Dominique Visser ’20 MBA: Online MBA Program Was “Business as Usual” During Belgian Lockdown
Completing the online MBA program in Belgium while COVID-19 had the country locked down was “business as usual for me,” says Dominique Visser ’20 MBA.
“I couldn’t go out, but I always had somewhere to be,” says Visser, whose family moved from Burkina Faso to Belgium in August 2019 for her husband’s new assignment as the U.S. Army’s Africa Command liaison officer to the European Union and NATO. “I truly looked forward to class.”
A native of Australia with a bachelor’s degree in languages from Western Sydney University and a background in international trade advisory, Visser applied to the Whitman School while her family was stationed in Burkina Faso. She sought a school with a strong online platform that was workable with the internet connectivity issues experienced in West Africa. She didn’t apply anywhere else.
During the pandemic, “being part of the online MBA program was great,” she says, as she was already set up for remote learning, and the program understands the challenges of balancing study, work and life from home.
The biggest change was with her three children, home since mid-March, working on the family’s computers during the day and needing her support. Visser put off her studies and classwork preparation until the afternoon and after dinner, then rested before a 7 p.m. class in Syracuse started at 1 a.m. Belgium time.
Each week in an online MBA course, students review one asynchronous (prerecorded) lecture for 90 minutes and attend one 90-minute synchronous session, a schedule that long predated the pandemic.
Students enjoyed the online class camaraderie, says Eunkyu Lee, a professor of marketing and Whitman’s associate dean for global initiatives. He taught Strategic Brand Management, a course Visser took from early April to mid-June.
Many students seemed to value our online class more than usual. Not just for its usual educational benefits, but also as a valuable opportunity to stay connected with others while living and working in isolation.”
Professor of Marketing and Associate Dean for Global Initiatives
“Many students seemed to value our online class more than usual,” Lee says, “not just for its usual educational benefits, but also as a valuable opportunity to stay connected with others while living and working in isolation.”
As the teacher, Lee spent more time checking on how students were doing and shared words of encouragement and flexibility. “It was also good to see students show more expressions of support to one another,” he says.
Early in the pandemic, handwashing and social distancing became Belgian social norms, followed by wearing of masks, initially in close quarters or when using public transport. “This has now expanded to pretty much any time you are in public, especially in high pedestrian areas, whether or not there is anyone around you,” Visser says.
She describes distancing rules and limits of one patron per 10 square meters of floor space in supermarkets and stores. People were encouraged to work from home and, if necessary, to ride bicycles to get to work. Restaurants reopened in early June with distanced seating and screens between tables. Patrons now read menus through QR codes at the tables.
The Belgian government closed schools and restaurants and canceled all sports and culture events as of March 13. On March 18, nonessential travel was banned, and nonessential shops closed. In June, the Economist Intelligence Unit reported Belgium had the worst response to the coronavirus among 21 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Belgium received the highest possible score for its testing capacity but the lowest score for its death rate, which, at that time, was highest death rate per capita in the world.
“With three children and two adults and computers for roughly half of us, it was a bit hectic, but so far we’ve managed,” Visser says.
The schools reopened in late May with staggered start times, classes split in half with children attending on alternate days to allow for distancing in classrooms, and staggered recesses and lunchtimes. A few weeks later, a student was diagnosed with COVID-19. The school closed for a second time on June 8.
“The kids were very sad to have waited from March to May to see their friends and then have school canceled after two weeks,” says Visser. But her family has stayed healthy so far.
Life as a military family prepared the Vissers for the pandemic lifestyle.
“Having been in an unstable security environment in Burkina Faso [beset by jihadist violence since 2015], we had limits on our movements and travel,” Visser says. “We are used to spending time within our four walls. Burkina didn’t have big malls or infinite options for entertainment, so for the kids it was a return to that.”
The family enjoys a large collection of board games, video games, books and crafts, plus Netflix and Amazon. The Vissers have moved to California, Paris, Hawaii, West Point in New York State, Virginia and Burkina Faso, where Lt. Col. Andrew Visser has served as senior defense official and defense attache at the U.S. Embassy in Ouagadougou.
In March, the Department of Defense ordered all soldiers, DOD civilians and families not to travel from where they were stationed from mid-March until at least May. Visser praises how the U.S. Embassy in Brussels, the DOD and Belgian authorities were consistent and clear in their messaging through emails, social media and online meetings.
In choosing Whitman for her MBA studies, Visser says, “I have a soft spot for Northern New York. It was the first place I lived in the U.S., not far from Fort Drum.”
Friends who had taken distance MBA programs told her they felt isolated, with only message boards to communicate with professors and other students. Being a social person, Visser says she wanted face-to-face interaction. Learning that Whitman had the 2SU platform, the cloudbased program that provides online degree programs, nearly clinched her decision to apply only to Whitman.
Finally, I found the admissions team at Whitman to be the most responsive, helpful and accommodating to military life, so I didn’t bother to actually apply to other schools. I knew it was a fit."
Dominique Visser ’20 MBA
“Finally, I found the admissions team at Whitman to be the most responsive, helpful and accommodating to military life, so I didn’t bother to actually apply to other schools. I knew it was a fit,” Visser says. “The admissions team were truly supportive and worked with me even with a foreign accredited undergrad and my extra-long distance learning.”
“I had also heard that faculty were accessible, and, I have to say, that proved to be true,” she says. “If you are willing to work and show sincere commitment to academic rigor, they will work with you.”
Her international trade background includes positions at Australian Business Limited (now the New South Wales Business Chamber) and as a market development specialist in Western Europe, the United Kingdom and Ireland for the Australian Trade Commission before she got married. In the COVID era, she’s pursuing a remote job to provide continuity between future international moves and a return to the U.S. Overseas postings are likely to continue for some time for her husband, since he is a foreign area officer.
Completing the online MBA program during the pandemic kept her grounded. She says, “I found it kept me focused on something that would ultimately benefit myself and my family.”
“I have my cap and gown as a souvenir,” she says of the disappointment of not having had a graduation on campus. “I just haven’t worn them.”
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