On November 13 at precisely 1528, or 3:28 pm eastern standard time, First Lieutenant Thomas Parks piloted one of two Virginia Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopters over Zable Stadium. The flyover was part of the university’s Veteran’s Day recognition held during the William & Mary versus James Madison University football game.
Parks organized the mission, charting the flight path from Richmond north-to-south over center field after learning that William & Mary’s ROTC department had reached out to his unit for the event. It was an opportunity for Parks, who is a student in the full-time MBA (FTMBA) program at the Raymond A. Mason School of Business, to bring together his military service with his academic experience.
“It was an honor to be chosen for this assignment to honor our veterans,” he said. “William & Mary, specifically the Mason School of Business, is a special place because of their willingness to work with me and the military to make it so I can accomplish everything I need to accomplish for the Virginia National Guard while helping me to reach all of my personal academic goals.”
Balancing Service in the National Guard and Academics
Parks was familiar to the military way of life prior to joining the Army. His father served until retirement first in the Virginia Army National Guard and then for the active-duty Army after 9/11. Parks says he swore against joining the military himself, but after his second year in college, he recognized that he needed a way to pay for his ungraduate degree at Hampden-Sydney College.
“Initially, my primary reasoning behind considering the military was a way to pay for college,” he said. “I walked into the ROTC office at school and began talking about possible options. The Army then sent me to Fort Knox, Kentucky for the summer. Surprisingly, I found the military provided a sense of fulfillment and responsibility that I had previously only felt mildly through high school sports. The opportunity to lead young men and women in a dynamic and meaningful way immediately became a passion and a goal.”
After graduating from Hampden-Sydney in 2018, Parks commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the armor branch. Soon after commissioning, Parks received his flight physical and immediately submitted a flight packet with the Virginia Army National Guard. After being accepted, he reported to Fort Rucker, Alabama. After the Basic Officer Leadership Course and S.E.R.E school, he learned to pilot the TH-67 Creek in day, instrument, and combat environments. Upon completion of the “primary” phase, he learned to pilot the UH-60L Black Hawk, which is what he now flies for the Virginia Army National Guard.
“When I neared the end of flight school and began contemplating my return to Virginia, I began evaluating my life goals and how I could meet them. I studied pre-med biology in college and am proud of my well-rounded liberal arts education. However, I found that the goals I have for life would be more achievable if supplemented with a master’s degree in business,” he said.
The right MBA program had to meet certain criteria. Parks needed a school in Virginia as he would be flying out of the Richmond airport. The school had to offer a top-quality education, access to a strong alumni network, and be supportive of military servicemembers.
“I am proudly Virginian in both my education and my service so it was important for that to continue. William & Mary did that perfectly,” he explains.
Once in the FTMBA program, Parks found again, the team environment to be especially rewarding.
“Our small group was made up of four complete strangers from incredibly varied backgrounds. We learned a lot about each other as we turned out some awesome products, and how to utilize people’s strengths and weaknesses,” he said.
Parks also cites the Executive Partner program as a highlight of his experience, as well as the diversity of the overall cohort- which includes nearly 30 percent active duty and veteran servicemembers.
“I am a young officer and I am in the same learning environment with others, who are in some cases, ten years ahead of me career-wise,” he said. “I am peers with people who would normally not be in my peer group. I was able to pick their brains and learn from their experiences which I carried forward in my work on the Guard side.”
Called to Serve
At the time of publication, Parks is preparing for a deployment to Kosovo. He will leave in January and hopefully return near the end of 2022. He says he is grateful for the Mason School’s flexibility in accommodating his extenuating circumstances.
“Just as the academic requirements in the full-time program were ramping up, so were my pre-deployment responsibilities. I knew I needed to take a step back to be able to accomplish what I needed to in order to be prepared to deploy. I am appreciative that the full-time MBA team understood my situation and worked with me to set me up for success,” he said.
Parks plans to return to the full-time program once he returns from deployment in spring 2023 and hopes to meet all of his graduation requirements by the end of that year. After that, he hopes to continue his service for the National Guard and transition into the civilian business sector when the right opportunity arises.
“I wish I could say that I have it all figured out, but that is part of this process of going to business school and learning about all of the different career paths that are out there,” he said. “It’s unfathomable how much I enjoy flying helicopters so if I can find a way to combine that with an area of business, I will be very blessed.”