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MBA For Working Professionals and The Story of 20%


The MBA For Working Professionals (MBA-WP) Class of 2021, whom those of us in the full-time residential MBA program fondly call “the WPs,” brought the house down at the December edition of ASB’s Action Learning Symposium a few weeks ago. The MBA-WP, which allows students to work full-time while completing the program, is still in its first year and very much an experiment for both the school and the students.

Unlike the full-time MBA program, the WPs fly in for class (or drive, if they live in Kuala Lumpur) every six weeks or so, temporarily putting their day jobs and family lives on hold as they switch into academic mode. But that balance is often difficult to achieve given how demanding ASB’s curriculum can be.

The Story of 20%

The WP presentation, titled “The Story of 20%,” was a simple but powerful reminder of just how far we’ve come as the Class of 2021, and how much of the journey – and how many challenges – still lay ahead.

The 20% in the title refers to the fact that we have all finished the first term of our five-semester MBAs. The Action Learning Symposium, a twice-a-year, end-of-semester capstone event at ASB, is a showcase of students’ semester-long projects and includes corporate hosts, external partners and friends of the school. Here’s what the students had to say about their first semester in the MBA-WP program.

Expectations v. Reality

There were many clashes between expectations and reality once the MBA started. “We are a bunch of workaholics already used to grinding. No weekends? No problem. How much worse could it get?” Paul Dylan Lim said of his initial impression.

WP students are required to be on campus for about a week at a time, joining those in the full-time residential MBA program for classes and group assignments. But unlike the full-timers, I’ve witnessed a few of my WP classmates jump from homework discussions to midnight conference calls with their colleagues in another time zone. Many of the WPs are senior managers in their respective companies, and work doesn’t stop because class is in session.

And while the full-timers typically get weekends off, classes stretch into Sunday – and sometimes public holidays – for WPs. “It’s a weekend to weekend commitment, and we have classmates who have to travel to ASB from Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam,” Paul said. “Ironically, those who fly in from Mexico are Malaysians.” For Rafael Böhm, it all started “with a smile.”

Everything was rosy in the beginning, but there was self-doubt too about why we were here among all these C-suite executives, he remembered thinking. “Those concerns were dispelled when they told us that each of us are here because we are extraordinary and unconventional,” Rafael said. Then the work began, and reality hit home.

Why is this so hard?

Unlike the full-time MBA, where students work in groups with host companies across the region, WP students complete Action Learning projects with their own companies, which they scope together with their managers. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less of a struggle.

“We picked our own [Action Learning] projects. So why is this so hard?” Nik Aisyah Amirah Mansor said when it was her turn to take the stage. “That’s the whole point. We are here to unlearn and re-learn.” To make the best use of their time on campus, the WP schedule is usually packed with working lunches and other appointments, on top of the multiple assignments all students – full-time and WP – have to finish every day. There were certainly moments when “it was just too much, and we asked ourselves what we were doing this for,” Nik Aisyah said.

Supportive student community

Thankfully, they are not doing this alone. “Because of you, we are here, and still alive,” said Surawut Sristhita of the entire ASB community. “The difference between success and failure is the team. Life is like a marathon, but we are only just getting started.” Mohd Ash Harith Mohd Raihan, who had the final word, said: “We’re picking ourselves up.” We know that 80% of the journey is still ahead of us, and there are many more mountains to climb.

But I couldn’t be more proud of my WP colleagues for all they have accomplished and are still accomplishing. To be in the inaugural WP cohort was a real leap of faith. One of my WP classmates told me recently, “You’re so brave to quit your job and do the MBA full-time.” I merely nodded, but my response should have been, “You’re the brave one.” My dear WPs, may we all have the courage to persevere together until the end.