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How Student Loans and Military Service Helped this MBA Learn the Value of Personal Finance

For Michael Dunn, going to college always seemed certain. How he would pay for it was the hazy part.

Born into a family of modest means, Dunn and his younger brother were raised by their mother in Atlanta, Ga., where Dunn says he spent much of his time in the church and with extracurriculars. When it came time for college, he attended the University of Alabama but, after two years, experienced the all-too-familiar struggle to pay off student loans. Ultimately, Dunn’s desire to advance his education led him to join the U.S. Army, where he completed three and a half years of active duty, reaching the rank of sergeant. Now, he continues his service in the D.C. National Guard. With his newly acquired skills, GI Bill benefits and a new outlook, he is pursuing his MBA at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business as a Consortium fellow in the class of 2022.

Dunn recently spoke with The Consortium about his student loan struggles, his experience in the Army and how both left him forever changed and motivated to help others.

Q: Was furthering your education something your mother encouraged you to do?

I think my mom was the first generation in her family to go to college, so it was always a priority of hers for me and my brother to go to college. We didn’t have much money, but she always had this mentality that if we got into, say, Harvard or Oxford or something crazy like that, then we were going to have to figure it out from there. I grew up with that mentality, which … was a good motivator. It kind of opened my eyes to the fact that college isn’t necessarily for everybody.

Q: So what drove your decision to go to college?

I think, at its core, it was motivated by a desire to better my perspectives in life. At the high school I went to, it was just the norm to go to college; it really didn’t strike me as much of a question because what else was I going to do? I didn’t want to do a trade, and at that time, I didn’t want to go into the Army or anything like that, so college was kind of the natural progression.

Q: What were you studying, and what did you want to do for a career?

Out of high school, I really wanted to do sports broadcasting. I idolized Stuart Scott growing up, and I loved sports. I tried to do sports broadcasting my freshman year, but as time went on, it seemed that it was really hard to break into and that there wasn’t much that could distinguish you. Furthermore, I felt like it wasn’t directly helpful to people, and I kind of wanted to move toward being more helpful, especially when I didn’t see much of a prospect in that field. So, by the time my sophomore year came around, I was a secondary education major, and I wanted to be a high school teacher.

Q: You eventually ended up joining the military. So what led to that decision?

It goes back to that mentality of “if you get in somewhere, we’re just going to make it work” — but making it work is really kind of a naive way of looking at it. You can make it work, but it’s going to cost you. After my sophomore year, I got stuck in a catch-22 where I couldn’t pay for school, so I couldn’t get enrolled, and I couldn’t get a loan because I wasn’t enrolled. So I was stuck in this weird spot where I had to pay my balance off or I couldn’t go back to school. I was working different jobs; I was a waiter for a while, and I cleaned pools for a while. I did these kind of dead-end jobs that I felt weren’t getting me anywhere. That’s not to say that those jobs can’t be fruitful for somebody, but it just wasn’t sustainable for me at that time.

About a year or a year and a half later, I went to talk to a recruiter, and I told him my situation. I told him the only thing I wanted was to pay for school. He told me about the GI Bill and how it works, and 10 days later, I had signed a contract and was headed to Fort Benning, Ga.

Q: So enlisting was a path to attaining the education you wanted?

It was 100 percent a means to an end. I had played around with the idea of joining. I had even taken some ROTC classes when I was in college, but I realized quickly that I didn’t like it that much. But then, when it became necessary, it just clicked. I was like, “You know, I’m 23; I’m not getting younger,” and half of my friends had already graduated from college, so I really felt the pressure to act.

Q: What was your experience like in the military? Besides the obvious GI Bill benefits, what did you walk away?

This is probably one of the more interesting parts of my life. I can speak positively to my experience. There are so many ways that it helped. All of a sudden, I went from not having a full-time job to having a full-time job. I got on-the-job training that could potentially transfer to the civilian sector. I had a financial advisor who worked with me. I got a security clearance, and then, while I was in, I had the opportunity to travel.

