The ties that bind
In the first year of marriage a lot can happen.
For Devon and Suzie Smibert, two IT security specialists who met while on the job, each had to learn to adapt to the other’s busy lifestyle. But it wasn’t just work that kept the two on the run. Literally – Devon also serves in the army reserves, Suzie runs marathons.
If that wasn’t enough, both had embarked on an ambitious course of studies – each pursuing their MBAs at Athabasca University. Ask anyone who’s completed an MBA while working, and almost invariably they will tell you that studying while also managing a full-time job and family commitments can be a challenge. Family support and understanding are critical for success.
Challenges intensify when both husband and wife are studying, in the same program, and endeavouring to keep up high-level work commitments. For many newly married couples, that could spell disaster. Rather than let the pressure strain their relationship, the Smibert’s viewed their studies as a healthy test of their commitment – and a way to find mutual balance.
“Being in an intensive program, it was good that we were both busy and studying at the same time, rather than if only one of us was doing it, with one having to wait around for the other,” Devon explains.
It also helped that each understood what the other was going through. At the same time, understanding and being able to help were two different things, “It is very hard to learn from a spouse,” Suzie laughs. “Like teaching a spouse to drive or do any activity…but through it, I’ve definitely become better at learning from him. It brought us together,” says Suzie.
“If we can get through this we can get through anything, if we do it as a team.”– Suzie Smibert
Reed and Jessica Clarke found similar comfort in having someone in the immediate family to turn to who was going through the same experience. As twins, the two had always been close, but sharing the MBA experience brought them even closer. “My first year going through the MBA, I talked to Reed a lot about it,” says Jessica, of how she recruited her brother into the program. “We had both talked about doing a master’s before, but talking about it is one thing. It’s a ton of work to have a life, a job, and study…once you’re in it and you’re doing it, it’s a whole different thing.”
In some ways, says Jessica, studying together is a continuation of their experience growing up. “Everything Reed did, I did,” she recalls. “Everyone would say, ‘oh, there go the Clarke twins.’ But do we finish each other’s sentences? I wouldn’t say that.” “I remember in elementary, we got tested for some kind of twin intuition,” Reed recalls, “but it came back negative.”
Being ahead of her younger brother (Reed is 22 minutes her junior) in her studies, Jessica has been able to offer insights that have helped in preparation, says Reed. But what both value most is the shared understanding of the combined demands of family and study. “It’s kind of nice when you have a family dinner, and you’ve worked all week, and now you have a 5000-word paper due, no one is going to give you grief about it,” says Jessica, “at least someone else in the family gets it.”
“Being in this course has shown us that we can do all those things that we imagined doing,” adds Reed, whose newest responsibilities also include a 13-month-old son. The twins muse about one day launching a joint venture, but for now their focus is solidly on completing the MBA program at AU.
For Brady Harder, a current Athabasca University student in the Bachelor of Commerce program, having a dad who championed higher learning was an important influence. Warren Harder wasn’t just a vocal proponent though, he was a role model – while in his late 30s, working full time with two young kids at home – he completed his MBA at AU in 2004, going on to hold senior roles specializing in fleet management, heavy equipment servicing, manufacturing, and quality assurance.
“He was a big advocate,” Brady says. “He wanted to see me have the same success he did.” Listening to dad’s advice paid off in several ways, Brady adds. Even if he isn’t quite following the same path, he says, “I knew from my father how the process worked. I chose to start a career outside the path, then take opportunities as they come and slowly work toward my goal…he still gives me a lot of pep talks.”
That legacy – of higher education, smart planning, and personal determination – is likely in the back of Reed Clarke’s mind too, as he pursues his path with his own growing family.
One thing that remains consistent, whether parent-child, siblings, or couples, the shared experience of pursuing a goal seems to have strengthened their bonds. Family members who “get it” provide support and a personal cheer team when the going gets tough. And, as Devon and Suzie found out, sometimes a shared family name alone leads to unexpected special occasions. Though the two started separately and studied at different paces, they wound up finishing in the same semester. Thus when it came time for convocation, they received their degrees at the same time in 2013 – walking the stage one right after the other. After putting their relationship to the test, it was perhaps the best way to celebrate the strength of their new union. And it will probably help with remembering anniversaries too.