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Q&A with Smeal Executive MBA Managing Director Kara Keenan

Kara Keenan began her role as managing director of the Penn State Smeal Executive MBA Program in January. Here, she talks about her new role and the advantages of the Smeal EMBA Program, a 21-month program that takes place on alternating weekends in Philadelphia.
April 1, 2014

Kara Keenan
Kara Keenan is the managing director of the Smeal Executive MBA Program.

Kara Keenan began her role as managing director of the Penn State Smeal Executive MBA Program in January. Here, she talks about her new role and the advantages of the Smeal EMBA Program, a 21-month program that takes place on alternating weekends in Philadelphia.

Q: In terms of education and professional background, what are you bringing to the Smeal EMBA Program that informs your approach to leading?

Kara Keenan: I have more than ten years of experience in higher education with universities like the University of Pennsylvania, INSEAD, and Columbia University. Eight of those years were in executive education programs, so I’m coming to Smeal with a real sense of these students’ unique challenges in balancing their personal and professional lives while navigating the process of gaining further education to improve their careers.

Q: What are the unique benefits of an Executive MBA compared to a residential program?

KK: Most of our students have families, and they’re at least 8-10 years into their careers. At that time in life, it’s more difficult to leave a job to go back to school—no matter what the return on that investment might be in the end. We offer students an opportunity to accelerate their careers without taking time away from that career.

Q: What differentiates the Smeal Executive MBA Program from other MBA programs with an executive format?

"[F]aculty often say they particularly enjoy teaching EMBA students as they bring a wealth of professional experience to the classroom dynamic and discussions."

KK: One of the best aspects of the EMBA program is that the courses are taught by the same Smeal faculty that teach in the residential MBA program. They travel to the conference center bi-weekly often staying overnight, offering students one-on-one access over meals and breaks that they wouldn’t normally get otherwise. In fact, faculty often say they particularly enjoy teaching EMBA students as they bring a wealth of professional experience to the classroom dynamic and discussions. Some of the distinguished faculty who have taught in the program include: Fariborz Ghadar, Glen Kreiner, Al Vicere, Ralph Oliva, Michelle Lowry, and our dean Charles Whiteman.

In addition, our program has a highly team-based atmosphere. In their first year, students are teamed based on professional experience—to provide a diversity of experience—and provided with a conference line and space to work together in the conference center on class weekends. This provides students the opportunity to forge meaningful relationships with their fellow students despite the executive format, and students and alumni have often said that this greatly improves their ability to work effectively in teams, which is so crucial in today’s business environment.

Our program meets on alternating weekends in suburban Philadelphia—Lafayette Hill—and this is a really convenient geographic location for people from the Philadelphia area as well as other parts of Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and more along the east coast. We have dedicated space at the ACE Conference Center where our students meet on Friday afternoons for a day and a half of intensive classes and teamwork. It’s a great facility—there are dedicated classrooms and breakout rooms for student teamwork, meals are catered, and students stay the night on the campus. In addition, the faculty who teach in the program also stay at the ACE center, giving students even more time for one-on-one interaction and discussion.

Q: What kind of qualities are you looking for in an EMBA student?

KK: We like to say that there is no typical EMBA student. It’s very important that we create a diverse cohort of students, both personally and professionally, for each class. This enhances the learning that students do in the classroom because, not only do students learn from the faculty’s curriculum, they learn from the diverse experiences and perspectives of their classmates. Everyone brings in unique skills that they can share, and everyone leaves with a broader, more diverse network.

Q: What’s something you wish people knew more about, with regard to the EMBA Program?

"A few months in, students are assigned to a career coach that works one-on-one with that student throughout the course of the program. I think this is a key strength of the program, and one that students and alumni regularly credit as a huge advantage to their careers."

KK: First, I’m not sure a lot of people know about our dedicated executive coaching program. A few months in, students are assigned to a career coach that works one-on-one with that student throughout the course of the program. I think this is a key strength of the program, and one that students and alumni regularly credit as a huge advantage to their careers. This kind of executive coaching can be very expensive, but we embed it into the cost of the program. It’s a benefit that candidates don’t always anticipate.

And second, I think it’s important to note that this is the same MBA curriculum that’s taught at Smeal’s full-time residency program at University Park. The same faculty teach the same courses in the same number of hours, but specifically tailored to an executive audience and to have immediate impact on the executive workplace.

In addition, our graduates become part of the global Penn State alumni network, which includes hundreds of thousands of people all over the world—and is particularly strong here on the east coast.

About the Penn State Smeal Executive MBA Program
The Penn State Smeal Executive MBA Program provides working professionals with the learning, connections, resources, and experiences to accelerate their careers. The 21-month program features personalized executive coaching, intensive communication training, a weeklong international residency experience, and coursework focused on the unique challenges of students' firms. Classes are held on alternating weekends at the ACE Conference Center in suburban Philadelphia. Learn more at www.smeal.psu.edu/execmba.

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