We were stationed in Germany for about nine months. While there, I finished my associates degree using tuition assistance, which doesn’t touch your GI Bill benefits. Then I had the opportunity to take classes that would go toward my degree, and when I came out, I was able to use the GI Bill. I had the opportunity to finish my undergraduate degree and now get my MBA. So, without the Army or without the, quote-unquote, “mistakes” I’ve made, there wouldn’t have been a way for me to attend these programs.

Q: When you returned to the U.S., where did you finish your degree, and what is your degree in?

I wanted to get it done as quickly as possible so I could save as much of the GI Bill as I could, because it ticks down as you use it. I decided to take classes that would transfer back to my undergraduate education that I had started, so I went back to the University of Alabama full time. When it came to the loans, I needed a degree that would give me the best opportunity of being able to pay those back. Deep down, I still want to be a teacher later on, but I ended up with a degree in finance because I knew that would really give me the best opportunity at making a life for myself.

Q: Do you feel like your experience in the Army altered your perspective or your work ethic?

This is something that I think about a lot. … I didn’t really grow up learning about finances and stuff like that, so when I got a full-time job in the U.S. Army, it gave me stability, for one. It gave me the opportunity to really look at my finances and consider where I wanted to go. That’s how I came up with a plan to go back to school. I took classes while I was in the Army, got my loan payments structured and got my credit score back to where it is now. So it gave me a lot of focus.

The leadership aspect was great. I’ve never had people look up to me or answer to me, and it really gave me the chance to kind of put on my mentor hat. While I was in, I created classes to teach my guys about my path through school, the ways that I saw to better myself and how I used the Army. If the Army’s going to use you, you should also use the Army. I don’t mean that in a negative way, but it’s a symbiotic relationship, and I tried to teach my guys that.

All of those things led me to feel like I could go into a company and be a leader. I have the problem-solving skills, the multitasking skills, the leadership skills and the maturity. When I went back to school the second time, I treated it more like I was going to work than I was going to school or going to have fun. It really focused me.

Q: Do you feel like your time in the military helped prepare you for professional life?

I think, like with anything, it is what you get out of it. It definitely prepared me to feel confident when I walk in a room, because I’m still pretty green when it comes to all these business concepts and analytical ways of doing things, but I feel like, given the opportunity, given some training, I can step into any position and be effective.

Q: What led you to pursue an MBA, and what drew you to The Consortium?

I think my decision to pursue an MBA largely came from the fact that I could afford it.

As I’ve been going through this recruiting process, I’ve learned there are a lot of aspects and attributes that companies really value. They really value leadership, they value your maturity, the fact that you can handle stressful situations, you can handle the pressure, and I think my background in the Army lends itself well to the MBA process and the jobs that I’ll be recruiting for.

The Consortium is a great opportunity for people — just on its most basic level — to save money when it comes to applying to business schools, because every aspect of this process is pretty expensive. I think that’s definitely a large barrier to entry for a lot of people, so it’s great that there are organizations like this addressing that.

Q: What do you ultimately hope to do with your MBA?

This fall, I’ll be recruiting for consulting roles. That will give me a chance to get wider exposure to the industry, because even though I feel confident when I go into places, I still feel like I don’t know as much as I should when it comes to on-the-job, practical business knowledge. I think a lot of military guys feel the same way. I’m hoping that I can get into consulting and go from there. 

Q: What advice do you have for young people in similar situations, who are trying to figure out how to finance their education?

First and foremost, cast a wide net. I think we often get bogged down with titles and stuff. There’s nothing wrong with going to a two-year institution and then transferring into a four-year school and getting that exact same degree for half the price. I think the Army is super viable, whether that’s active duty or the National Guard, which is two days a month. Over time, you can still get the GI Bill; it just might take a little longer. I know that, in Alabama, you didn’t even have to use the GI Bill; there was a program where you could use National Guard benefits. So capitalize on stuff like that.

It also helps to take the time, do your due diligence and learn about personal finances, because it’s not necessarily taught in school, and not everybody has the luxury of learning about it from their family. I’d like to be a resource for anybody who has questions because I’ve gone through it — I’ve messed up — and I’m open to helping others.

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