MBA@UNC Valedictorian Talks Success Amid Challenges

Being valedictorian is certainly a notable academic achievement, but earning this title requires significant dedication and drive. After all, it’s not easy to maintain such a consistently high level of academic performance—especially when also balancing a job and a family. Cristina Fitzsimmons graduated valedictorian from MBA@UNC—and she is proof that one can successfully juggle school, work and family while pursuing a degree. Here, she shares how flexible scheduling and a tight-knit community can make all the difference in an educational experience.

Finding the Right Fit

Choosing the right business school was not a decision that Fitzsimmons took lightly. Ultimately, she wanted to make sure that the next two years of her life were not only fulfilling and academically engaging but also accommodating of her lifestyle. Her selection was ideal—she was able to attend graduate school without putting her life on hold. “The flexibility of the program allowed me to fit school into my life, rather than my life into school,” she said. That’s not to say that Fitzsimmons didn’t face some obstacles while working to strike a balance between the responsibilities of her job, family and schoolwork, all while fitting in sleep and personal time.

As Fitzsimmons was pregnant while enrolled in MBA@UNC, it was important that she could accommodate the needs of her pregnancy along with everything else. Fortunately, the online program worked to her advantage. She never had to worry about missing a class because materials and assignments were easily retrievable from anywhere, and both her professors and her classmates were easily accessible as well. This flexibility allowed her to travel for work or even take a vacation while in the program.

Additionally, the positive and supportive community of peers and helpful instructors who were willing to go above and beyond proved to be immensely beneficial. In fact, she stressed that her classmates had a significant impact on her educational experience, and she admitted that her study group became a second family.

“My classmates at MBA@UNC were the best part of the entire program,” said Fitzsimmons. “Your cohort quickly becomes part of your essential support structure, and everyone is so willing to help each other out. It really creates a very positive environment.”

While Fitzsimmons knew that she could have taken a quarter off or lightened her class load, she decided that wasn’t the best option for her. The ability to tailor the MBA program to fit her needs, preferences and goals allowed her to reap the educational rewards more readily. “I was able to pick out classes that worked well with my schedule, which was always changing,” Fitzsimmons said.

Linking School and Work Experience

What ultimately sets MBA@UNC apart is that it trains students with the kind of knowledge and skills that will be relevant and valuable in the business world.

“The greatest benefit was being able to apply what I was learning in school immediately to the workplace,” she explained. “It was also great to have the chance to explore different functions and see what you really enjoy so you know what your next career step should be.”

For Fitzsimmons, delving into the different professional pathways available to her was a significant part of her growth. While she had already embarked on a 10-year career in the financial industry with Bank of America before enrolling in MBA@UNC, the program opened her up to new possibilities. Throughout her studies, she began to realize that she had a penchant—and aptitude—for marketing.

Before long, it became clear to Fitzsimmons that she needed to change directions, not only in terms of her job function but also her industry. Now, she works as a marketing manager for the medical device startup Asante. However, she wouldn’t have found this opportunity if it weren’t for the UNC community. Fitzsimmons noted that one of the best aspects of being an MBA@UNC student is that the school has an impressive alumni base, from which she has benefited. That’s perhaps one of the most surprising advantages of the online program. In fact, Fitzsimmons was able to find her new job by connecting with people tied to the school.

“Without the UNC network, I never would have found this phenomenal opportunity,” she said. “This just goes back to how fabulous not only your current classmates are, but how wonderful the UNC community at large is.”

Prospective MBA students clearly have much to learn from Fitzsimmons’ approach to learning. So what is her advice? “Take advantage of the fabulous career counseling, go to networking events in your area and attend as many immersions as you can,” she said. “Then celebrate!” Learn more about other students' experiences in the MBA@UNC program.