A Valentine's Day Tribute to B-School Partners Programs

How are business schools making their students' loved ones feel part of their MBA programs?

Some MBA students come to business school already with a Valentine in the form of a spouse or partner. A few of them even have children. Unlike other graduate school programs, MBAs tend to be in their early 30s, a time when many people have already settled down or are on the verge of it.

Business schools recognize students with a partner or family have unique needs. As a result, most top programs offer services to help.

“The individual benefit I would gain from an MBA would be worthless if my family were miserable,” says Jeff Mannion, a Class of 2018 MBA student at University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School. “I can’t imagine uprooting them or taking the risk of giving up income if I didn’t feel they would truly be part of the journey with me.”

In fact, Mannion says he gave up a full scholarship at another program to join the Kenan-Flagler school because his family was truly included in the community. At Kenan-Flagler, families are always welcome, and they are at most of the big events on campus, says Mannion.

Most business schools provide some level of support and inclusion for students’ families. At orientation, partners or spouses are usually introduced to the program and community. School staff and students try to communicate how the work of a business school student influences his or her family. They might also provide information on the surrounding city or town, and answer questions about adjusting to this new life.

The most obvious way business schools support the partners, spouses, and children of their students is through a club or organization just for them. These groups help spouses of students – and their children – connect with others in a similar situation. The clubs organize social and professional events and serve as a support group of sorts.

At University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business, the Darden Partners Association (DPA) oversees numerous events and programming. The first interaction families have with DPA is orientation. Spouses learn about the case study method, recruiting, and a day in the life of a Darden student, says Edward Warwick, associate director of Student Affairs at Darden.

Those in the group share contacts and resources for services, such as counseling or psychological support. But they also plan social events, such as an annual Halloween party and International Thanksgiving dinner for international students.

“In many cases, partners/families have made major life-altering decisions, changes, and sacrifices when choosing to pursue an MBA program—letting go of careers, moving away from support networks and family, and for some, even moving to a new country,” says Warwick. “Pursuing an MBA program is rigorous—often requiring a student to spend the majority of each day on grounds in classes, studying, and recruiting. It’s important that partners/spouses and families not only feel prepared for this experience, but feel supported and engaged throughout this experience.”

Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management has two clubs, one for spouses and partners, Joint Ventures (JV), and another for parents and children, Kellogg Kids. At Kellogg, spouses can sign up for any club and visit any class with the professor’s permission. Every Friday, Kellogg families gather for entertainment and pizza, an event that coexists with the TGIF events for adults.

“Many student partners are sacrificing their own careers and uprooting from their network, to accompany their students on their Kellogg journey,” says Wendy Metter, associate director of Student Life at Kellogg. “Providing resources, support, and programming makes the decision easier for students and makes the overall experience advantageous to all.”

One other way schools help is through education and jobs. Yale School of Management encourages partners and spouses to audit classes, attend events and conferences on campus, and seek employment assistance.  

“The contribution of the partners to our culture is invaluable, and engaging with partners always serves to strengthen a robust, inclusive culture,” says Sherilyn Scully, assistant dean of Academic Affairs and Student Life, dean of students at Yale SOM. “If the perspective of a community stakeholder, such as a partner, is not cultivated, we all miss out as the diverse perspectives are vital in creating a positive culture.”

Scully is herself a spouse of a Yale SOM MBA graduate. She fondly remembers her husband’s graduation more than 30 years ago. Every year during the commencement, the school asks graduates to turn to the audience and applaud it for the support these loved ones have provided. The symbolic gesture is meaningful to Scully, she says, because it shows how Yale values extend to the entire community.

Families of students learn to live in harmony. A few schools offer special housing opportunities to families. This is the case at Kenan-Flagler.

“It’s not strictly an MBA resource, but having Baity Hill Graduate and Family Housing so close to school is a great asset. It’s easier to get home and see your family during what little breaks you get during the day, and it helps with information-sharing as we all kind of figure out things to do in the area, schools, doctors, etc.,” says Mannion. “It’s also brought some of the global exposure that’s a draw to the MBA program to our family as well. Our kids get to play every day with buddies from all over the world. That’s pretty cool.”

Ultimately, it makes good business sense to help the families of students. But it’s also the right thing to do, and top business schools are all for it.

“Our goal is to support, educate, and develop the whole student, and for many, that includes their partner/spouse and family,” says Warwick. “Deciding to pursue an MBA is a big decision, and for many, it isn’t a decision that is made on their own.”

Francesca Di Meglio

Francesca Di Meglio has written about higher education for two decades. She covered business schools and all aspects of management education for what became Bloomberg Businessweek from May 2004 to December 2013. Di Meglio was the consultant editor for the book Admitted: An Interactive Workbook for Getting into a Top MBA Program (85 Broads Publishing, 2011), which was written by admissions consultant Betsy Massar. In addition, she is a family travel and parenting blogger at the Italian Mamma website

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