Jennifer Stephens took heed of some solid advice she received during her time as an undergraduate student at Southern Oregon University.
"I had a marketing instructor [Mark Siders] who said very confidently, without a doubt, that, 'For people of our generation, having a master's degree is the equivalent of having an undergraduate degree,'" she recalled. "It really struck me that if I worked to have an undergraduate degree, I might as well take a couple of years to get some work experience, and then get a master's. I'm glad I did it when I did."
Stephens, who has three sons, graduated with a Master of Business Administration from SOU in 2011, five years after she earned a bachelor's degree in Business Administration with a concentration in Marketing and minor in Economics.
"I started talking to people, mentors of mine and other people, and telling them I was looking at MBA programs," she said. "My goal at that time was to become an executive in the credit union industry. The people who were in leadership said the point of differentiation was having a master's degree. They supported the idea that having that master's degree would be that next step for me."
Not long after she completed the MBA program, Stephens and her husband, Matt, moved to Austin, Texas, so he could complete an undergraduate degree program at the University of Texas.
"He was born in Round Rock [near Austin]," she said. "Before we had kids, he said, 'I want to live there.' It was always a dream of his to go back to Texas and be a Longhorn after growing up going to baseball games and being a bat boy. We moved there for three years. When we decided to grow our family, we moved back to central Oregon since this is where some of our family lives."
Twist of Fate
While growing up in Bend, Oregon, Stephens was involved with Girls State, a mock state legislature program.
"I was always interested in government and politics from that aspect," she said. "I had been an intern and a page growing up. I also did an internship with our local credit union during college. I formed their governmental affairs committee, and I got involved from that aspect. That's very unusual for an intern. When I moved to Austin, I was involved in Texas credit union advocacy, as well."
All of that experience paid off in a big way when she moved back to Bend in 2014. Matt landed a job as a research chemist, while Jennifer became campaign manager for Dr. Knute Buehler as he ran for the state legislature.
"This was where my master's degree really helped differentiate me from other people," she said. "I ended up working on a state legislature campaign and ran two of his campaigns to victory.
"In Oregon, with that seat, you only run every two years. So, the campaign is only nine months every other year. In off-season, what I'm doing now, I'm able to be self-employed and consult. If I did not have the MBA, I probably would not have the ability to do that."
In addition to working as a government affairs director, Stephens is preparing to work with candidates for local office -- while she also helps raise her three sons, Thomas (two-and-a-half years old) and twins Merle and Daniel (born in the summer of 2017).
"It's exciting," she said. "You normally wouldn't see a campaign manager that has an MBA. It's kind of an unusual situation. In that role, the MBA classes that helped me the most were some of the accounting classes. In the 2016 campaign, our budget was almost $1 million. That's a pretty substantial budget. To apply some of the accounting ideas and processes was helpful."
Right at Home
Stephens initially chose SOU after her parents agreed to help her pay for school if she stayed within driving distance of Bend. She went with SOU after she also visited Oregon State University.
"For me, it came down to, 'Do I want to be a big fish in a little pond or a little fish in a big pond?'" she said. "My whole experience with SOU for the undergrad and graduate program was the professors. You have a relationship you don't get at other universities.
"That personal connection made a huge difference. I formed lifelong friendships. I still stay in touch with some of my professors, which is really cool. I don't think I would have had that experience anywhere else."
Stephens was able to continue one of her passions while earning her MBA. After she was on the ski team at Mt. View High School, she was a ski instructor at Mount Ashland for two years. She initially followed in her father's footsteps by pursuing a career in the credit union industry.
"I definitely knew that was the direction I wanted to go," she said. "I didn't necessarily plan to go into the credit union industry -- it just kind of happened that way. Growing up, our dinner table conversations were about personal finance, business and community involvement and volunteering. It was something that was natural and I thought I would be interested in."
She held several different positions at credit unions, including teller, customer service representative, business continuity coordinator, security officer and branch manager, before she switched gears into consulting and government.
"My dad did his undergrad degree when my brother and I were both little," Stephens said. "I remember he did a remote program from the field, which was kind of unusual at that time. He has an undergrad degree, but I was the first to get a master's degree in my family or my husband's family. My family and friends were very supportive of that. They thought it was pretty cool."
Even with an unexpected change of careers, Stephens said the MBA course that had the most impact on her with every job she has held was Effective Feedback, the equivalent of current course MBA 575: Advanced Organizational Behavior.
"I have used the things I learned in that course, concepts and skills, in all areas of my life," she said. "When I graduated from this program and we moved to Austin, I was a branch manager. For the first time, I was giving employee performance reviews. That was the most immediate, actionable course because I could take it and use it in my professional life.
"It has also been really helpful in my personal life. Critical thinking was another class I really enjoyed that challenged me personally and professionally, as well."
Stephens is a great example of someone who has applied the knowledge from the MBA program to very different areas of the business world.
"People's motivation to get an MBA is interesting," she said. "You can get a master's degree in a variety of topics, but what's so unique about the MBA is there's something for everyone. It's a program that applies cross functionally to different industries.
"Even scientists, like my husband's coworkers, they will benefit from that program immediately and in their future -- skills, like communication, effective feedback, critical thinking. For me, it was my personal and professional life being in business, but there is an element of business that applies to everyone."
Learn more about the SOU online MBA program.
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