A few months ago, as I readied myself to enter a classroom for the first time in six years as a 28-year-old graduate student, I felt nervousness and excitement simultaneously. The hair on the back of my neck stood up.

A new challenge—an opportunity to grow—lay before me. It didn’t feel like my undergraduate experience. This wasn’t something I was “supposed” to do. It was something I had chosen to do based on what I wanted for my life, and it mattered to me that this went well.

The first thing I noticed as I entered the classroom and got settled in for “Business Statistics” was that my professor didn’t seem very … professorial. Not in the traditional sense. He worked at Oracle full-time and seemed incredibly knowledgeable about, and focused on, business issues happening in real-time. He did not appear to care at all about case studies from 1972, or how many widgets we might theoretically produce.

He cared about learning through experience—learning by solving real-world challenges in which the stakes were high. He made me care about this too. This ethos crystallized during the fourth project of the quarter, where we were tasked with finding our own data set to analyze, and encouraged to make it real and relevant to our lives and jobs. I am a digital marketing manager, and chose to work with my employer’s Google AdWords data.

It is amazing what happens when something stops being an “assignment” and fully bridges the gap between learning new skills and applying them in order to affect real results. I had been in school for less than two months and was already delivering work product at a higher level of sophistication than I ever would have before. I used multiple regression and optimization/linear programming tools such as Solver to make a strong case that we alter our advertising strategy (please note that I have a liberal arts background, as do 40 percent of my classmates—we didn’t walk in the door doing this stuff, we strutted out the door doing it). My boss and my colleagues took notice, and we began making these changes to our ad campaigns. Only time will tell whether these changes and optimizations impact our bottom line, but they certainly impacted our team.

I am immensely grateful, and excited, to see what happens in my “Business Intelligence” class next quarter.