Tough Journey Toward a Master’s Was Worth the Trip
The year 1997 was very important for my family and me. In January, I was sworn in as a Member of the 105th Congress. That August, I was the student speaker at commencement exercises at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, where I was also the recipient of my master’s in business administration.
Each end of the story also has a beginning — six years earlier I was serving in my first term as Madison County treasurer.
Madison County, Ill., sits directly across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Mo., and is a county of 250,000. The county treasurer’s job is to collect property taxes and disperse them to the local governing entities and to manage the county’s financial portfolio.
During my first campaign for county treasurer in 1990, many questions were raised about what qualifications I had to serve in this position. My response was that as a graduate of the Military Academy at West Point and as an elected township official, I knew the key to effective leadership is to manage good and capable people in the various offices. The answer must have been good enough, because I was eventually re-elected as county treasurer in 1994.
I also knew because of my military experience, I had to not only manage but also lead. Leading by example is especially important; it is one of the core values instilled by West Point. In this position, the only way to lead by example was to get more experience. So in the spring of 1991, I started taking classes to obtain my MBA at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. My first two classes were Introduction to Marketing and Decision Supports Systems.
The MBA program at SIUE is accredited by the Association for the Advancement of Collegiate Schools of Business. The standard for successful completion is a B average with a six-year limitation from start to finish. SIUE offered weeknight and weekend classes.
I believe, as with most things in life, once you make the commitment to begin something it is important to see that commitment through to successful completion.
I will be honest: Working toward that end was not always easy. Not only was I the full-time county treasurer, but I also began my first campaign for Congress while still taking classes. In 1992 I ran for Congress in the newly redistricted 20th Congressional district of Illinois.
When that election was unsuccessful, I ran for re-election as county treasurer in 1994. Then in 1996, I won my election to Congress in an open seat left by now-Sen. Dick Durbin (D). I also had a growing family — my son David was born in 1993, and Josh was born in 1995.
None of this — my job, my campaigns and especially not the completion of my MBA — would have happened without an understanding spouse. The time commitments of all of this can be difficult for any family. SIUE is on a quarter system. There are four 10-week quarters each year.
Weeknight classes lasted four hours one night a week for each of those 10 weeks. There was also an option for weekend classes, which run from Friday night through Sunday for a total of 20 hours a weekend, two weekends each quarter. I am blessed to have an understanding wife who supported me in all my pursuits — including the completion of my MBA.
There was one point, in the fall of 1992, when I was taking a very difficult class in statistics. I was in the midst of my first campaign for Congress in a district that covered 19 counties.
Despite my efforts to balance my full-time job, the campaign and being both a husband and a student, something had to give at that point, and what gave was my grade. I had to retake a statistics class to maintain my B grade average.
Upon election to Congress in 1996, I was three classes short of qualifying to receive my MBA. To accomplish this, I took two of the weekend classes in the fall/winter quarter of 1996, for a total of four weekends in November and December — right after my election. I took the final class in two weekends in January and February, after becoming a Member of Congress.
I finished the required coursework exactly six years to the quarter after I began. I did not have to ask for an extension. I am very proud of this accomplishment.
The MBA was presented to me at the summer commencement program for graduates of SIUE, where I was the student speaker. In my remarks I spoke about education being the new frontier. I reminded the other graduates that often in life it is not the destination that matters, but the journey.
My MBA has not been used in the traditional sense, but the journey to receive it and what I learned in the process has been invaluable to me, not only as county treasurer, but also as a U.S. Congressman. It has given me a better understanding of business issues, a better background for budgeting and a better appreciation for those who daily risk their capital to create jobs to keep our economy moving.
As our family has expanded, with the addition of our third son, Daniel, it is all the more important for me to better understand the roles that business and continuing education play in our lives and our futures.
I also have a better appreciation for higher education overall and for those who seek to better themselves through higher education — especially while trying to balance a career, family and school. It is not easy, and the rewards are not always readily apparent.
It was in many ways a humbling experience, as the more we learn, the more we realize we don’t know. Although both tough and humbling, it was a journey I am glad I took.
Rep. John Shimkus is a Republican from Illinois.