Kim Washington didn't mind her grandfather, James Lewis, Sr., leading her down a career path. As long as it wasn't covered in train tracks.
"A lot of people don't know at the age of eight what they want to be when they grow up," she said. "I was fortunate enough to have a grandfather who noticed a precocious kid with a love for math and science and being in charge. He funneled those characteristics together and said, 'You're going to be an engineer.' I said, 'I'm going to be an engineer, but I am really not interested in driving a train.'"
Once Lewis assured Washington she would not be that kind of engineer, she was totally on board. That led to several stops at the library and various museums while she fed off of her grandfather's knowledge, enthusiasm and love.
"He was in the Army, got out and worked civil service as an aircraft mechanic, so I had an opportunity to meet people and engage with them based on his involvement," Washington said. "Way back then, you went to school for a while and went into the military. He didn't graduate from high school, but he knew a lot and learned a lot. He took the opportunity to impress a lot of those life lessons and skills on me."
Now as an adult, Washington has built a successful engineering career that her late grandfather would have been proud of. He'd also be proud of her latest journey: Washington is a student in the University of West Florida's online Master of Business Administration program. She'll graduate in Fall 2018.
"It was something I always wanted to do," she said. "I have a technical background, but I have a love for people and working in a management role so it helps me fulfill those aspirations. I want to get an MBA to increase and improve my business acumen. That's how it all evolved."
Washington, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Florida A&M University in 1996, enrolled in on-campus MBA programs at UWF and the University of Alabama at Birmingham. On both occasions, she earned promotions that forced her to relocate and delay continuing her higher education. However, Washington's search for an online program led her home.
"I am a native of Pensacola, so I am really familiar with UWF," she said. "I also saw in my research that the business program is AACSB-accredited. It was a huge selling point to get a degree from the University of West Florida with that particular accreditation. It speaks volumes."
The online format has allowed Washington to attend school and maintain her full-time job as compliance and engineering manager at Mississippi Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company, in Moss Point. She has worked for Southern Company for 16 years.
"So far, I've been able to balance it," she said. "It has been a tremendous amount of work. From a scheduling perspective, I generally try to do a couple of hours most evenings. A lot of times my Saturdays and Sundays are jam-packed with catching up and trying to get everything done. That flexibility is definitely a dream for somebody who works full time."
One of her favorite courses to date in the program is GEB 5930: Information Resources and Industry Analysis.
"It gives you an opportunity to dig in and analyze a particular industry," she said. "Being in electric utilities, that's the industry I selected because I want to dig into details more in the business aspects. In my current role, I do a little bit of that, but it's geared more toward one sector of the business."
Another course Washington liked was MAR 6815: Marketing Management.
"I enjoyed looking at various types of corporate branding," she said. "Both courses give you that overall boost to get you started and know what the program is all about and teach you some things you don't necessarily think about.
"In a few instances, I've heard of different items from a financial standpoint, like about 10-K's or SEC [Securities and Exchange Commission] filings, that I understand a little bit better because of the coursework."
Washington's family was more than a bit surprised when she started another MBA program.
"They laughed and said, 'Why would you want to do that? You've been out of school for so long. It's good to have, but it is not really necessary. You've grown and progressed throughout your career,'" she said. "But, they have been really supportive of me going back because I love learning new things."
Now that Washington has adjusted to returning to higher education, she has settled into a groove.
"Getting back in a school mode is like training your brain in a different mindset," she explained. "You're in that learning mode with deadlines and grades and wanting to do well and excel. It has been great. My family has been very understanding."
Additionally, Washington has had an influence on the education of her daughter, Deja Smith, who attends Pensacola State College as a physical therapy major, and her eight-year-old grandson, Danari Smith.
"I tell my daughter, 'If I'm going to college and working full-time and I'm making A's and B's, I expect the same out of you,'" she said. "It kind of inspires my grandson to do homework when he sees me doing mine. We don't live in the same city, but when he calls or we chat on FaceTime, he says, 'Oh, Gran, are you doing homework again?' I say, 'Yep, did you get yours done?' It's been great."
Education was a priority for Washington -- especially since most of her immediate family has earned advanced degrees.
"My mom, sister and brother all have master's degrees," she said. "I felt like the odd man out since I didn't have one. That was another thing that kind of made me want to do it. I thought, 'They have master's degrees and I don't.' I think it will be helpful."
With graduation day approaching, Washington believes the MBA will continue to help improve her business and leadership skills.
"A lot of my positions have been technical in nature," she said. "It helps round you out as an individual where you can do more things. It helps you better understand that as you grow and go higher in the organization that you're more strategic. It takes you somewhat out of the tactical, day-to-day responsibilities, so this will help refine those skills."
Washington said any businessperson seeking a master's degree would benefit from the online MBA program at UWF.
"It's definitely a rewarding experience," she said. "I would encourage time management and setting a schedule because the program is accelerated. The classes are seven weeks. You take a class and in seven weeks, it's over. In those seven weeks, there are certain concepts you need to learn.
"The instructor will give you a recommended calendar, which you should try extremely hard to follow. It's difficult when you fall behind. If I know I have to go out of town, for example Wednesday through Friday, it tells me I am going to have to pump it up. It gives you the advantage of knowing what's to come."
She also believes it's important to take advantage of all of the available resources.
"Make it more real like a classroom setting," Washington said. "If there are collaborative sessions, participate in those. Involve your instructor and class coach, if needed -- they're there to help. You need to reach out to them. When you are in an online program, everybody is working at a different pace. You've got different skill levels. Get to know some of your classmates."
Although Washington wishes her grandfather was still around to see her graduate with an MBA, she will likely think about his foresight and encouragement when she walks the stage.
"After all of this work, by God, I'm going to finish this thing to the end, for sure," she said. "He got me on that course, and I was very fortunate that he lived long enough to see me obtain my bachelor's degree and work in the chemical industry prior to coming to the electric utility industry."
Who knows? Maybe she has a future career for her grandson to conduct in mind.Learn more about the UWF online MBA program.
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