Life was already busy for Sam and Felicia Brownell, but when the couple enrolled in the Flex Track MBA at Villanova School of Business, a three-year programme for working professionals, their schedule became jampacked.
The Delaware pair both work full time – Sam is a pharmaceuticals executive and Felicia is director of financial reporting at an asset manager in Philadelphia – and they have five children ranging in age from three to 16. “We joke that neither one of us wanted to be home with the kids while the other was in school,” says Felicia.
While the Brownells take every class together, carving out time with each other outside of school is hard. They also admit they are very competitive. “I always say that in class he’s not my husband,” Felicia says. “He has a very different perspective, and we don’t always agree.”
But they both maintain that business school has been a good experience in their relationship. “I have learned more about her,” says Sam. “In class, I see different facets of her personality and I appreciate her in a different light.”
Not every couple is as lucky. Indeed, business school is notoriously hard on partnerships. From adjusting to a new city, to meeting people, to getting used to a schedule where the student is stretched between home activities and coursework, MBA programmes often create romantic casualties. “There’s going to be a huge amount of time sucked away from the person who is doing the MBA programme, so the spouse has to set expectations accordingly,” says Michael Cohan, head of MBAPrepAdvantage, an admissions consulting company.
Few business schools keep up-to-date records about how many MBAs are married. But according to the Graduate Management Admission Council’s 2001 survey of business school students, 48 per cent of MBA students are married or in a domestic partnership. That is why business schools all over the world are working increasingly hard to appeal to students’ companions.
Most MBA programmes have a dedicated social and professional programme for married students. At the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, a student-run family life committee, for instance, aims to include spouses in campus activities as much as possible.
The joint ventures group at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, runs the school’s programmes for spouses and significant others, and helps partners with employment assistance and opportunities for charity work.
Some business schools also offer clubs for gay and bisexual students. Out for Business, at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, aims to build up the community among the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, but also helps partners find a social outlet.
Cohan, whose firm is based in Miami, says that both spouses ought to get involved with the school’s extra curricular activities if they want to make their relationship work. In addition, he says, the MBA student ought to try to include his or her spouse as much as possible in study groups or social events.
Kyle and Mia Reini married two days before his student orientation at Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame. “I joke that we took our honeymoon in South Bend, Indiana,” he says.
Mendoza’s programme, like other MBA programmes, is all-consuming. Students are in class from the early morning until dinner time, and in the evenings there are meetings, recruiting interviews, speaker events and study groups. Mia didn’t know what she was in for as the wife of an MBA student. “I went to law school, but I didn’t realise what business school was: a lot of group work, a lot of hours, and a lot of time away from home,” she says.
She has, however, adjusted nicely. She has a full-time job as an attorney at the general counsel’s office at Notre Dame, does charity work regularly, and has made new friends, many of them partners of MBA students.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much the school plans for spouses,” Mia says. “It’s a big adjustment, and it can be isolating if you don’t have a support system. You’re in a new place, with a new house and a new job. A lot of us had great lives and careers before this.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge of business school for couples is finding time to spend together. Kyle says he has made it a priority to keep his weekends as school-free as possible. “It’s not just about you,” he says. “Some days you have to put in a 16- or 18-hour day so that you can have Saturdays and Sundays with your spouse.”
Keya Gohil, who runs the joint ventures group at Kellogg, says the school allows spouses to participate in many clubs, attend school-sponsored conferences, and even sit in on classes. “It’s an inclusive environment,” says Keya, who is originally from India and moved to Evanston, Illinois, from Washington DC, when her husband, Pranav, started there.
Keya attended a class in technology marketing, and joined a class trip to India as part of her husband’s global immersion in management course. “Professors are welcoming,” she says. “It’s almost as though [partners] can get an MBA free of charge. More than anything, they get to network with some really bright Kellogg students.”
There are also dedicated support networks for partners of gay students. Dante Mastry, president of Out for Business at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, recommends that before selecting a school, prospective students research the school’s gay affinity groups to determine how active they are to get a sense of the gay community on campus.
“They should try to find an environment that is supportive to them, and look for schools that show a visible community,” says Mastry, who is specialising in digital marketing.
There are, of course, many couples who meet on an MBA programme. Business school is an intensely social environment, and romance often blooms during late-night cram sessions, group project preparation, or a student-organised happy hour.
Nicole and Doug Massey, for instance, met at maths camp in the weeks before starting their MBA programme at the Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley. They began dating shortly afterwards.
“The fact that we were in school meant that we spent a lot of time together, but our spheres on campus were pretty separate,” says Doug, who works in marketing. “We were in different groups, we only had a couple of classes together, and we participated in different clubs and activities.”
Most couples who met at business school say that having a partner who is also an MBA student often reduces some of the pressures of adapting to a new school and a rigorous academic programme because they are experiencing the same things.
Nicole, who works in brand management, says this was particularly true on the job front. “We were both career switchers, and it was helpful to have someone going through it with me – to bounce ideas off of, and to provide perspective,” she says.