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In honor of National Military Appreciation month and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage (AAPI) month, we spoke with the ultimate Chicago Booth couple. Ryan Hall, in the Full-Time Program, is a Naval Officer on leave as he completes his MBA. Christina Starks, in the Evening Program, is a Physician Assistant by day. They share why they chose to pursue an MBA and why this month is meaningful to them.

Was an MBA always on your radar?

Ryan: It’s been a rollercoaster journey. When we first met I wasn’t thinking about an MBA because I had been trying to get into the Navy my entire life, so I was just focused on that. I wasn’t thinking beyond finishing my training and doing my first deployment. Over time, the skills that I had to solve the problems I was encountering began to feel more limited. I didn’t feel prepared for some strategic resourcing decisions and I wanted options to better prepare for these things. I was looking at business schools when the Navy launched the Fleet Scholars Education program in 2015. As I was researching Full-Time MBA programs, it became clear to me that Chicago Booth had the culture and the curriculum that I wanted. Christina was also interested in Chicago Booth and pushed me to consider it.

Christina: Ryan applied the year before me, but I had already completed a campus visit at Booth. I had just had a baby and wasn’t ready to apply. However, as a healthcare provider, I have come face to face with some of the challenges in our healthcare system. I am pursuing an MBA to be able to make a bigger impact in the healthcare space. 

This month celebrates National Military Appreciation month. Ryan, let’s talk about the personal meaning of your journey to the Navy. Why were you interested in the Navy and how did you come to join it?

Ryan: I grew up in central Florida and was a swimmer, so I have always been drawn to the water. I thought that the element of getting on a ship and sailing across the world was awesome and found naval forces throughout history to be fascinating. 

I applied to the Navy five times. I was rejected twice by the Naval Academy and twice by Officer Candidate school, over a period of time ranging from before college to after grad school. Every time I got rejected, it just hardened my resolve. On my fifth try, I got picked up for Officer Candidate school in 2007. That same year, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were raging and I had decided that I was not going to be on the sideline. What I learned out of that experience has been so central to who I am as a leader and as a service member. There is a humility and a satisfaction of being able to put the uniform on and contribute every day, and make it a better place for your teammates to come to work. I've had people over the years ask me why I am so happy and I tell them this is all I ever wanted as a kid growing up. I always told myself I didn't ever want to lose sight of that. 

I can look back now and say, I would not have wanted my journey any other way than how it ended up. I learned that failure builds character and is priceless. I don’t want my kids to fail, but I recognize that experience is critical to living a full, rich life.

How do you plan to integrate your MBA into your work?

Ryan: In the Navy, I think it’s on the individual to try to integrate the lessons they’ve learned over their time in service into day-to-day operations. I work in a very resource intensive domain. Folks make a lot of resourcing decisions based on instinct and intuition. When we make decisions, the ability to run the numbers on the long-term financial analysis doesn't reside in-house very often. The ability to apply that level of analysis to help with decision-making will be very useful. We make resourcing assessments with long time horizons without a lot of training, so understanding how to tease out the implications years from now of decisions made today, would be useful. Also, behavioral science aspects are often overlooked in the military. There is an expectation that you have a workforce that is self-motivated and will always do what is required, which is not the case. There are alot of leadership and management techniques that go into building out a happy organization, where people are happy to come to work.

What has your involvement with Booth’s Armed Forces Group (AFG) been like?

I left an environment with a very clear peer group. When I came to Chicago Booth, there wasn’t as natural of a chemistry between my peers and myself because we didn’t have the same shared experiences or similar vernacular. Every interaction at Chicago Booth has been remarkably inviting but it was difficult to switch between the culture at work to the culture at school. As I tried to find my place at the start, the Armed Forced Group was really great about helping me adjust and transition. Now, I’ve been steeped in this environment where it’s much more natural for me to be able to strike up a conversation with someone outside of the armed forces. 

Christina, it is also Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month. What does this month mean to you?

AAPI month provides a moment of pause to reflect on my heritage and pay tribute to my mother and acknowledge the adversity she overcame from the Korean war and again after immigrating to the United States. This month brings out similar stories of adversity and resilience in many of our AAPI sisters and brothers. I love the connection and unity their stories provide as many have walked similar paths.

For me, AAPI month is also a time of gratitude to the many Asian Americans, Hawaiians, Samoans, Maoris, Chamorros, and Tongans who have entrusted their health in my hands. Hawai’i was a special place to be a healthcare provider and I quickly saw how medicine is not ‘one-size-fits-all’.  There is a tangible need for individualized healthcare and precision medical research. My AAPI patients taught me things beyond what the medical books offered, and this knowledge has extended to all my patients facing racial disparities in their healthcare, especially when disease has become racialized.

What was it like to grow up in a cross-cultural family, with an American father and Korean mother? 

Looking back, Korean culture prevailed in our household but as a child I did not know any different. We ate Korean food, celebrated Korean customs, and I even did Tae Kwon Do six days a week. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen at my mother’s side while she prepared every meal from scratch. We were very traditional, maybe even old-fashioned, as I remember things like picking fernbrake sprouts (gosari) in the forest and using rice as glue for school projects. My father was always supportive, and in the early days more Koreanized than my mother was Americanized. But we always managed to have corned beef and cabbage on St. Patty’s Day and celebrate the Fourth of July. Along with her rice-hacks and recipes, my mother instilled her indomitable spirit in us; my sisters and I would not be who we are without her grit.

How have you incorporated your Korean heritage into your life and has that changed now that you have children?

Food! It always comes back to food and fortunately my kids love the same things I grew up eating. As a mother, I find myself defaulting to what my mother did for me – minus the rice glue. My Korean heritage has been inherently woven into our daily life and reinforced with regular visits to Halmoni and Grandpa. My greatest hope is that her indomitable spirit will continue on in our kids.


Read more about Ryan here

Read more about Christina here