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executive mbas

Rose Bhura, an executive MBA student at Queen’s University, studies as her daughter Ava, 7, sits with her at their home in Vancouver.Darryl Dyck

As co-founder of a Vancouver film and media company, Rose Bhura relies on many people to put together a production.

The same holds true for her pursuit of an executive MBA: it's not a one-woman show.

"You definitely need a core group of people, which I call my tribe," says Ms. Bhura, 38, a married mother of two young children, and co-owner of Parvati Creative Inc., with Canadian actress Kristin Kreuk.

Now midway through a 16-month executive MBA offered by Queen's School of Business in Kingston, Ms. Bhura reflects on the juggling act required at home, school and work to make the most of an intense education experience.

"You learn very quickly that you can't do things on your own," she says. "You live in an interdependent world. You can't do this on an island."

That's also the view of Gloria Saccon, director of the Queen's executive MBA. When she recruits potential candidates for the $95,000 program, she asks them all the same question: What support do you have at home and work?

"What I want to hear is that the infrastructure is in place and their house is in order to come into the program," says Ms. Saccon, adding that a successful executive MBA candidate requires "solid" support from family, work and school. "If one [of them] is somewhat weak, very quickly that [academic] experience will be compromised."

In Ms. Bhura's case, she and her husband, lawyer Salman Bhura, both attended an information session in 2013 for the Queen's MBA to understand the scope of the commitment. "He has been rock solid for me," Ms. Bhura says. Her husband helped set up a dedicated study space for her at home and, especially in the evening, attends to their children, 7 and 2, so she can study.

Ms. Bhura chose the Queen's program – a blend of video-conference classes in Vancouver every other weekend and three residential stints at the university's Kingston campus – for the course content and access to a class of 85 students from a diverse range of industries. She also had friends, as alumni, recommend the program.

Given the fast-changing media landscape, she saw the executive MBA as a way to expand her business skills and apply best practices to the development of her and her partner's six-year-old production company. "I am a very big proponent of the pursuit of knowledge," Ms. Bhura says. "And for me, having the opportunity to learn from the best here, the professors and faculty and from my peers, is knowledge I will take back to my own industry."

Still, she wanted assurances that her media industry background was a fit for the Queen's program. At the 2013 information session, Ms. Saccon connected Ms. Bhura with a recent alumnus from the same field who offered encouragement and insights into the program.

Ms. Saccon says she encourages students to "keep the conversation alive with the key people at home and work," so they feel part of the education experience. For example, a spouse could proofread an essay before the student hands in the assignment.

For its part, Queen's provides team-based and individual support from several types of coaches.

At each of the nine video-conference sites, a faculty coach works with each team to share best practices on how to work on assignments together, how to stay in touch between classes and use the technology. As well, there are coaches for individuals to receive advice on fitness, career and personal development.

One of the biggest challenges is learning to manage time, with an expected study workload of 20-25 hours a week.

"I say at the beginning: simplify, simplify, simplify and then try to simplify some more," says Ms. Saccon, who urges participants to cut back on volunteer and discretionary commitments to squeeze in precious study time.

Ms. Bhura invites members of her Vancouver team to her house on Monday nights for study sessions around the dining room table, creating an opportunity to build camaraderie over relearning how to learn and to write exams.

At especially busy times, Ms. Bhura gets up at 5 a.m. to study before joining the family for breakfast. During the day, she works on her production company business before picking up her daughter from school in the afternoon. (She has some nanny help during the week for her son.)

A family dinner together at 6 p.m. is "a sacred hour," says Ms. Bhura, to ensure consistency for the children. After dinner, she studies until 11:30 p.m.

Despite competing demands on her time, Ms. Bhura tries to strike a balance between school and family.

Last December, the same week as she wrote exams, she decided to attend her daughter's Christmas concert. "I thought 'wait a minute, this is an important event,'" recalls Ms. Bhura.

She says the decision to attend the concert was a reminder about the value of setting priorities and taking the long view on pursuing another degree.

"I want this to be an enjoyable experience and integrate it into my life," she says of the executive MBA. "Modern life is so busy but it is always going to be busy. So this is a great time for me to hone the practice of prioritizing."

When she attends the residential sessions in Kingston, she relies on her "secret sauce" – her mother and in-laws – who fly in from Edmonton and Calgary to help look after the children in her absence.

Even with all the supports in place, Ms. Bhura says the toughest challenge has been to carve out a little time for herself. "You have so many competing demands from work, school and family that sometimes you are the last one to get a check mark by your name," she laughs.