Nothing—not the frequent internet outages, not the riots, not the blockades, not the shelling—was going to stop Nigel Preisner from finishing his short course on strategic negotiations. Not even the nearby drone strike that shook him awake one night from his bed in Baghdad and preceded his emergency evacuation from the country.
Nigel had enrolled in the UC Davis Graduate School of Management Strategic Negotiations course, powered by GetSmarter, a brand of 2U, Inc., last fall while working as country manager of language capability for NATO Mission Iraq. In his role, he recruited, trained, and developed local interpreters for strategic, high-level language services that were employed for a range of circumstances, from on-the-spot translation for generals and senior diplomats to professional training for non-commissioned officers.
Having chosen the course for its practical approach, Nigel found many of the lessons coming in handy on the job almost immediately.
“I wanted powerful, ready-use qualifications that gave me a lead in the workplace and also had daily utility,” Nigel said. “With the strategic negotiations course, I was literally applying methods and techniques in NATO conferences and work surges day by day as I learned them.”
While Nigel’s online learning was proving effective, his physical work environment was deteriorating. What had begun as a relatively placid situation in Iraq—with Nigel and others doing outdoor yoga and regular jiujitsu classes—devolved over a matter of weeks into very real danger. The threat level rose. Attacks increased. Fuel and power supplies dwindled. Nigel’s interpreters could no longer move freely to their assignments. Nigel went from wearing a business suit on day trips to outlying NATO sites to dressing in full armor and diving into blast shelters to avoid insurgent fire. When Nigel was ultimately heli-lifted out of the site and into a US Air Force base in a neighboring country, he was heartbroken.
“As we flew away, I saw flak soaring over the city and the glistening lights recede through the prop wash of the Chinook,” he said. “And I felt everything I had worked for and built over the years disappear behind me.”
Nigel (third from right) with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (in necktie) and members of NATO Mission Iraq
When Nigel managed to get in front of a computer again—his negotiations course studies having obviously been interrupted by the most harrowing of circumstances—he was expecting a stern, perfunctory note from his student success manager, Robin, about his as-yet unexplained absence from the course. Instead he found a genuine message of compassion.
“She asked if I was OK, if I was getting enough sleep and rest, how she could support,” Nigel said. “It wasn't a cut-and-paste message or a recite-by-rote list of impractical 'bright ideas.’ She was professional and serious, and she actually cared.”
After Nigel explained his ordeal to Robin, she jumped into action. “She started asking me sensible, practical questions that considered me as an individual and that were aimed at finding a way to make it work.”
Nigel was ultimately offered a spot in the next strategic negotiations cohort and finished the course this past April. He couldn’t be more pleased with the support he received.
“Throughout this entire experience, my connections with the GetSmarter team have felt substantial and sincere, genuine and real,” he said. “I engaged fully with the online peer learner community, and I felt as much a student at UC Davis as one who lived on campus.”
When Nigel returned home—to Nottingham, UK—following the rapid evacuation, he learned the NATO mission was downsizing. Suddenly, he was out of a job, but he was not disheartened. He doubled down on his education by enrolling in a High Impact Leadership course offered by the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainable Leadership, another GetSmarter short course.
“The combination of sharp business, progressive ethics, and harnessing what the private sector can do really appealed to me,” he said. “Also the course’s emphasis on genuine, dynamic values-based leadership is increasingly relevant to the workplace.”
These skills came in handy when Nigel re-entered the job market.
“The UC Davis and Cambridge courses added some rocket fuel to my CV,” he said. “I received LinkedIn inquiries and email responses at a surprising rate. During online interviews, the mix of hard and soft skills—clear business acumen and logic combined with emotional intelligence and team-building—constantly came up.”
Today, Nigel works for an international rescue agency on relationship building, strategic planning, and training and hiring talent. Now based in Belgrade, Serbia, he often logs 20-hour days to support interagency training exercises that simulate natural and man-made disasters. And during the few free hours he has to spare? He’ll be back in the virtual classroom. He starts the UC Davis Leadership Program in 6 weeks and plans to enroll in the University of Cape Town Negotiation and Conflict Resolution short course in late November, both GetSmarter short courses.
Perhaps it’s fitting that he should start another short course, his fourth, just prior to Thanksgiving, as Nigel is nothing but grateful for how the courses have helped him in a high-stakes career.
“These courses offer rigorous, practical learning that a busy person can manage with some planning. Plus the partner colleges GetSmarter works with are all well-renowned seats of learning worldwide,” he said. “And the entire community is genuinely out to help you. They want to see you win!”
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