EMBA Alumni at Work: Paving the Way for Students with Disabilities

As the first legally blind student to complete the Executive MBA Program at Purdue University, Donald Barnes faced challenges unlike those of other students in meeting the demands of an EMBA degree. With his full time customer service job and dozens of hours of intense course work, he was determined to work with university faculty to find rewarding work in and beyond the classroom.

Barnes earned his bachelor’s degree at Purdue in hospitality tourism management years before. During his time as an undergraduate, Barnes already had experienced vision loss, the result of a degenerative eye disease that was diagnosed when he was 15. After learning how he could work with the university to find the right accommodations, Barnes made the decision to return to Purdue for his EMBA.

Community comes together

Purdue’s hybrid EMBA Program includes on-campus residencies – five at Purdue and a final, international residency – along with online assignments and virtual discussions. Before entering the program, Barnes partnered with university IT and disability staff to walk through access and technology issues. During the program, he and his guide dog, Linden, traveled from their home in Las Vegas to Purdue in Indiana for the five West Lafayette residencies.

“The first module was overwhelming,” Barnes recalls, but faculty, fellow students, and technology helped him adjust to the demands of the program. For example, faculty used more descriptions during lectures, rather than referring to a slide or visual. As the program progressed, the students also learned how to work together more effectively and grew closer.

“You had to rely on everyone else,” Barnes explains. “We became one big happy family. They went out of their way to be helpful.”

Purdue’s Disability Resource Center formatted textbooks, and a scribe from the university took class notes and described video content. At home and work, Barnes uses the screen reader JAWS to translate written words on the computer to audio.

Hard work results in a big achievement

Between modules, he typically spent more than 20 hours per week preparing for the next module, connecting with his team, and completing projects and assignments. At the same time, he was also working full-time for MGM Resorts International as a customer service representative. With a full plate and a lot at stake, Barnes made sure he took advantage of all the EMBA Program had to offer.

One of his favorite experiences was the international residency in Turkey, Belgium, and the Netherlands, and he enjoyed a memorable marketing course at ESC in Paris while studying abroad. “You learned about different cultures and gained an understanding about how to market to people of different cultures,” he reflects. “It gives you a different perspective than a traditional marketing class to experience different cultures.”

Barnes views his EMBA experience as key preparation for future opportunities, and an achievement that paves the way for other students with disabilities. Courses in crisis management and strategy and negotiation also have added to a well-rounded and valuable experience.

“For me, it’s going to have more long-term value,” he says. “There is value in the challenge. It was worth it.”

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