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From Disarming IEDs to Leading in the Boardroom: How a U.S. Marine Became a USC Online MBA Alumnus


When Ariel Elias started working toward his Online MBA through the University of Southern California in 2017, his background was very different from many of his peers. As a U.S. Marine, Ariel built a successful military career by handling complex problems under exceptional pressure. However, reaching his long-term goals as a leader in business required taking on a whole new set of challenges.

Ariel set out to strengthen his skills by earning his MBA from one of the world’s top-ranked online programs. USC’s Marshall School of Business develops leadership abilities through a focus on analytical problem-solving and a culture that encourages productive collaboration among an international group of working professionals. Ariel’s story highlights how this program’s rigor and flexibility attracts high-performing individuals with a wide variety of experiences and helps them lay the foundation for future excellence.


A History of Service and Leadership

Ariel joined the U.S. Marine Corps as a private in 1997, soon after finishing high school. Following a year of rigorous, specialized training in Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), he deployed to Iraq three times between 2003 and 2007. As part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, he was tasked with neutralizing the improvised explosive devices that were used heavily against coalition forces. Ariel went on to volunteer for the USMC Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC), deploying to Afghanistan in 2009 and 2011.

Over 14 years of service, Ariel rose through the ranks to the level of master sergeant before applying to the Marine Corps Officer program. He became the EOD Officer in Charge for MARSOC, 1st Marine Raider Battalion. In this role, he managed, trained and equipped the EOD Operators responsible for safely handling hazardous explosives.

At the same time, Ariel was determined to further improve his leadership and management skills through higher education in business. He graduated from American Military University in 2017 with a Bachelor of Business Administration. The same year, he undertook another deployment to Iraq, supporting Joint Multinational Special Operations Units in Operation Inherent Resolve.

Ariel knew an MBA program could give him an edge in his future endeavors by broadening his capabilities in critical thinking, analysis and leadership. Joining a world-class business school, he would connect with mentors who were renowned experts in management, marketing, communication, entrepreneurship and business law.

“In the Special Operations community, you are privileged to have an opportunity to work with the best of the best in the military,” he said. “As I continued to pursue higher education, I felt the Marshall School of Business would provide me with the same opportunity in business.”


Joining the Trojan Community

Enrolling in graduate education is a big commitment, and Ariel already had a lot on his plate. Fortunately, an online program offered the convenience that made it possible for him to meet the high-pressure responsibilities as a MARSOC officer and simultaneously complete the requirements for his MBA.

“This road was not easy, and I accomplished it while maintaining an aggressive operational work tempo,” Ariel explained. “My success in the program was only possible due to the flexibility of the Marshall School and the support of my professors and cohort.”

Through courses taught by Marshall’s faculty of highly accomplished researchers and educators, Ariel learned advanced concepts in organizational behavior, business law, social media strategy and managerial communications. The Online MBA takes an integrated approach to explore how organizations function in today’s interconnected, global marketplace. Delivered via a combination of asynchronous activities and weekly class sessions, the curriculum delves into the relationships between business disciplines, preparing leaders to analyze complicated problems that stretch across departmental and geographic boundaries, and make informed decisions.

The relationships that Ariel formed were just as vital to his educational experience as any of the lessons from his courses. Online learning can mean taking classes with busy people who live far away, but Marshall encourages students to form meaningful connections with their peers through an on-campus session at the start of the program and frequent online communication throughout. In this flexible cohort format, Ariel discovered the value of building a diverse network that includes dedicated professionals from around the world.

“Everyone had amazing drive, determination and passion for the program,” he said. “The teamwork in the program reminded me of times where I had an important mission to plan for and everyone had to work collectively towards a common objective.”

Since graduating from USC in 2019, Ariel transitioned into civilian life and a position working for the Walt Disney Company. He also serves as an ambassador for the Marine Raider Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to supporting current and former MARSOC Raiders and their families.

As Ariel’s story demonstrates, an MBA program can help professionals from a wide range of employment backgrounds advance toward their career objectives. The teamwork and leadership that he’d learned as a Marine made him an invaluable member of the Trojan community. In turn, Ariel could take classes from wherever his position took him, gaining the sophisticated business knowledge and the worldwide contacts that he needed to realize his plans to join a new kind of team and achieve lasting success.


About the USC Marshall School of Business

USC Marshall is one of the premier business schools in the U.S. and internationally recognized as a home for path-breaking research that emphasizes entrepreneurship, innovation, leadership and social responsibility. The USC Online MBA from the Marshall School of Business is built to help students succeed in the digitally driven business landscape, providing a curriculum focused on the practical skills expected of today’s global leaders. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, Marshall brings undergraduate and graduate students a unique perspective on the world, including global opportunities for experiential learning. The vibrant and active Trojan alumni community includes more than 89,000 people in 92 countries.


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