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University of Delaware - Alfred Lerner College of Business & Economics

By Dena Hillison May 31, 2019

Two thousand fire runs, 1,300 training hours in fire, rescue, emergency medical services and hazardous materials, 200 undergraduate credits and 40 graduate credits are only a sample of what Alex Ciolek, Class of 2016 and MBA Class of 2019, has accomplished in his six years at the University of Delaware.

For his next endeavor, Ciolek is preparing to become an officer in the United States Air Force. Before graduating with over 1,500 other students in the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics and departing for officer training school, Ciolek reflected on how the leadership skills he gained at UD and the Aetna Hose, Hook and Ladder Company will help him on his journey.

“After serving my community for so long in a paramilitary organization I wanted to take that service a step further and serve my country,” Ciolek said. “I believe that my MBA would best serve the Air Force in a logistical role as an acquisitions officer. I’ll be commissioning in the fall as an officer candidate in officer training school at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. At the end of the training I’ll swear in as a second lieutenant.”

For Ciolek, a Newark native whose mother worked at UD, choosing where to go to school for his undergraduate degree was a no-brainer. After spending his first semester undeclared, Ciolek chose to double major in political science and economics. It was also during this time that Ciolek decided to join Aetna Hose, Hook and Ladder Company as a volunteer. He attended a fair featuring the many opportunities for extracurricular involvement available for students at UD, and decided that if he was going to spend his free time devoted to an activity, it should be something that helped others.

“We depend a great deal on our student volunteers like Alex,” Deputy Chief of Aetna Hose, Hook and Ladder Company Steve Debold said. “These students somehow manage their hectic class schedules and find time to train and serve the community with us. The students bring with them a fresh set of eyes and new ideas to a service that is built on tradition and traditional thinking.

“Those that move on hopefully gain knowledge and experiences that they can use for the rest of their lives and will always belong to the close-knit fire service family.”

After earning his undergraduate degree, Ciolek took a year off in order to figure out what he wanted to do next. He continued to volunteer at the firehouse but knew, at some point, he would want to work at the management level and eventually start his own business.

“After exploring a bunch of different options, I thought that a good way to get into that and make myself more competitive would be to get a broad MBA [degree] to help push myself forward professionally,” Ciolek said.

Ciolek began his MBA studies while continuing to volunteer his free time as a firefighter, where he was recognized twice as one of the most active emergency responders with Aetna, and was certified as an emergency medical technician (EMT), hazmat technician and swift-water rescue technician. After his first semester of MBA leadership courses, Ciolek decided to apply to become an engine captain for Aetna Hose, Hook and Ladder Company. This timing gave him the unique opportunity to learn both leadership theory and practice at the same time.

“Being an engine captain and an MBA student, they both influenced each other,” Ciolek said. “It was a lot of real-time learning and application. In my first semester, I took a leadership course with different theories and approaches to leadership and I was able to apply that to my station. I got to see how that reflected with my chief officers who were my supervisors and then with my firefighters who were my subordinates, and it helped me develop my leadership style.

“One of the first things I did as an engine captain was develop a training plan, because we have weekly training at the firehouse,” Ciolek continued. “I identified that there was an area that we hadn’t had a lot of training for yet, and that was off-road rescues, so I put this two-lesson training plan together … I learned a lot from it and was able to hone my presentation style … It was a little bit surreal to go from being the student to being the presenter. In terms of leadership, that was one of the biggest things was taking that initial step out of my comfort zone and putting myself in those situations.”

“I certainly saw changes in Alex’s leadership style as he progressed through the [MBA] program,” Debold said. “He was not as confident in his abilities early on, and that changed as he gained experience as well as knowledge. Alex used this knowledge to get members working together as a cohesive group on whatever project he was involved with.

“We [leadership in the station] would brainstorm potential problems we could encounter and discuss rectifying them using our current methods as well as using what Alex has learned to try to determine which would provide the best outcome for those involved and for the fire department.”

“Alex truly was one of my top students in terms of his inquisitiveness and his pursuit of knowledge,” said Suresh Sundaram, assistant professor of marketing at UD’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics. “He was never in the class just for the grade. For him it was about, ‘What can I learn that I can apply to what I want to do?’ and that was the part that was really refreshing for me having him in my classes.”

Ciolek was gaining new leadership and management skills both in the classroom and the firehouse and he began to wonder, “What’s next?” About halfway through his MBA program, he began to discuss this question with his peers and mentors at the firehouse and with his connections at the Lerner College. He took a quiz through the Lerner Career Services Center that reiterated what the veterans at the firehouse were saying to him: that working in acquisitions and logistics for the Air Force would be a great fit.

“Alex wasn’t afraid to ask for feedback and help from the people around him,” said Jill Gugino Panté, director of the Lerner Career Services Center. “A great leader learns from others, seeks out expert advice and continues to build their skills. Alex utilized his networks, the resources provided by UD and the Lerner College and advanced his skills to build his professional portfolio and continue his emergence as a leader in the field.”

“The experience from my MBA program and my experience as an engine captain, or just as a firefighter in general, combining those two has been incredibly rewarding. So I can only imagine that the experiences I have working in small teams, under stress, and doing more critical thinking and analysis, what that will do to benefit me in future situations,” Ciolek said. “You never know if you can handle that until you do it. I’m hoping that those situations that I have gone through both in class or through firefighting, will allow me to get through and also help others going through officer training.”

Now, as Ciolek graduates with his MBA and prepares to move away from Delaware for officer training school, his mentors from the Lerner College and the Aetna Hose, Hook and Ladder Company acknowledged that he is well-prepared to be a leader in his new role.

“Having known [Ciolek] for the past year, I fully expect to see him outperform everyone in his starting group [in the Air Force] and rise through ranks more quickly than expected,” Sundaram said. “He’s a perfectly unassuming leader. He’s more about motivating other people than telling them what to do. He’s very inclusive of everyone in that way.”

“While it is difficult to see Alex leave, it is with pride we watch him move on to serve our country with the knowledge he has gained from UD and Aetna” Debold said.

Ciolek himself noted that, although this is the first time he will be moving outside of the state of Delaware, he knows that his Blue Hen and firefighting community will always be a part of his life.

“Delaware has such a unique, small hometown feel to it,” Ciolek said. “You can go anywhere in the world, and if anyone is from Delaware, there are two degrees of separation. So, I’m going to miss that hometown feel, but I know with my parents living here and the firehouse being here, I’ll always have that home base to go back to.”