When Cheryl Oliver started working for Washington State University 17 years ago, her job was to transfer written applications to a new online system.
“We had to read people’s handwriting, type the information into one system, then retype it into another,” she recalled.
“I understood the system but was terrible at my job because I was so easily distracted.
“If I couldn’t read someone’s handwriting, I’d call the applicant. They’d usually have questions about campus, which I’d try to answer instead of passing them along to an adviser.
“Fortunately, my supervisor realized I might be better at training other people on the system than doing data entry myself.”
That promotion led to others, and now Oliver is assistant dean of WSU’s Carson College of Business online and graduate programs, including the online MBA and online executive MBA programs, which U.S. News & World Report ranks 12th best among 267 similar MBA programs nationwide.
During a recent interview, Oliver discussed painting rocks, family reunions and the right and wrong reasons to earn an MBA.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Oliver: In Spokane. My family moved to Pullman when I was a teenager, and I attended Pullman High School.
S-R: Did you have a favorite class?
Oliver: I really enjoyed Spanish.
S-R: How about extracurricular activities?
Oliver: I worked through most of high school and was a cheerleader.
S-R: What was your first job?
Oliver: When I was 6, I went door to door asking neighbors if I could wash their pets or cars for money.
S-R: What did you charge?
Oliver: I asked for something like $25, and people would laugh and say, “We’ll give you a dollar.” I was pretty confident in my abilities and naive about money. I also painted rocks and tried to sell them.
S-R: Any other jobs?
Oliver: When I was 16, I was hired by a real estate firm to be what they called a “Saturday girl” – which I don’t think you could call someone anymore – answering the phone, filing papers and typing up listings. I also worked at Taco Time.
S-R: What career did you envision for yourself?
Oliver: I didn’t have a clue.
S-R: Where did you attend college?
Oliver: I went to WSU and studied elementary education. Afterward, I moved back to Spokane and worked at Sylvan Learning Center, where I taught SAT prep on the weekend and tutored math and reading in the evening. I also substitute taught for District 81, Mead, and the Nine Mile School District.
S-R: Then what?
Oliver: I got a job in undergraduate admissions at WSU so I could start working on a master’s degree in higher education administration.
S-R: How did you end up at WSU’s College of Business?
Oliver: When the university went to a paperless application system, I demonstrated some technical skills as well as an ability to train people. Later, I was offered a position in the college’s graduate division. When we started the online MBA programs, I was invited to help architect those. And that’s how I ended up in my current job.
S-R: Your title is assistant dean. Were you ever a faculty member?
S-R: How many faculty in the college of business?
Oliver: Around 80.
S-R: And they work for you?
Oliver: In many regards, yes, they do.
S-R: Are there advantages or disadvantages to never having been a faculty member?
Oliver: It depends on who you ask. The advantage is I’m not trained to be the sole contributor in one discipline. I have a much more broad perspective. The disadvantage is because I haven’t been through that process, some people feel like maybe I don’t understand them or their work. So it’s really important for me to be respectful of what they’ve been through and be curious about how various disciplines complement one another and contribute to the overall product.
S-R: Did you complete that master’s in higher ed administration?
Oliver: I did, in 2009. And now I’m studying for my MBA.
S-R: Did any skills learned bathing pets, painting rocks or answering phones transfer to your role as assistant dean?
Oliver: Yes. All those things I did when I was younger helped me understand what motivates me – creating things others can enjoy. I also learned – particularly through cheerleading – that I enjoy seeing other people win. That helps me think about what our students need and how we can help them meet their goals.
S-R: How many students are in your online MBA programs?
Oliver: We have 460 enrolled in the online MBA program and 100 in the executive MBA program. The executive program is tailored to people who have at least seven years of experience at the managerial level. The average age of students in that program is 42, compared with an average age of 27 for students in the online MBA program. Both programs result in a master’s in business administration diploma from WSU, but the way faculty interact with those students is different, depending on experience level.
S-R: How about other demographics?
Oliver: Sixty-seven percent of the students are male. Most live in the Northwest, and 20 percent are either active-duty service members or veterans.
S-R: Is being ranked 12th best by U.S. News & World Report important?
Oliver: Yes, but it’s not something we pursue. We don’t look at U.S. News metrics and say, “How can we score highly in these areas?”
S-R: Do you think WSU’s online program deserves to be ranked 12th in the country?
Oliver: I think we’re very high. We were one of the first to go entirely online. (WSU discontinued its Pullman-campus MBA program last fall. It still offers face-to-face programs in Vancouver and the Tri-Cities.) We’ve been very intentional about creating an online program that gives people the tools they need to make an immediate impact in their careers or their community and also develop skills that may lead to increased earnings, job satisfaction or opportunities to switch careers. In that regard, I think we’re one of the top schools in the country.
S-R: Applications to MBA programs have declined nationally in recent years. What has the trend at WSU been since you became assistant dean three years ago?
Oliver: Our number of applications continues to increase and our enrollment continues to grow. One reason MBA applications are declining elsewhere is that more specialized programs are entering the market: prospective students going to boot camp for coding; becoming a project manager; getting specific certifications for the next job.
S-R: How do you persuade potential applicants of the value of WSU’s MBA compared with another school’s?
Oliver: It’s different than trying to sell products for profit. We cater to people who want an accredited degree at a very valuable price point and want to be part of something bigger than themselves over the longer term. We talk a lot about Cougar Nation, Cougar spirit, being part of the Cougar family. Other programs may be more exclusive – some even base their marketing on the fact that you may not be able to get in.
S-R: How many applications do you accept?
Oliver: We don’t limit the seats. But we do require people have a bachelor’s or professional degree before they enter the program, meet our GPA threshold, pass an entrance exam and have references. If we can take someone who struggled a bit in school, put them through the program, and they go out and get a great job or contribute to their community, that’s a win. As a land-grant university, that’s our focus.
S-R: Do older applicants struggle with the program’s virtual-classroom nature?
Oliver: That’s actually the population that’s most engaged. They find a way to make it work.
S-R: Years ago, one selling point of an MBA was the opportunity to network with other future business leaders. Can students make those connections in an online program?
Oliver: They can. It’s fascinating to watch how our students create their own networks – how they become friends, advise one another and help each other find jobs.
S-R: What have you brought to the program?
Oliver: A willingness to push forward with what I know is good for our customers, good for the university and good for our college, even if we’re not sure of it at the time. For instance, we’re exploring ways to provide better career services to students in our program.
S-R: What have you learned from setbacks?
Oliver: I think I’m probably wrong more than I’m right. The fun thing about an online environment is that its newness makes it more accepting of mistakes.
S-R: What’s a good leadership lesson you’ve learned?
Oliver: Trust that people want to do a good job. Then figure out what contribution they might be best at making and foster that.
S-R: Any changes on the horizon?
Oliver: We’ve just filled a new position: faculty director of the online MBA program. Suzanne L’Amoureux, previously acting associate director of student affairs for the University of North Carolina’s MBA@UNC program, will join us in early March.
S-R: What is the right reason to get an MBA?
Oliver: To make an investment in oneself – to have the tools to start a business or provide those skills to a nonprofit organization.
S-R: What’s the wrong reason?
Oliver: Because you think you’re going to get a fancy car and a corner office, and be in charge of a whole bunch of people. That’s a possibility, but it’s not a great motivation.
S-R: What’s graduation like for your far-flung online MBA community?
Oliver: Many of our students have never even been to Pullman, so they finally get to meet their advisers and fellow students in person. It’s like a family reunion, complete with hugs and tears and selfies. I love it!
Writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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