"There's a big difference between getting an online MBA and an executive MBA program. You're surrounded by people who have already been executives. There are people who have been either where you are heading or who have perspective on it."
Pursuing an advanced degree has taken one University of Arkansas graduate student from the greens of a golf course to the blue of the world’s largest retailer.
Originally from Alpena, Arkansas, a town of just 300, Will Welch graduated with his undergraduate degree in agriculture education from Arkansas Tech University in Russellville. Out of college he used his degree to work as a ground supervisor at Blessings Golf Club for a few years but felt that it was not what he was called to do. Although the job gave him exposure to various careers and he got to see how people applied themselves, he realized he wanted a career that makes a difference.
“I like to joke and say that watching grass grow got a little bit boring, but really, I think a big part of it was seeing the environment that I was working to support was not actually delivering people something that helps them with their lives,” Welch said. “The golf course industry is really geared towards people who have made it, and I didn’t feel as if I was helping anybody, at least nobody that needed it. I wanted to do something more than that. I wanted to do something for people that carried some meaning to their life.”
When Welch decided to return to school to pursue a graduate degree, he spent a good bit of time reading and looking online, comparing traditional Master of Business Administration programs to online versions, and determined what benefits everything had.
“I'm a researcher,” Welch said. “I like to do research on things before I go and do it. There weren’t many hybrid programs where you got to come in once a month and network with executives and people that had business experience already. By doing a hybrid program and maintaining a portion of it online, I would be able to continue to work a full-time job, which was critical if I was going to take on loans and go to school. The University of Arkansas EMBA program just fit the bill spot on. The online program is what allows you to manage the life you've already built and attain further goals of education.”
Welch ultimately chose the hybrid Executive Master of Business Administration program ultimately because it allowed him the ability to work while going to school. Due to his family situation, it just was not in the cards for him to go back full time to college. About halfway through his degree, his parents split up, leaving his mother and two sisters living on their own. His middle sister is pursuing her doctorate in economics from Oklahoma State University so money stays a little tight over there, so Welch makes sure that they can get a little support.
Welch was one of 29 online students to receive the W.E. Manning Memorial Scholarship for online U of A students for the 2022-2023 academic year. One of the goals he had set for himself before embarking in the program was to continue to help his family financially while also managing his personal finances.
“Scholarships make it to where you can do those things and not have to worry about the aftereffects as much you can,” Welch said. “Any scholarships that I'm lucky enough to get helps with the overall goal. The W.E. Manning scholarship is one of the only reasons that I can do my education while switching careers while feeling like I can also support my family. The scholarship is allowing me an opportunity to give back more. I hope that everybody's able to use it that way.”
Welch currently lives in Bentonville, Arkansas. As a byproduct of going back to school to get his EMBA, he was able to secure a position in the associate merchant development program at Walmart. His job is to go through fundamentals of merchandising so that at the end of the 12-month training program he can be an effective associate merchant in the consumables area of Walmart. He credits returning to school for helping him land the job.
Before he graduates with his Executive Master of Business Administration this summer, he has an exciting opportunity to complete an overseas project in global business. Through a connection with a former U of A EMBA graduate, he has arranged to work with the consumables floor at the Walmart South American hub. For two weeks, Welch will go to Chile to work on his project.
“I've got some big shoes to fill, but I'm hoping that I can do something really meaningful,” Welch said.
The future is looking bright. Welch will finish the project, graduate with his EMBA, and complete his Walmart training program at the same time.
“I'll take both the EMBA that I would have just graduated with and the experiences I gained with it to start a role as an associate merchant,” Welch said. “From there, I'm hoping to build a meaningful career, not just climbing the ladder, but doing some common good while I'm at it.”
To those considering studying online, Welch recommends discipline and investment.
“If you're not willing to commit and be disciplined about what you're doing, you're not going to get the experience and learning that you could,” he said. “You have to have some self-drive.”
While Welch admits it is possible to just get through a degree program, he recognizes the importance of doing it well and taking advantage of all the benefits of the program, investing the time, effort, and discipline to make the most out of his degree. From seeking guidance from his program’s career coaches to having business discussions with his professors outside of class, Welch utilizes all the resources that the program has to offer.
“The two career coaches, Bill Ryan and Jeff McClelland, are fantastic,” Welch said. “I could not have made the switch to Walmart without them, and they continue to invest. They make sure to remind you that you're a U of A alumni for life, so call them anytime you need it. Dr. Stoverink, the program director, is so involved with the students and gets right down into what they're working on, what they're experiencing and working to make it better. I was talking to him about changing something about the program for my experience, and he connected me with somebody immediately. He is really good at his job, invested. I have enjoyed everyone that I've worked with and everybody in our program. It's been incredible.”
Although group projects are notorious for being some students’ worst nightmares, that is not the case for Welch’s group work experience now.
“As much as I hated them in my undergrad, I think group projects have been a much more pleasant experience in the graduate program,” Welch said. “The people I've interacted with have been great and I've made some real friends out of the groups.”
Welch directly applies what he learns in class and utilizes his professors’ expertise to his current job.
“Since the professors’ content is directly aligned with what I'm working on now, I've been able to stay in contact with them through my business discussions,” Welch said. “Dr. Chris Hofer, who encourages everyone to call him Chris, taught my demand and forecasting class. My job the last eight weeks or so was to build out E-commerce forecasting for the pets category of Walmart and even after I left his class, he encouraged me to send questions, talk to him, and try to really dial in my experience of forecasting through him. So that's been a really nice side of the program. He's an incredible professor.”
Welch is so pleased with his experience in the program that he has been actively recruiting people who talk about getting an MBA.
“There's a big difference between getting an online MBA and an executive MBA program,” Welch said. “You're surrounded by people who have already been executives. There are people who have been either where you are heading or who have perspective on it. Surrounding yourself with the type of people who know the business and know what makes a good employee has been a world of difference in my experience already. It's a different experience and I'd recommended it to anyone who's willing to put in the work.”