Kristel Whitty-Ersan can make a claim that others in her family cannot.

“I have an MBA,” she said as a crowd laughed during a celebration honoring the 35th anniversary of St. Ambrose University’s H.L. McLaughlin MBA program held Wednesday at the Rogalski Center.

Whitty-Ersan, a 1994 graduate of the program, is the director of marketing for her family’s business, Happy Joe’s Pizza and Ice Cream. She says she fell into the business, and that the MBA gave her the underpinnings she needed to be a part of the business started by her father, Joe Whitty.

“My early aspirations were in the arts, not in business,” she said. “My background is theater and music. I was a professional singer and voice talent, singing and doing voice-overs and didn’t have the aspirations to work for Happy Joe’s.”

With her bachelor’s degree in the arts from DePaul University in Chicago, Whitty-Ersan had her sights set on acting and singing. Taking a break in the early ’90s, however, she found that the marketing director at Happy Joe’s needed some help.

“I went in and assisted her with a few things,” Whitty-Ersan said, adding that her background in the arts, especially her natural creativity, was put to good use in marketing.

When the marketing director moved on, Whitty-Ersan said, “I was going to fill in until arrangements could be made and wound up enjoying the job. It was fun and something I felt close to because it was my family’s business.”

But if she was going to do the job long-term, she said, “I needed to get some business acumen. I felt that would only be right to do.”

Besides, although her father built the business, and her brother, Larry, is company president, Whitty-Ersan said she still had to prove to the Happy Joe’s team that she could do the work.

While the accounting and economics courses were intimidating for someone who majored in the arts, she said, “I really enjoyed it.”

The MBA program at St. Ambrose began in 1977 with 39 students. In 1984, the program was officially named the H.L. McLaughlin MBA Program after prominent area business leader Harry L. McLaughlin, according to the program’s course catalog.

Students can opt for a traditional track to complete the 39 semester hours of coursework, or they can elect to take the intensive track that will allow them to complete the program in one year, according to the course catalog.

Teresa Hutchinson, director of the program since July 2011, also is a graduate of it.

Earning her MBA prepared her for her doctoral program in education technology.

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“It’s a student-centered program with a full Ph.D.-trained faculty,” Hutchinson said. “Students have direct access to that level of instructor in every single course. That knowledge exchange is paramount to the student experience.”

Jeff Nelson, who has been general manager of MetroLINK since 1986, earned his McLaughlin MBA in 1996.

Nelson said he liked that “you got the theory element in the classroom, and then you got the opportunity to apply that theory in the real world.”

A Moline native who earned a degree in political science in 1982 from Western Illinois University, Nelson said it was one of the McLaughlin professors who got him interested in enrolling.

“I’ve never been one to close the door,” he said. “I’ve always kept my mind open when people challenge me with ideas and concepts. The timing was right and going through the program at St. Ambrose helped me out a lot.”

Since 1978, the program has produced 3,767 graduates, Hutchinson said.

While there are many MBA programs throughout the country, she added, it is still a worthwhile degree to have.

“It’s still the business standard,” Hutchinson said.