With his 22 years of military experience as a U.S. Army Officer, John Harbison brings real-world insight into the classroom at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
As a professor of practice for the Learning and Leadership programs, Harbison teaches his students what it means to be a leader, including helping them become more comfortable with making difficult decisions.
“It’s having those hard conversations with people,” Harbison said. “It’s a business decision and that’s what I had to do in my career and in the military. There were standards to uphold and those are the kinds of things that we talk about in class.”
Harbison is a UTC alum, earning his bachelor’s degree in engineering management before joining the Army and immediately becoming a second lieutenant.
“I was responsible for 12 individuals and about $2 million worth of equipment. From there, I just grew in responsibility,” he said.
He went on to serve three tours in Germany and—in 1989—found time to complete his Master of Industrial Technology at Western Carolina University. His last assignment as an artillery officer was in the Pentagon, where he oversaw three training centers in the U.S. and Europe.
In 2000, Harbison retired as a lieutenant colonel. He transitioned into the corporate world, becoming a learning manager at Cigna Healthcare, a job that Harbison said took some adjustment.
“Going to corporate America, the environment and the people changed,” he said. “I had to adjust my approach and also be more sensitive than I had been in the military about how I communicate.”
Harbison not only adapted but also used his extensive background at the college level. He earned a doctoral degree in learning and leadership from UTC in 2016 and began teaching in fall 2018.
“It was easy to make the connection because I have experienced things not only in the Army but also in corporate America,” Harbison said. “I can relate and connect with the people that were trying to learn the concepts of leadership that they maybe hadn’t fully appreciated or understood.”
As a military veteran, Veteran’s Day to Harbison holds great significance. However, the day isn’t for him, he said.
“I think of all the others. I’ve had friends that have passed. I was briefing a general in the Pentagon before I left,” he explained, “and then a year later he was killed on 9/11 when the plane crashed into the Pentagon. I think those are the ones that are really the heroes.”
He sometimes feels confused when people thank him for his service because serving in the military was something Harbison always planned on doing.
“Thank you for allowing me to serve,” he said. “That’s really what it means for me personally.”
Sandra Cordell was only a senior in high school when she joined the Navy. Wanting to follow in her father’s footsteps and leave her hometown of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for the first time, she graduated high school and went to boot camp in Orlando, Florida.
“I just thought what a cool opportunity to travel and meet new people, new experiences, and I was very excited for that,” Cordell said.
What she didn’t expect, however, was the vast skill set she acquired from her time in the military, allowing her to eventually help other veterans as director of the Veterans Entrepreneurship Program (VEP) at UTC.
After boot camp, Cordell served as a yeoman in Meridian, Mississippi. At the time, women were not assigned to combatant ships, only medical or supply ships. As a result, she did shore duty in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where she also met her husband.
“It wasn’t as glamorous as I’d hoped it would be,” she said, “but the experience was more than I could have asked for. I learned a lot about myself.
“A lot of the skills that I still have today, I gained from the military.”
Cordell left the Navy in 1993, earned her associate degree, started a family and began working towards a bachelor’s degree at UTC—where she also worked in a student position for the Finance for the Future initiative.
Her ability to plan and attention to detail caught the eye of Robert Dooley, dean of the Gary W. Rollins College of Business.
Dooley, who had just started his position at UTC, had a VEP program in his previous role at Oklahoma State University and saw Cordell as the perfect candidate to lead the program at UTC.
In July 2012, the VEP was officially launched at UTC. Cordell has been involved in the program ever since, helping veterans enhance their leadership skills and ability to work under pressure to build successful lives outside the military.
She recalled starting a business with her husband after leaving the military that they had to close just a few years later.
“Another thing that feeds into my passion for the VEP is if we had a program like this when we had the business, we would have had more support,” Cordell said. “We didn’t have a support system at that time. Entrepreneurship wasn’t like it is now.”
Cordell believes the VEP extends beyond business instruction and mentorship. It also provides her with unique bonds and a valuable support system.
“When you get a room full of vets together, it doesn’t matter if we served in combat or what generation we’re from. There’s a camaraderie there that is really special,” she said, “and you can’t find it anywhere else.”