The sun shines on a sign for Opus College of Business on Terrence Murphy Hall in Minneapolis on October 4, 2017.
Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas

Addressing Skill Gaps With a Graduate Certificate and Business Degree

Many University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business alumni have learned that a graduate certificate can be a great way to hone existing skills to stay on top of the latest trends, resulting in a raise or career advancement. A graduate certificate also can be rolled into a future business degree.

“A graduate certificate is a wonderful entry point for students,” said Marketing Professor Mike Porter ’97 MBA, ’07 EdD, who teaches the Graduate Certificate in Integrated Marketing Communication at Opus College. “Each of our certificates is carefully constructed and tailored to students' needs.”

Students can earn a graduate certificate as a stand-alone credential or as part of their St. Thomas MBA. They also have the option of continuing with the MS in Business Analytics if they begin with the Graduate Certificate in Business Analytics.

“The graduate certificate gives you a baseline in the first couple of classes,” said Porter. “Students soon begin to realize that an MBA can be doable and relevant.”

The Newsroom connected with some current students and alumni who started with a graduate certificate and chose to enroll into a degree program to learn more about their successes.

Fast track to an MBA

Erica Jansen

Erica Jansen was working at a local television station in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. While she loved her job as a storyteller at WCCO-TV, she felt strongly about being prepared for whatever may happen.

“My research led me to the graduate certificates at Opus College,” she said. “I was looking for a program to build on my digital marketing skills and be versatile for any career type.”

Jansen began the Digital Experience Graduate Certificate in fall 2020. She learned marketing strategies from faculty members who worked with clients like Caribou Coffee and Famous Dave’s. A digital marketing class on search engine optimization (SEO) and A/B testing techniques helped her optimize YouTube content and Facebook ads.

“I wasn't sure if I wanted to do the full MBA at first, but I enjoyed the certificate so much,” Jansen said. “The experience was so empowering and inspiring – I didn’t want it to be over!”

Jansen decided to apply the credits from her certificate courses toward the required MBA credits for the Part-time Flex MBA. On average, students complete the program in 2 1/2 to three years. By the end of her first semester of the graduate certificate, she was well on her way to earning her MBA.

Jansen is using learnings from leadership courses to advance into marketing management – and her company is taking notice. She recently won the quarterly employee award for outstanding leadership during the pandemic. “I've already hit career goals that I wouldn't have made without these two programs.”

Gaining new skills for a career change

Switching jobs or changing careers has become more common during the pandemic. As the “Great Resignation” continues, many professionals are returning to school for more education.

A graduate certificate turned out to be a steppingstone to a new career for Heidi Gamradt ’21 MS in business analytics. After nearly a decade working in human resources at Cargill, she made the shift into data analytics. “I was mostly self-taught, and knew I needed to ramp up my analytics skills to compete in the market,” she said.

The Business Analytics Graduate Certificate reinforced Gamradt’s decision to change careers and test the waters before committing to a full degree. As a working mom with three kids, the flexible format worked so well that she returned to finish her master's degree.

“When people hear I'm in a master’s program for business analytics, I think it intrigues them,” she said. “It’s not a standard MBA program. People see me as a subject matter expert, which places me on projects and opens up more opportunities for my career.”

Gamradt was most recently promoted to a senior global analyst role at Cargill. “I feel like I have the street cred now. I’m able to connect the dots to provide analytics expertise to my clients.”

Flexibility for family and career growth

Brian LaVallee

Organizational change is inevitable for fast-growing companies like Polaris Industries, the global leader in powersports. Brian LaVallee was experiencing the change firsthand.

As a program manager in supply chain, he meets with different teams every day. Their perspectives – from engineering to product development – are crucial to developing and implementing long-term business strategies.

To better understand change management within Polaris, LaVallee enrolled in the Graduate Certificate in Transformational Organizational Change. “The certificate allowed me to deep dive into a subject matter I could apply immediately to my role,” he said. He made an immediate impact within his first semester. Utilizing Excel skills and statistical analysis in a cross-functional leadership project, he helped Polaris capture $9 million in annual savings.

When LaVallee started the Online MBA program, he felt prepared, not overwhelmed. “I had taken one course at a time in the graduate certificate,” he explained. “It gave me a good sense of the workload I can expect as an MBA student.”

LaVallee appreciates the flexibility and pacing of the curriculum, especially after he and his wife welcomed a baby. “It gives me peace of mind knowing that I can continue having a personal life while earning my degree.”

A practical classroom experience

Osni Ferreira Filho ’21 MBA

An engineer by day and entrepreneur by night, Osni Ferreira Filho ’21 MBA was looking for ways to grow his consulting business for small business owners. "I needed a program to give me better perspective on marketing and digital when talking with prospects and clients,” he said.

The Graduate Certificate in Integrated Marketing Communication gave Ferreira Filho the skills without having to get a full degree in marketing or design. The real-world experience of the faculty was helpful; he used consulting techniques from his Prof + Prof classes to bring prospects to clients.

Ferreira Filho enrolled in the part-time MBA program to build functional skills for his entrepreneurial career. His business expertise grew, along with his sense of self. A popular MBA class taught him how to harness his personal leadership style and strengths.

“I was always so focused on improving processes and increasing profit margins,” he explained. “I only thought about the skills I needed as an entrepreneur.” But now, a deeper knowledge of business and emotional intelligence has led to more meaningful interactions with clients.

Eventually, Ferreira Filho wants to diversify his portfolio with new business endeavors. “I’m grateful for all my professors and professionals who have helped me build my business and grow as a person.”