The start of the new school year has gotten me nostalgic.
While I have fond feelings about my undergrad days at Central Michigan University, and my mom took photos of every first day of a new school year at Westdale Elementary, what I’m mostly wistful for lately is business school.
Which is hilarious considering it made me cry on more than one occasion.
In retrospect, I started Michigan Business School blissfully unaware of what I was in for. I can’t recall talking to current students about the work load or the difficulty of classes. I’d always been the kind of student who got good grades without trying very hard so I don’t think it occurred to me to be worried.
I should have been.
According to BusinessWeek, 20 percent of applicants were admitted to the most recent MBA class at Michigan. What does that tell you about the caliber of my classmates when four out of five people who’d like to attend are turned away?
Did I mention every class is graded on a forced curve? A handful must get the lowest grade offered – so in every class, I looked around to see if five people looked more confused than I felt.
Within about 15 minutes of my first economics class, the professor was doing calculus on the chalkboard. Everyone else started taking notes. I started getting nervous.
Did I mention I was in the evening MBA program in southeast Michigan and maybe three-quarters of my classmates were auto industry engineers? They not only had a math-heavy education but probably did calculus on their day jobs.
I had to take calculus at Washtenaw Community College to apply to Michigan but never dreamed we’d use it right after reviewing the syllabus on the first day of class.
This is part of the twisted reason I get nostalgic for business school. It was so beyond my comfort zone and I managed to not just survive it but actually do reasonably well. Why?
- Even though I wanted to quit several times, I didn’t. John told me he’d support whatever decision I made, which was exactly the right thing to say, but I stuck with it. Sometimes showing up is half the battle.
- My classmates gave me tremendous support. At CMU, “study group” was usually code for ordering pizza, drinking beer and mostly ignoring the books. Since I was overwhelmed by economics, though, when classmates asked me to join them for exam preparation, I skeptically said yes. Gregg, Parker and Debbie saved me. We went over calculations and when I repeatedly asked “why?” they reassured me I wasn’t slowing them down but instead making sure they understood it well enough to explain it. I will forever be grateful to my smart, patient peer teachers including Saejin, Erica, Jason, Ken, Ed, Ryan, Nana, Stan, Nicole, Lorie, Michelle and J.P. Life lesson: don’t be too proud to ask for, and accept, help.
Before business school, I had a journalism degree and had only ever worked in newsrooms. I had covered business but lacked a lot of skills. My engineer classmates had to show me the most basic Excel functions so we could do our group homework. But anytime we had a paper to write, I felt valuable. Putting nouns and verbs together with good grammar and punctuation was something I got paid to do. In one group, Nathan and Chris sounded so relieved that all they had to do was hours of calculations and they were off the hook for the group report. They shared enough for me to learn what they’d done and I happily played to my strengths on the paper. I took away that on a team with diverse backgrounds and interests, everyone can contribute something and the sum is greater than the parts.
- It turned out I loved data. Journalists are stereotypically math phobic and I’d heard enough horror stories about statistics to be afraid. Thanks to an entertaining professor who made stats accessible, I fell in love not with the math functions but what they could do. There’s a story in every spreadsheet and I loved unlocking it. And I loved surprising myself by enjoying something unexpected so much.
- Business school isn’t just about classes. This, too, came as something of a surprise. I thought I was there to learn about marketing and business strategy but it turns out you’re there to network your way into a new job. Duh. Rachel Francisco talked me into serving with her as co-president of the Entertainment, Media & Sports Club and it was life changing. She helped me apply my amateur party planning skills to meeting people who could help me get a job. My involvement in extracurriculars was totally because people asked me to get involved so I learned to listen for opportunities and try to say yes if there’s even a remote possibility it could be worthwhile.
The main reason I get nostalgic about business school is my classmates. I expected smart professors with good class material – that’s what I thought I paid my tuition for. I had no idea the extent to which my education would come from my peers.
My evening MBA peers worked all day, then many of them drove great distances to sit for three hours and discuss demand curves or net present value or SWAT analyses. They were smart people motivated enough to invest that time to advance their careers. Being in their company pushed me to work harder. They inspired me with positive peer pressure and I didn’t want to let down my teammates.
I doubt I’ll ever get a doctorate. But I do think of it once in a while, when I get nostalgic for that buzz of an especially good study group with smart people who are creative in solving tough problems.
For now, just consider this my open love letter to people whose intelligence, generosity, sense of humor and camaraderie I will always hold dear.