From War Room to Classroom to Boardroom: Leveraging the Power of Military Service

December 1, 2023
A student wearing a military uniform shakes the hand of another student dressed in civilian clothes. The interaction is happening at a table for the Duke Armed Forces Association at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business

When Herman Bulls Jr., MBA ’15, decided to attend Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, he knew he had a major adjustment ahead of him.

As an active-duty U.S. Army captain and alumnus of the United States Military Academy West Point, he did not have much exposure to the civilian world. He was also mere months away from taking on a new role—becoming a father.

“Getting there and becoming a dad, it was easier than I thought, and I'm going to say that was because of my classmates,” Bulls said.

Bulls and his wife welcomed their first child, a baby boy, just a couple of months into the Daytime MBA program. To help out, his classmates organized meals for the new family.

“For probably about two or three months, we did not have to cook at all because every one of my section mates volunteered to bring us a meal,” Bulls said. “Still to this day, it is one of the kindest, nicest things anyone has ever done for us.”

It’s a gesture that still makes him emotional, years later.

“In the military, your neighbors look out for you nonstop,” Bulls said. “To get to business school and to have my peers do that, just because I was part of their team, the son I was welcoming into the world was seen as part of the team. That’s not something you forget.”

Finding Belonging and a Valued Voice

It can be a challenge for active duty service members or veterans to find their voice among a group of peers they perceive to be very different from them.

“Looking at my classmates, many of them did amazing things—from writing books to working at amazing organizations,” Bulls said. “It made me wonder how my experience as an infantry officer who did a couple of deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan could compare.”  

That’s a sentiment echoed by many veterans transitioning from the military—a sentiment Fuqua faculty, staff, students, and alumni work to combat.

“There’s a misconception that the military is homogenous, but that really isn’t the case. Our veteran population reflects the full spectrum of diversity found in the U.S.,” said Allison Jamison, assistant dean of admissions. “One thing veterans do have in common is a wealth of team-building and global experience to leverage at Fuqua and beyond.”

The value of military service hits home for Jamison. She first came to Fuqua as an active-duty Army spouse years before she joined the Admissions team.

“Veterans can speak to leadership, openness, focus, and a willingness to contribute to a group effort,” she said. “The opportunity to be exposed to their adaptability and maturity is a benefit for other students.”

Organizations like the Duke Armed Forces Association (DAFA) help classmates of veterans learn from their experiences. For example, at “Vet Talks” events, DAFA members share stories from their time in the military. The willingness to share, and to listen, creates a culture that helps those with military experience, like Bulls, understand how much their experience is valued.

Learning from the Highest-Ranked Military Member in the U.S.

Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey teaches a leadership class at Fuqua—sharing his experience advising President Barack Obama on critical issues of national security as the nation’s highest-ranked military officer.

“To be able to have that life-or-death perspective is really powerful because it can help me more effectively put decisions into context,” said Mitch Atchison, MBA ’23 and MSQM: ABA ’23. “Rather than creating a ‘how-to’ guide for high-stress situations, I gained a new perspective and shaped a framework for using a team’s differences to our benefit.”

Atchison believes General Dempsey’s class is particularly relevant in teaching the type of leadership that fosters a sense of belonging—the importance of developing a common mission, uniting a team and moving a team forward.

“General Dempsey’s class provided a forum to ideate on the actions and behaviors we can use to galvanize those around us to march for a common cause,” Atchison said.

That mirrors Bulls' overall experience.

“At Fuqua, you are put into situations where you are working with a team, succeeding and failing as a team, taking the best of what every individual has to offer and seeing how each one of those unique characteristics can help the team achieve the mission,” Bulls said.

The Mission Beyond the Classroom

While General Dempsey and students with military experience bring the insights of the military world into the classroom, Fuqua’s faculty are committed to helping veterans transition to the civilian world through the Veteran Transitions Research Lab (VTRL).

VTRL is co-directed by Fuqua Professor Aaron Kay, Executive-in-Residence Sean Kelley and Professor David Sherman with the University of California, Santa Barbara. The lab partners with a cohort of social psychology and organizational psychology researchers aimed at addressing challenges veterans face while navigating the job market or the workplace.

“Ultimately, our goal is to leverage insights from studies conducted at the highest level of academic research to design wise interventions and influence scalable changes in the veteran-serving ecosystem of nonprofits, employers, and governmental agencies,” Kelley said. “We aim to improve employment outcomes for veterans, which has far-reaching benefits for the entire military family and society at large.”

One example of such research is a study co-authored by Kay, which found veterans were funneled into lower-paying jobs because they are viewed as selfless heroes and offered initial evidence for how to combat this funneling.

“We are creating a community of change leaders committed to scholarly research that we hope will benefit veterans and military families for years to come,” Kelley said.

Paying It Forward

The importance of the VTRL work resonates with Atchison.

“Military members put themselves aside as individuals,” Atchison said. “That is something we can learn from, honor and respect.”

Just as Fuqua values the experience of veterans, Bulls is an example of how the Army values what its members can learn at Fuqua while still on active duty.

“The significance of the Army paying for me to attend a two-year MBA program cannot be understated,” Bulls said. “By sponsoring this experience, the Army was hoping to receive a strong leader, and ultimately, a better officer in return.”

Now, Bulls is committed to educating veterans about the impact of business education by volunteering for events to talk about his MBA experience. He was particularly persuasive with one veteran—his brother Jonathan, also a West Point grad, who earned his MBA at Fuqua in 2019.

“We have more to offer in our careers—in the Army, for me, and in the private sector for Jonathan—than I thought was possible before Fuqua,” Bulls said. “I want to help veterans realize the many unique skills they bring to the workplace.”