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Erin Ayres is doing her MBA at Queen's School of Business.

As I near the end of my MBA program I have mixed feelings. On one hand I am excited to head back to the workplace and put everything I've learned to use, but on the other, I don't want what has been a fantastic year to end so soon.

What did I expect a little under a year ago when I was about to enter the Queen's full-time MBA program? Challenging courses, great networking opportunities, better career prospects - the program gave me all that and more.

Before I came to Queen's I worked as a marketing director in the media and entertainment industry. Online content has definitively transformed this industry. Likewise, mobile commerce is rapidly changing the way we buy goods and services in all industries, and consumers are increasingly using social networks to decide what to purchase. Looking forward in my job search, designing social media strategies and e-commerce business models is likely where I'll be able to provide the most value to a company.

Looking back on the months leading up to my first day of class, I remember dedicating most of my free time to prep work - hoping to be as prepared as possible when I arrived in Kingston. I'd graduated from Simon Fraser University with a bachelor of arts in environmental geography. Six years into my career and away from academic life, I knew I needed to brush up on my quantitative knowledge, so I completed a series of prep courses in finance, economics, accounting and statistics. I also did a substantial amount of research on the industries I'm interested in: new media and technology. I stayed current with world business news and read every white paper I could find on marketing and social networks - my personal areas of focus. I even read every book on the Career Centre's suggested reading list. I'm a bit of a geek.

Was I prepared enough? It's hard to say. The workload was definitely heavier than I expected. It was not uncommon to spend 100 hours or more per week in classes and team sessions. That is partly because I chose an intensive 12-month program as opposed to the traditional 16 months, but it also reflects the dedication and competitiveness of a typical MBA student. Imagine being in a room with 110 other high-performing, natural leaders - you'd work hard, too. Sometimes that meant giving up a night's sleep to hunker down with my team and hash out our strategy for a business operations problem. Other times I would wake up at 3 a.m. to put in an extra five hours of studying before a finance exam. But I was happy to spend all my waking hours with my classmates and professors - I loved it.

An MBA is designed to be challenging. Part of that challenge is learning effective time management and producing high-quality work in less time than you thought possible. I became skilled at performing at my best when I felt less than 100-per-cent prepared. It takes being able to think quickly on your feet, maintaining confidence, and trusting your instincts.

Some of my best MBA experiences have been at the conferences and competitions I've participated in across North America. At this year's MBA Games in Quebec City, more than 500 MBA students from 21 universities came together to compete in academics, athletics and spirit. As a Forté Fellow, part of a program dedicated to helping women pursue business education, I've also represented Queen's at the annual conference in New York City, and later this month I'll compete with my team against top universities worldwide at case competitions in Boston and Washington. Having the chance to meet MBA students from all over the world has been a vital part of the experience.

The job search is also something I'm really enjoying. Interviewing with companies, meeting with former colleagues, making new connections - the opportunities are limitless and this is an exciting time. With every market shift comes opportunity, and I'm eager to help a company adapt successfully. Most job postings I'm interested in list an MBA as a requirement, which reflects the value the business community places on the degree.

Like many of my colleagues, I considered the cost of time off work to be far greater than the cost of tuition. But I will be back in the work force after one year with the added value of an MBA to boost my earning power. For MBA hopefuls: don't let the $60,000 price tag deter you. First-rate undergrad marks, several years of work experience and a high GMAT score will make you an excellent candidate for scholarships and fellowships.

I now have a deeper understanding of all functional areas of business: sales and marketing, accounting, strategy and operations, finance, and human resources. Although the technical concepts are vital for any aspiring executive to master, some of the most important things I'm taking away from the program are the soft skills: leadership, team building, and managing innovation. I spent the first eight months working with a team of six people, with whom I worked harder and learned more than I ever could have on my own. In our negotiations and conflict management course we learned to resolve differences and reach agreement between individuals and organizations. Expertise in negotiations is considered a core competency for leaders in commercial and political organizations, and this course has provided me with skills I will draw on throughout my career.

I'm leaving Queen's in two months armed with a toolbox of new skills, a fresh perspective on business, lifelong friendships, and a world of new possibilities. This has definitely been one of the most challenging and rewarding years of my career, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.