d like to end with this: Follow your heart, try something new, push yourself.

What is holding you back from following and fulfilling your dreams? Remember, life is what happens while you are busy planning. So get off your phone, get off your couch and just do it.

Uchenna Umeh is a pediatrician and can be reached at Teen Alive and on Facebook and YouTube.

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