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November 5, 2020

Pham Tackles MBA@Nebraska While Serving in U.S. Space Force

Management Skills Bolster Leadership in Military
Pham Tackles MBA@Nebraska While Serving in U.S. Space Force
U.S. Air Force Captain Thu Pham earned her MBA@Nebraska while serving her country in the newly formed U.S. Space Force.

MBA@Nebraska student Thu Pham emerged as an early contributor to the U.S. Space Force when it became the sixth branch of the military in December 2019. Pham, a captain in the U.S. Air Force, worked and trained others on missile warning Space-Based Infrared Systems while completing her online MBA.

“The military always pushes you to be a better leader,” said Pham, who minored in merchandising as a chemistry major but wanted to grow as a manager. “An organizational behavior class I took in the MBA program helped me process how to understand and communicate better with people I’m leading. It showed me how to fix an organizational culture from the bottom up. It starts with little things like understanding the strengths of your team and how each can be utilized.”

Pham received a military acquisition code to go into program management after being in ROTC at Oregon State University. They wanted her to first complete an operational experience in space, which sent her to Buckley Air Force Base in Denver.

“I operated the satellites for missile warning systems and then moved into training newcomers. I’ve been able to apply my organizational behavior classes on how to lead and manage people,” said Pham, who eventually transferred to Los Angeles Air Force Base which houses and supports the headquarters of the U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center.

Not only are Pham’s technical skills complex, but as she progresses in her job, the network of people she manages grows more complex too.

“I meet with people from other organizations managing a constellation of satellites while working with contractors to keep the systems healthy. Communicating needs and prioritizing what we’ll be doing in the next couple months to five years is a big part of my responsibilities. I make sure everyone’s voice is heard because we have so many people invested in our organization and they have different priorities and philosophies. Trying to get all those inputs and communicate it to my leaders is where the MBA has set me up for success,” she said.

Pham learned organizational behavior concepts in the MBA program that she could quickly apply to her work teams in the military.
Pham learned organizational behavior concepts in the MBA program that she could quickly apply to her work teams in the military.

Dr. Elina Ibrayeva, associate professor of practice in management, teaches the Organizational Behavior (GRBA 814) course which targets leadership competencies. Students look at dynamics of becoming an integrator, embracing complexity and noticing polarities and paradoxes.

“It draws on multifunctional experiences to give a systems perspective,” said Ibrayeva. “The management frameworks assignment challenged Thu to think about her organization and job from multiple perspectives and learn about organizational frames. She was asked to apply competing values model to identify compete, create, collaborate and control values within her organization and other stakeholders.”

Pham also singled out the capstone course for bringing together many business concepts in one class. She believes the experiences in the capstone course will stay with her after graduation in December.

“The class had a steep learning curve trying to understand how the simulator works. It ties in many business principles just like a real company, so you can’t just focus on marketing or development. You have to consider all factors. That was an ‘aha’ moment for me figuring out how to control results as we played the game out on the simulator,” she said.

The capstone Strategic Management and Business Policy (GRBA 853) course utilizes a simulation model for students to experience a real-world business problem in the classroom. Dr. Tawnya Means, assistant dean and assistant professor of practice in management, teaches the class and sees how business concepts become a reality to students by running scenarios through the simulator.

“Thu was eager to bring her background and experiences to the conversations of the course,” said Means. “She interacted well with her team, and in working through the simulation, she reported learning about how to integrate theoretical business ideals with practical implementation. She consistently recognized the strategic implications of the businesses analyzed throughout the strategy course. Her military experience also brought in a great perspective.”

Her fellow students pushed her as well. With backgrounds in supply chain management, finance, the medical profession and other careers, they brought experiences that complemented hers.

“It’s inspiring to see hard working people in the program with different backgrounds working together on assignments. I was thankful I could bring in a unique perspective from the military on our projects,” said Pham. 

Pham chose the MBA@Nebraska program in part because of the veteran-friendly status. The program currently ranks No. 16 among online MBA programs for students in the military according to U.S. News & World Report, and more than 100 current students have military experience. 

She hopes to pursue aspects of her merchandising minor later in her career. It also goes back to the science of understanding people.

“I think the psychology and sociology of all that is really cool. It’s fun trying to understand people and then use that understanding to market your materials. It challenges a different part of my brain,” said Pham.

The passion she feels for marketing may one day bring Pham back to her home state of Oregon.

“My long-term goal is to work at Nike, headquartered in Oregon. I think that could be a perfect job for me. I love the way they market themselves so to be a part of an organization like that would be awesome,” she said.

To learn more about the MBA@Nebraska program, visit: https://business.unl.edu/mba/.