Marlenia Thornton, ’11 & ’23, paired the online MBA@Nebraska with a Public Relations and Social Media Graduate Certificate to expand on her broadcast journalism background. The Lincoln Public Schools communications coordinator uses her strengths and storytelling skills to write her next chapter.
"The three biggest things I’ve learned in the MBA program that I use in my current role are identifying and cultivating people's talents, developing business or team strategy, and analyzing organizational behavior,” Thornton said. “I am always looking for ways to improve our team's skills, ensuring they have opportunities to do the things they love and creating better systems and structures so we can do our best work to serve our students, families, staff and our community.”
Originally from Detroit, Thornton moved to Nebraska when she was three. Her mom, Marilyn, wanted to be closer to her sister, who practiced podiatry in Lincoln.
“She wanted a change and to raise her three kids in a safe place,” said Thornton, who attended Elliott Elementary and Culler Middle School. Thornton graduated from Lincoln Northeast High School in 2007.
“I discovered my love for writing and multimedia storytelling at Lincoln Public Schools. I also job shadowed at KLKN-TV Channel 8 as a sophomore in high school for a class assignment, which influenced me to go into broadcast journalism.”
A first-generation college student, she enrolled at Nebraska and earned a Bachelor of Journalism in broadcasting and news-editorial degree. First working in public relations, she later took a job as a caretaker for adults with developmental disabilities.
“I struggled a bit getting into the news industry, but finally got my break at Channel 8 in 2014,” she said. “I worked as the morning news editor and audio operator for the morning and midday shows. About six months later, I was promoted to general assignment reporter.”
She covered a wide variety of stories with presidential candidate visits, local elections and “any story with cute kids and dogs” being her favorites. She also appreciated the support from her family and friends who watched her on television.
“I loved the connections I made as a reporter. Every day, sometimes every hour, you're doing something new, which made it not only fun and exciting but also challenging.”
Looking for a new challenge, she joined the University of Nebraska–Lincoln in 2019 as a staff member to assist the assistant vice chancellor for Academic Services and Enrollment Management (ASEM).
“Working at the university during Dr. Amber Williams’ leadership in ASEM was a very pivotal part of my professional journey. I was encouraged to learn and use my strengths and help others best use theirs to reach goals and move the division forward,” Thornton said. “I learned a lot about innovation and investing in your team for their growth and the overall organization's success.”
Williams also encouraged her to explore graduate school, so she researched the highly-ranked online MBA program at Nebraska. First established in 1964, the program evolved to meet the needs of working professionals and those serving in the military.
“I decided to apply because of its structure, which is more amenable to full-time working adults, and its cost, especially since I was getting tuition assistance and the professional growth opportunities to expand from my journalism background.”
Accepted into the program, she took a strength-based leadership and management course with Timothy Hodges, executive director of the Clifton Strengths Institute and assistant professor of practice in management.
“The Strengths-Based Leadership course shaped me and my managerial philosophy. I strive to find ways to learn people's strengths, develop them and be intentional in finding ways they can shine with them,” Thornton said. “I liked learning that work doesn't have to be a dreadful place for people to come and earn their paychecks. Our work life plays into so many aspects of our overall life. Dr. Hodges taught us about strengths and team development with practical ways to not only boost organizational performance but also employees' well-being.”
She added how Hodges shared that the greatest asset any team or organization has is its human capital. He stressed the importance of leaders investing in their people constantly.
“Leaders investing in me and teaching me how to understand and use my strengths are what led me to where I am today. I want to be that type of leader,” she said.
Offered the communications coordinator position at Lincoln Public Schools, Thornton found her graduate courses came in handy as she transitioned to the new role.
“She was a fantastic student who went above and beyond the requirements of class and asked great questions. The MBA courses coincided with a career change for Marlenia, and it’s clear to me that she didn’t just want to learn the content but that she was looking for ways to apply the concepts in her work and life,” Hodges said.
Thornton also noted the impact of taking the optional summer MBA Adaptive Leadership course with a three-day on-campus residency. Taught by Jake Messersmith, department chair and associate professor of management, the course provided the opportunity for students to meet face-to-face, work together and learn from each other.
“I've been through so much change with leadership in my professional life that I am a strong advocate for learning and implementing effective change management. The course was very helpful in building my toolkit,” Thornton said.
Thornton also enjoyed making new connections during the three days on campus. According to Messersmith, she also made a positive impact on her fellow classmates.
“Marlenia dug into the lessons of adaptive leadership to think through ways to improve the strategic communications plan in her role at Lincoln Public Schools. She did a nice job of thinking broadly about the strategic mission of her organization and the ways she could help the organization move closer to delivering on their mission and espoused values,” Messersmith said. “Her thoughtful approach also helped generate solutions for other students in the class as they grappled with their own leadership dilemmas, as the peer-to-peer learning opportunities were a highlight of the program.”
Thornton, who plans to continue working in her role, said her goal is to transform individuals, organizations and communities through storytelling.
“Graduating from Nebraska means opportunity and transformational growth. My first degree helped knock down several barriers as a first-generation student. I'm excited to see where my MBA takes me,” she said.
To remove the barriers to applying, the MBA@Nebraska program no longer requires a GMAT or GRE score. Students can also start in the fall, spring or summer due to a rolling admissions process with priority deadlines of July 1, November 1 and April 1.
Published: February 1, 2024