When Michelle Mesner took her first college course at OU in Fall 2002, the idea that it would take 20 years to earn her bachelor’s degree would have been inconceivable.
“I went to school as part of the traditional program and did about a year at OU,” she said. “It was a great experience. I lived in the dorms, and it was awesome.”
But when her mom passed away, she was forced to drop out of school to support herself and her siblings.
“No one in my family has graduated from college,” Mesner said. “That’s why my mom wanted me to go in the first place all those years ago. She wanted me to be the first person to graduate. It was always my dream to come back.”
Named the Outstanding Senior for fall 2022 by the OU College of Professional and Continuing Studies, Mesner will fulfill her mother’s dream when she graduates in December with a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership, becoming the first person in her family to do so.
“I really love school,” she said. “It’s been challenging, but I love it. I feel like I’ve learned so much and made so many great connections.”
"It was always my dream to come back to OU. I chose organizational leadership because I wanted the tools to be able to make processes run smoother."
Mesner spent the early part of her career working in the healthcare industry, and in 2013, she began taking classes at Oklahoma City Community College as part of the paramedic program while working as an EMT.
“I wanted to have a better career and a better life for my son and daughter,” she said. “By the time I got to OCCC, I was excited to go back to school.
“In 2015, I got pregnant with my third baby, and I couldn’t work on the ambulance, so I got a job in program management in aviation and absolutely fell in love with it. That’s what started this journey with OU.”
When she again resumed her studies in 2021, the fully online and flexible nature of the organizational leadership program offered by the OU College of Professional and Continuing Studies made her choice of where to complete her degree an easy one.
“It was always my dream to come back to OU,” she said. “I chose organizational leadership because I wanted the tools to be able to make processes run smoother. That’s what program and project management is, and that’s what I love about it so much. All of the classes reinforce things that I’ve learned, but also teach me new facets of things, too.”
The timeliness and relevance of the topics covered in her courses was eye-opening for Mesner.
“We’re learning real-time organizational leadership practices,” she said. “I can learn a leadership challenge that I deal with every day in program management at my job and learn real solutions for how to deal with it, and I can apply them at my job immediately. It’s wonderful.”
Mesner said the interactive nature of her online classes was unexpected at first, but she quickly realized that while she and her classmates may not have been in a traditional classroom, the sense of community that they had developed was just as strong as the one she had developed as a traditional student years earlier.
“The way the classes are set up, with the discussion boards, the discussions are very engaging and very different,” she said. “People are very open and talk and engage and share ideas. We’re all on the same page and interacting, and we all have something to offer and share with each other. We’re all working toward the same goal.
“I’ve had the same classes every semester with several people, and it just creates a sense of community that we are helping each other out. When you get feedback on a project, you get constructive feedback from people you trust, and it’s really valuable because it’s the truth that you really want somebody to share with you. There’s so much value in seeing things from someone else’s point of view at such a deep level.”
Currently working as a project manager at Boeing, Mesner felt like she was good at her job, but she believes the insight and knowledge she has gained during her leadership studies have already taken her ability to lead to a new level.
"When you get feedback on a project, you get constructive feedback from people you trust, and it’s really valuable because it’s the truth that you really want somebody to share with you."
“I was obviously aware of conflict resolution, ethical leadership, and diversity,” she said. “I interact with them every day, but I thought of them as separate factors. You can’t be an effective leader unless you think of them as social processes that have to work together to make the team work effectively. That’s what the program does so effectively and builds on course by course. It shows you those connections and how they impact individual, team, and organizational performance.
“It’s an a-ha moment at the end, and it’s just helped my understanding of how I interact with my team and communicate. It’s been very impactful.”
Mesner is looking forward to putting that understanding to use before pursuing a master’s degree in fall 2023.
“My previous job was in operations, so my goal is to transition back into ops as a program manager,” she said. “That’s where my passion is. I like being able to make things run smoothly, and there’s nothing more challenging than streamlining an ops schedule because there is so much unpredictability in it. It’s just exhilarating. I feel what I’ve learned will help me organize the chaos.”
Mesner wants others to know that while returning to school after so many years away may seem daunting, the rewards that come from embracing the challenge are worth it.
“There are a million reasons not to do it, but the best reason to do it is that it’s such a wonderful feeling to just get started, even if it’s just one class,” Mesner said. “Once you’re in the program, and you’re interacting with people, it’s such a valuable place to be. It’s so beneficial to what I’m doing.
“I remember I almost didn’t do it because I thought I couldn’t do it well enough, but as soon as I could log in, and I saw how easy it was going to be to get started, I was ecstatic. I reached out to my professors right away, and I was just so happy and excited. I know it’s scary, but it’s worth it!”
To learn more about the College of Professional and Continuing Studies’ undergraduate program in organizational leadership, or for information about additional online degree programs for working adults, visit pacs.ou.edu/degrees.