When you think about the benefits of earning an MBA, you’ll likely consider gaining valuable skills and building a professional network that can impact your career. You probably won’t have “meeting the love of your life” on your list of potential benefits, but that’s exactly what happened for Joel Hartleroad and Erica Ramirez.

Joel and Erica began their journey towards each other by choosing to enroll in the Evening MBA program at Virginia Tech. Joel was an analyst at AARP who decided on the program for its in-person classes and high national ranking. Erica was a program and management analyst at the Department of Defense and learned about the Evening MBA program from a colleague, eventually selecting it because of the flexibility to attend classes in-person after work.

Before meeting for the first time, Joel had already learned from friends in Dr. Barbara Hoopes’ operations class that Erica was single. After being introduced by a mutual friend at a Graduate Student Assembly outing to Topgolf and chatting for most of the day, Joel made his move and asked Erica out for a drink. They met in Arlington and drinks quickly turned into a four-hour dinner.

“I knew after the first date that I’d marry her,” said Joel. After dinner with Erica, he skipped the Metro and instead walked the two miles home in a daze. “I opened the door to my house and told my roommate that I would marry Erica.”

Erica had always been cautious about dating, but left their time together thinking “that went well, he’s fun.” They continued to see each other and three months after that first date, Joel invited Erica to meet his family in Dallas, TX. “That’s when I felt he could be ‘the one,’” said Erica.

Over the next year and a half, they continued their time in the Evening MBA program, taking their first class together—Organizational Behavior with Dr. Bill Becker—and both being promoted at work—Joel to project manager and Erica to budget and program performance section chief.

During that time, Joel was also busy planning to make good on what he’d told his roommate after the first date. He decided to propose to Erica during an international elective trip, but this was March 2020 and there was a major disruption to his plans: COVID-19.

The trip to Argentina and Peru was cut short in Buenos Aires, days before the trip to Lima where Joel had planned to propose. Faced with getting on a flight the next morning, Joel no longer had a plan. “I called my mom and said we were returning home, but I hadn’t proposed yet. She told me, ‘There’s no time like the present. Just do it now.’ "

Photo of Joel proposing to Erica
Photo courtesy Erica Ramirez & Joel Hartleroad
Photo of Erica and Joel after their proposal with Erica showing her engagement ring
Photo courtesy Erica Ramirez & Joel Hartleroad

“The proposal caught me by surprise,” said Erica. “I can’t think of another occasion where I have been completely blindsided – in a good way. I found out later that my immediate family, my best friend, and other close friends knew ahead of time, and no one spilled the beans.”

Not spilling the beans was quite the feat for their friends and classmates given that word spread quickly about the “nighttime walk” and other members of the MBA group decided to join the walk despite the urgent need to leave the country the next morning. As a result, many additional people were present to witness the proposal. “We were happy to have part of our Hokie family surround us,” said Joel.

Just a few hours later, Joel, Erica and the rest of the MBA group boarded a flight back to the United States and the world shut down. “I’m really glad I took my mom’s advice,” said Joel. “I don’t know when I would have [proposed] or how I could have hidden the ring for that long in quarantine.”

After a global shift to virtual life, including their MBA graduation in 2020, pandemic restrictions eventually eased and in-person celebrations resumed. Joel and Erica were married on October 2, 2021, in Huatulco, Mexico, about three years after that first outing to Topgolf.

“I don’t know if either of us thought that the decision of enrolling in a graduate program would lead us to the love of our life – but that’s exactly what happened,” said Erica. “The Hokie friends we made along the way have turned into our extended family. We’ll be forever grateful to have had the opportunity to attend Virginia Tech and the relationships with fellow students and staff alike. This program really does change your life for the better.”

Erica and Joel dressed in Hokie gear at an alumni event
Photo courtesy Erica Ramirez & Joel Hartleroad