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Veterans Bring Diverse Perspectives to the Wisconsin School of Business

By Wisconsin School of Business

November 9, 2018

“If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” —Gen. George S. Patton Jr.

Following two tours in Afghanistan, Will Fluharty (MBA ’19) longed to get back to his Midwest roots. The West Point graduate also wanted an MBA. He began poring over data from various business schools where he might accomplish both objectives. Then came the call from Libby Davis, assistant director of MBA admissions and recruitment at the Wisconsin School of Business.

At Davis’ suggestion, Fluharty scheduled a visit to UW–Madison. Not long after arriving here, Will called his wife and told her to start planning for a move. He had fallen in love with the city, the campus, and the Wisconsin MBA Program. It felt like home.

A man looks to the camera aboard a military vehicle
Will Fluharty (MBA ’19), U.S. Army

“I knew I would be part of the family. I knew I would be taken care of from day one,” says Fluharty.

For veterans who miss the camaraderie of military service, this sense of community is very important.

“First and foremost, the Army is a people business,” says Fluharty. “A lot of civilians see movies or video games and they think life in the infantry is all about blowing stuff up. More than anything, it’s about learning how to build relationships with people and getting them to trust you, and ultimately building a family. Once you do that, you’re capable of accomplishing some pretty cool things.”

University officials value those transferable skills, says Davis. “Veterans bring strong leadership experiences, problem-solving skills, perseverance, adaptability, and creative thinking. At the School, we hold these in high regard as do our corporate partners. Veterans have qualities and experiences that are in demand by the business community.”

“It was a natural transition to business school,” says Fluharty. “The leadership skills you pick up in the military are some of the most sought after assets you can have. I feel like I can work with anyone, lead anyone, take control of any team, and be successful.”

Civilians often misunderstand military leadership, says Associate Professor Jon Eckhardt, executive director of the Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship at the Wisconsin School of Business, who worked in military intelligence while serving in the Army.

Eckhardt notes, “They sometimes think that the power structures—or the ability to give another individual a command that they must follow—is what drives outcomes. Nothing could be further from the truth. Soldiers won’t be effective and put themselves in harm’s way if they don’t trust their leadership and the goals that are being pursued. Military leadership is about vision-setting and building trust.”

“Experience is the difference,” says Air Force veteran Jordon Schultz (BBA ’19). “Having traveled to 16 countries and having worked with people from all over the world, I’ve had a variety of experiences that I can bring into the classroom.” As an airman, Schultz was responsible for maintaining the gear that fighter pilots depend on, including parachutes, helmets, G-suits, and survival gear. That job took him around the world and presented some unique real-world challenges. Now as a Wisconsin BBA student specializing in operations and technology management and supply chain management, he calls upon those memories and shares them with fellow students.

“A lot of the things we discuss in class, I’ve seen before,” says Schultz, “but now I get to understand the broader principles. I lived the situation. Now I’m learning the why. When we are asked to come up with case studies or scenarios, I draw upon my real-world experiences.”

Two people in the U.S. Air Force shake hands
Jordon Schultz (BBA ’19), right, U.S. Air Force

“That’s what a public university should be,” says Fluharty. “It’s a place that welcomes many perspectives. That diversity among our students is one of this program’s greatest strengths.”

After leaving the Air Force, Schultz enrolled at another Wisconsin college where he studied engineering. He felt that field was too narrow, and he had trouble connecting with fellow students. When he came to UW–Madison, however, he found the right fit and the right major.

“I enjoy studying business because it offers so much variety,” says Schultz. “I also value the prestige that comes with the Wisconsin School of Business name. That means everything.”

Zeke Herson-Ortolan (BBA ’21) enlisted in the Army as an infantryman, and served with the storied 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment. That’s the spit-and-polish unit that conducts solemn memorial services at Arlington National Cemetery. Soldiers guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and staff high-profile military ceremonies in the nation’s capital. Their movements are choreographed and their appearance is highly scrutinized.

Says Herson-Ortolan, “I thought being a soldier meant getting dirty. Instead, I got clean. Very, very clean.”

Herson-Ortolan grew up in Sun Prairie thinking that UW–Madison would forever be out of reach. As a teen, he was not focused on grades, and his high school transcript reflected that indifference. Having learned something about discipline and perseverance in the Army, he spent a year at a community college to confirm his classroom capabilities, then applied to his dream school.

Profile view of man in U.S. Army uniform
Zeke Herson-Ortolan (BBA ’21), U.S. Army

“The Army definitely taught me how to work toward a goal or objective,” he says. “It gave me a sense of purpose. If I want things in life, I need to put in the effort. Through a bit of pain-and-suffering, you learn that if you put in the work, people take notice.” Herson-Ortolan is now working toward his BBA in management and human resources.

Louise Opotowsky (BBA ’19) describes a similar path to college that began when she enlisted in the Navy months after her high school graduation. She was assigned to the USS George Washington, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, spending her days in the ship’s power plant monitoring control panels and fixing electric turbines. If you think life aboard an aircraft carrier is all thrills and chills like the “Top Gun” movie, Opotowsky will set you straight.

“I remember a lot of cleaning and broom-pushing, and lots of safety drills,” says Opotowsky. “I was looking forward to doing something different, but I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do. Then I got a job at a bank, servicing loans. That’s when I get interested in business.”

She applied to UW–Madison, but did not get accepted her first time around. Disheartened but not defeated, she enrolled at Madison College to demonstrate that she was capable of academic success. Her perseverance paid off. Today, her work ethic and her experience are serving her well at the Wisconsin School of Business, where she’s working on her BBA in finance.

“Veterans bring strong leadership experiences, problem-solving skills, perseverance, adaptability, and creative thinking. At the School, we hold these in high regard as do our corporate partners. Veterans have qualities and experiences that are in demand by the business community.”

—Libby Davis
Wisconsin MBA Admissions and Recruitment

“I had to study long hours in the military,” says Opotowsky. “Electrical theory was hard. But that was really good preparation for today, because this is a very tough curriculum. But I put in the hours,” she adds, “and I think I bring a different mindset to the business school—one that helps me look at things holistically. I like to take a step back and look at the big picture.”

Louise Opotowsky (BBA ’19), right, U.S. Navy

Veterans gain a lot from their college experience and they also contribute to the campus in many ways. They know how to manage stressful situations such as balancing the demands of finals week. They focus on achieving their objectives and they bring real-world examples to classroom discussion.

“Veterans give up a lot to serve,” says Eckhart. “A UW–Madison education is one way that society can thank them, and educating veterans is closely aligned with the mission of our land grant university. It’s great to be part of that.”