A new job. A nonprofit organization. An online master's degree program. Suzanne Johnson started all three in 2016.
"My husband, Brandon Rodgers, made a big post when I finished school," she said. "Somebody commented, 'I remember when you told me that you were starting everything around the same time. I literally thought you were insane.' I did feel insane a few times, but it was definitely well worth it."
Johnson graduated from Boise State's online Master of Business Administration program in May 2018. She also earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Boise State 16 years earlier and planned to earn a doctorate in order to teach at the college level.
Then, she went to camp.
"After graduation, I needed a summer job," Johnson said. "On a whim, I worked at a camp for adults and kids with disabilities in Virginia. I fell in love with it. I knew it was what I wanted to do with my career. I came back, and I was lucky enough to get a job in that field. I've never stopped working in that field."
In 2005, Johnson's son, Noah, was born with a chromosome abnormality and autism, making her decision to change careers seem like destiny.
"It all lined up with the path that I was on," she said. "My master's is an MBA and my bachelor's is an English degree. A lot of people thought I would go into social work, but it's turned out that all of my roles have been in management. I really wanted a degree that would help further my knowledge in that area specifically. That's why I chose to go forward and get my MBA. I wanted something that was relevant."
Apple of Her Eye
Born and raised in Lewiston, Idaho, Johnson co-founded the Green Apple Project with Ruthie Prasil, who now lives in Portland. With this nonprofit organization, the duo focused on the need for education, awareness and support for people with disabilities in the Lewis Clark Valley area.
"We both have children with autism," Johnson said. "I had a child with autism and I work in the field. Now, we're run by a board, which has been extremely helpful. It took time to get members who are the right fit, but it feels like there's a lot less pressure on me now than there used to be."
The Green Apple Project was also one of the primary reasons Johnson chose an MBA program over a Master of Social Work program.
"Starting a nonprofit from the bottom up was really eye-opening to how much I didn't know and needed to learn," she said. "The MBA program has been really helpful with that -- especially the Design Thinking and Strategic Management [BUSMBA 501] class and thinking outside of the box with marketing. A lot of people might think that you wouldn't get an MBA if nonprofit is part of your world, but it was actually tremendously helpful."
The online MBA curriculum was especially beneficial for learning about budgets and strategic planning for the Green Apple Project.
"We've never done any of that," she said. "I found that a lot of my master's program was even more helpful for starting the nonprofit than my actual 9-to-5 job because we're starting from scratch. It was one of those things where you think, 'Other people do that, but I never could.'
"Once we nailed down what our vision would be, it was good. It's perfect timing because I just finished my master's degree and we're two years into the Green Apple Project. We are about to start our first round of strategic planning. It will really tie in well with my MBA."
No Time to Spare
With all of the commitments in Johnson's life outside of school, the online format was an essential element for her to add the MBA program to her plate.
"There was no way for me to do it traditionally," Johnson said. "Initially, I was not a fan of online because I felt I would miss the classroom aspect. I didn't, which was weird. I'm self-motivated and accountable to myself.
"At the same time, I had to learn a lot about time management and prioritizing what comes first and what comes next. Although not an actual class, it's something that you have to learn while you're going through this process. The flexibility of the online program is key for anybody who's working and has a family."
By the time Johnson graduated, she found the experience every bit as satisfying as her time on campus at Boise State for the undergraduate program.
"I felt like I was going to lose something by taking it online, but I didn't walk away thinking, 'This would have been better in the classroom,'" she said. "Maybe if it was social work or something like that, I would have.
"With this particular degree, I didn't feel like I was missing anything by not having the classroom element. Reading the material and having access to the professor was enough for me to feel like I got everything I needed in the program."
Her favorite course was the capstone, BUSMBA 555: Business Plan Development.
"I was so nervous about taking that course, because I knew other people who had taken it, and I knew the work that was going to go into it," Johnson said. "Dr. [Jeffrey] Sugheir was amazing and approachable. It really mattered who you had as a teacher. While that course was definitely the hardest, it was also the best course."
Providing and receiving support have been mainstays in Johnson's life. The latter was a necessity during her time in the online MBA program.
"I couldn't have done it without the support of my family and friends," she said. "We have a child with special needs, so we need a lot of support in our lives and we have it. Everybody was excited. It's hard to be finished. Now, I think, 'Do I want another master's? Do I want my doctorate?' I will definitely get my doctorate at some point."
In fact, Johnson still yearns to become a college professor sometime down the road -- perhaps at Boise State.
"Teaching has always appealed to me," she said. "Green Apple will always be a part of my life. I see myself being on the board for at least five years. I love leadership and all of the aspects that come with management, like setting revenue goals, developing a strategic plan and keeping everyone motivated and on track.
"I still feel like there's a lot of growing that I can do and a lot of work that I want to do in the nonprofit world and in management. Now, I could even teach adjunct online. I might test the waters out in that area."
Johnson especially likes how an online format allows students to plan their lives around school.
"You have to have good time-management skills and hold yourself accountable," she said. "Without those two things, going the non-traditional route for schooling is really difficult. Online is not, 'It's Sunday night. I'm going to throw a paper together and turn it in.' That does not work.
"That's one of the good things about it. You can look at your week and what you have going on with your family and what's coming up that weekend. Really analyzing your time is key. It's 100 percent doable if you're passionate about furthering your career and your own development. It's doable for anyone who has that drive."
No matter what challenges Johnson takes on in the future, she is confident the knowledge she gained in the online MBA program will help her meet them head on.
"I believe that a master's degree is now needed to be competitive in the workforce," she said. "I foresee that it will open up a lot of opportunities. I'm really happy with where I am. You never know what's going to happen -- especially when Medicaid is the main source of income for the field you work in. I'm glad that I have the MBA in case I need a backup plan. It definitely makes me more competitive."
Learn more about the Boise State online MBA program.
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