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Learning has always been important to me – in formal and informal settings.

At the moment, I am balancing part-time education with full-time employment in a healthcare organisation in Ontario; aligning my studies with my career path to attain job success and satisfaction.

By May 2009, I thought a graduate study programme was the next logical step in my academic pursuits. I also felt it was a necessity to prepare and position myself to advance to a senior leadership role.

At the time I made this decision, I was employed at William Osler Health System, a hospital group, as corporate manager of telecommunications and patient registration and admission, a job I held for about 10 years.

During a coaching session, one of Osler’s senior leaders recommended Athabasca University to me as a place to study. I had decided to opt for distance learning and, based on my coach’s testimonial of her positive experience there, I chose Athabasca.

The AU distance learning model was well established, mature and seemed reliable from an IT perspective.

The flexibility of distance learning was most appealing, as I had often found it draining to work full-time and commute to Toronto while raising two school-aged children during my previous studies at Ryerson University.

I have to admit, returning to academic study while I was still working full-time at Osler was quite taxing.

The study workload was heavy and varied depending on the subject matter and my own level of knowledge.

I spent anywhere from 20 to 60 hours a week on course work and each week there was a tremendous amount of required reading, along with assignments that made us apply concepts covered in the reading, and participation in online class discussions.

What I enjoyed most was the opportunity to explore strategic business concepts in the context of my organisation and industry.

I was often challenged to apply concepts in our non-profit sector, but have expanded my “translation” skills and knowledge of healthcare strategy in the process.

Working on an applied project for nearly six months was the most challenging and rewarding part of my experience.

I had the benefit of one-on-one coaching with one of the faculty, who is an expert in her field. This was much like having a personal trainer for half a year, coaching me on my topic, as well as the art of graduate-level writing.

I have also developed deeper understanding and expertise on the topic of organisational change as it applies in hospitals; a subject that continues to gain importance in healthcare.

Balancing job, study and the rest of my life was the biggest challenge.

I certainly struggled in the beginning, until about halfway through my first course, when I figured out a routine that worked. I read at the weekend, posting my initial assignment on Monday or Tuesday, and got up early to read the class discussion threads every day.

I often pondered the different comments throughout the day and talked to colleagues to gain insights and perspectives on the weekly discussion topics, then added my contributions to the class discussions in the evenings after supper.

Developing a work plan in advance and being disciplined were vital. There were many occasions where I took a vacation day from my job to focus on an assignment, which I planned for well in advance.

Support from my husband was also critical, as he absorbed most of the “tasks of daily living” so I could study.

He also provided a “live audience” with whom I could discuss my thoughts and ideas before I posted my contributions to class discussions.

My fellow students were wonderful. Everyone I interacted with faced similar challenges and sacrifices.

People were open and generous in sharing their knowledge and experience of a variety of industries as well as their support and encouragement. We learnt from each other and I noticed how my writing skills and those of my classmates advanced.

Since I enrolled in the MBA, I have been seconded to two corporate projects in a position of leadership.

Both these opportunities have provided me with more knowledge in the clinical and political arenas of Osler, and have raised my profile.

I have honed my business strategy knowledge, which I can use in any industry. I am confident that I will soon have an opportunity to apply my skills, enhanced by my studies, at a senior management level.

Although the road I have travelled has been long and, at times, arduous, requiring discipline and dedication, the reward has been worth it.

We live in times of profound change and I believe we do ourselves a disservice if we are not always striving to develop and improve.

Much of what I have learnt in the programme transcends business concepts. I have learnt a great deal about myself as a leader, a follower, a student, and as a person.

Three years of reading, writing and reflecting have changed me.

I am clearer about my goals and motivation. My confidence and determination to lead and transform an organisation have never been stronger.

Brigida Scholten will complete her third and final year of the Athabasca Online Executive MBA at the end of April

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