An Unconventional Path to New Perspectives
By Jennifer Stewart-Burton, Purdue University
Virgil Bremer knows a thing or two about impeccable timing. Over their one-year anniversary dinner, Bremer shared with his wife that he had decided to leave his 6-year career as a senior research scientist in the animal health industry in favor of running the couple’s livestock operation full-time.
He says she was excited for him to embrace the opportunity.
Bremer, who holds a bachelor of science in animal sciences from the University of Illinois, and a master of science and doctor of philosophy in animal science from the University of Nebraska, is now wrapping up his time in the 27-month MS-MBA in Food and Agribusiness Management program from Purdue and Indiana universities. He will leave the dual-degree program with a master of science in agricultural economics from Purdue’s College of Agriculture and a master of business administration from IU’s Kelley School of Business.
He’s wrapping up the program alongside the 24 classmates in his cohort, all of whom have participated in online coursework and five in-person residencies while working full-time. Two of those residencies were at IU, two at Purdue and one international in Brazil.
An unconventional path
So why would a research scientist with a Ph.D. sign up to go back to school to earn two professional degrees?
“In everything we teach in the MS-MBA program, we work really hard to make sure the concepts are applicable to industry,” he says. “We dedicate time in the in-person residencies to discussing the challenges students and their companies are facing. At the end of the day, it’s all about making sure what students learn in the classroom can make an immediate difference for them and for the companies investing in them.”
One of the ways the program concepts are immediately applicable is through a capstone project. Students complete the project in lieu of a master’s thesis. The students select their own topic and the project focuses on a problem or decision facing the individual or company.
“These projects are high-impact and are similar to what companies would hire consultants to do,” Gray says.
For Bremer, the capstone project is all about positioning his cattle operation for long-term success. He has a vision for the future.
“The 20-year vision for B&B Cattle LLC is to be the premier beef industry partner in feeding the world,” he says. “We want to be innovative in cattle production, up-to-date on the latest research, and working strategically with industry partners.”
Eventually, he also wants to add in a master’s- or Ph.D.-level internship to the operation on top of the high school internship they currently offer.
He credits the MS-MBA program with helping him pursue his dreams.
“What I’m doing now is because of the MS-MBA,” he says. “I left my animal health career early in the program because I realized I had to burn the corporate life raft to focus on the cattle operation.”
Bremer also says the program’s faculty and staff have been an integral part of his success.
“The commitment and passion of the faculty and staff is so evident,” he says. “They want to see us succeed and they go above and beyond to help us achieve our goals and dreams.”
A national network of experts
In addition to helping him chase his dreams, Bremer says the MS-MBA program has exposed him to an invaluable resource in his classmates.
Each MS-MBA cohort kicks off the program with a one-week residency at IU’s Bloomington, Ind., campus. They meet each other and get to know the people with whom they will study for the next 27 months. Throughout their time in the program, the students work together on projects and help each other with homework.
It doesn’t stop there, though. Students also form a diverse professional network spanning both the food and agribusiness sectors.
“Being part of the program has allowed me to create a diverse national network of experts,” Bremer says. “The breadth and quality of my classmates is impressive. We have people representing apple production, fertilizer, beef and dairy, just to name a few. Everyone gets to know each other’s strengths and we have learned how to play to those strengths in our group work.”
The diversity also provides a variety of perspectives and allows students to challenge one another in ways that keep them from becoming singular in their thinking.
For Bremer, working full-time and tackling the coursework hasn’t been an issue. In fact, he says he probably has it easier than his classmates because he is self-employed and his schedule is flexible.
But even for the students whose work schedules aren’t as flexible, Gray says the program is structured to make classes and homework manageable.
“As long as students are committed to the program, they can succeed,” he says. “The other professors and I are keenly aware of the amount of time the program takes and that all of the students are working. Our goal is student success and we work closely with each individual to make sure they have every opportunity to achieve it.”
Bremer agrees. He also strongly believes the program’s benefits are worth every investment—financial, time or otherwise.
“Whenever I do a cost/benefit analysis on the MS-MBA program, the benefit strongly outweighs any cost,” he says. “I am graduating with a new and improved mindset and the program has stretched me to see the world beyond where I started from.”