How I Paid For Graduate School: A Surprising Opportunity to Say Thanks


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It was the summer of 1977 and I was a just-graduated college student serving hot steaks to hungry customers at a Myrtle Beach steakhouse. While my customers were thinking about extra sour crème for their bake potatoes, my mind was on a MBA degree and whether by my alma mater, the University of South Carolina, would approve financial aid in time for the fast-approaching Fall semester.

By late July, with no word from school, I decided to drive the 138 miles to Columbia to get my answer.

Once on campus, I swung by the Registrar’s office and got a transcript of my grades. (Hey, I didn’t study all those hours for nothing!) Armed with my transcript, I walked the few blocks to the business school and, having no formal appointment, camped outside the office of Dr. Pierce Lyles, the business school’s Graduate Program Director.

My big moment came a half-hour later when, inside Dr. Lyles office, I nervously placed my transcript on the Director’s desk and said, “I desperately want my MBA. I don’t have any money. But I know you do. How can I get some of it?”

With far more calmness than I was displaying, Dr. Lyles, eyeballed my transcript, leaned back in his leather desk chair, looked me over carefully and then replied, “I will give you an assistantship for one semester. Your grades will determine whether or not it gets renewed.”

Needless to say, I was thrilled and relieved beyond words. And that “break” lead to more and more financial help from USC (including a cool job running the sales office for the USC’s Gamecock newspaper) . I finished the MBA program owing a measly $875.

Fast forward to April 2009 and the Distinguished Alumni Dinner at USC’s Moore School of Business. I was the dinner’s keynote. My topic was alumni loyalty and, from the stage, I talked about how, to build any kind of loyalty – including alumni loyalty – you had to give value first. I then told my Dr. Lyles story and how he and the University gave me value first. A spattering of applause arose from the audience in what I assumed was appreciation for the memory of this fine administrator’s long history with the business school. After the dinner, some folks came to my table to say hello and a little greeting line formed. I was conscious of a dapperly dressed, older gentleman at the end of the line, who was cautiously shuffling forward with the support of his wife’s arm. When the couple got to the head of the line, I spied his name tag. It read, “Dr. Pierce Lyles.” I was astounded. Gathering my composure, I reiterated what a difference! his help had made in my life. Always a man of few words, this stately gentleman, with tears in his eyes simply responded, “I made a good investment.”

I stood there with wonder in the realization that after 30+ years of post-university living, I had the extraordinary opportunity to publicly thank this man for truly giving me an early, important break.

Loyalty Lesson:
Who has held out a hand for you? Who gave crucial value to you at a make-it or break-it time? What client or customer has given you the benefit of the doubt when you needed it the most? Acknowledgement is a key component to building customer loyalty. Saying thank you is a powerful tool. Use it

Jill Griffin
Griffin Group
Jill Griffin is a "Harvard Working Knowledge" author of three books on customer loyalty. She serves as public board director for Luby's Cafeterias, Fuddruckers and Jimmy Buffets' Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurants. Microsoft, Dell, Marriott Hotels, Ford, Toyota, Wells Fargo, IBM, Subaru are a few of the clients served since she hung out her "Loyalty Maker" shingle in 1988. Jill delivers customized keynotes worldwide. Sign up for her monthly loyalty tip at


  1. I don’t know you or Dr. Lyles, but your story brought a little tear to MY eye. With the blizzard of valuable “business posts” that fly past each day, it’s something of a blessing to find one, every now and then, that reminds me of the roles that basic civility, gratitude, and humanity play. Not as a means to an end, but just to BE the person I’d like to be.

    For me, it was widowed mom who didn’t hesitate a bit when a precocious (and in hindsight, a rather selfish) teen-aged son decided to leave her alone to go, with money we didn’t have, to some fancy college several states away. She lived to see me get my degree, but not long enough to hear me really appreciate and thank her for her selflessness.
    Thanks for the reminder, and the chance to do it here.


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