Drawn to Make a Difference


One of Manderson MBA student Brad Toney’s first college volunteer experiences was teaching creative writing to inmates in a Rhode Island adult correctional facility. Even then, the Tuscaloosa native was drawn to make a difference. “We were just there to create space for them to talk to each other,” Toney recalled, “to share their experiences through using writing as a meditative practice.” Then a freshman at Brown University, his volunteer work came at a time when Rhode Island was debating whether to restore voting rights to ex-felons.

This fascination with empowering others from different walks of life continued after graduation, when Toney volunteered full-time with City Year, an AmeriCorps program that works to increase student retention in the Boston public school system. By that time, he had already decided that he wanted to earn a master’s in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Greater Boston, and he figured that the volunteer work would help him to better understand the local community.

After graduating, he worked for a few years in higher education administration positions, mostly centered around campus community management and supervision. Though he was still interested in public service, he did not initially plan to pursue an MBA. “If you had told me that I was going to go back to get another advanced degree,” he said, “I’d be like, ‘Oh, okay, what happened? I must’ve gotten a Pickering or Rangel Fellowship.’”

Past Toney was right: Present Toney is a Pickering Fellow, part of a cohort of students who are preparing for international affairs careers. He was one of 45 fellows selected out of an applicant pool of over 600. In exchange for financial support, Toney will in turn serve with the U. S. State Department for five years, at embassies and consulates overseas, representing the nation abroad.

“Since I already have the basic tools for international relations work, the fellowship agreed to fund an MBA program for me,” Toney explained. “I wanted to sharpen my skills in economics and how businesses operate, both here in America and overseas. The coursework at Manderson gives me all that useful technical knowledge and lingo.”

“That way when I begin my new career, I can build upon the foundation that I’m getting here at Manderson,” he went on. “I’m just seeing it as building blocks. Manderson has already shown me how to talk in accounting terms, and how to talk about organizational operations in a more streamlined way. I feel like I’m learning the languages of business. It’s being demystified in a lot of ways.”

Toney is currently focused on gaining all of the benefits that he can from his Manderson MBA program. He described his first semester as “surprisingly and unexpectedly magnificent.” A few years older than many of his classmates and returning to graduate school with professional experience that many of them do not yet have, Toney did not expect to “bond with his classmates in profound interpersonal ways.” But he did, and now he is learning to lead teams from the ground up, without formal power or authority. “One of the lessons that I learned from a mentor somewhere along the line is that feedback is a gift,” Toney explained. “…I’ve learned feedback tools to talk peer to peer, I hope in an effective way.”

When he graduates, Toney will go where The State Department sends him, entering as a foreign service officer generalist. He hopes to leverage his professional experience and Manderson training to work within the management area.

And while he’s excited about his future career, he is realistic about what it requires. Living abroad means less access to his immediate family in Tuscaloosa, for one thing. “It’s a sacrifice, but it’s also a tremendous opportunity. I think being able to represent the U. S. overseas and to be that face for America is such a unique opportunity, and I’m excited about it,” Toney said.

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