A Look Back at the B-School Magic

Her 10-year high school reunion gets this MBA thinking about her journey and what she learned about life in business school

The Langley High School Class of 1997 10 year reunion is here, and as I approach the Rhodeside Grill in Arlington, Va., I wonder if anyone will recognize or even remember me. I wonder if the cute guys on the soccer team still look like they play soccer and if my neighbor still talks like a Valley Girl. I also wonder if in 1997 my classmates would have been able to see me as I am now. Ten years later, I have learned to control the poofy hair, I work at a cool company merchandising cool products, I moved to Minneapolis after a lifetime on the East Coast, and I am a new graduate of the Johnson School at Cornell University.

"Wait a minute. How did you go from JMU—dramatic pause—to Cornell?" Apparently, nobody saw me turning out this way. My friend John Paul, who went to James Madison University with me, is incredulous. JMU is a great school with strong academics, but John Paul and I both remember that during our time as students there, JMU was top ranked for "Hottest Coeds" and "Best Party Schools" by Playboy magazine and Princeton Review, respectively. Although these were honorable distinctions, I can understand why an Ivy League business school would seem beyond my reach. Back in high school and college, I was a pretty good student, but never the competitive type. I was friendly, but always a little shy.

Between drinks being spilled, getting elbowed by aging frat guys, and hits from the '90s booming at the bar, I can sense a hint of earnestness in John Paul's question as he waits for an actual response from me. But for some reason or another I have a hard time thinking up an answer for him. Maybe it's the vodka tonic or the blasting volume of Shaggy's "Boombastic". Or maybe now that I've been through business school, I feel as though the question should not be how I went from JMU to Cornell, but how I went from Cornell to where I am now.

Totally Clueless in B-School

Don't get me wrong. Getting to Cornell is no cakewalk, but really, the path to getting into business school is pretty straightforward. First, you take extra classes to make up for looking good and partying too hard as a coed. Then, you take the GMAT. Once you get your score, you take the GMAT again. The process repeats itself until absolute burnout. The steps are tedious, but they are tried and true.

Only on arrival at business school do you have the twists, turns, and more frequently, the dead ends. With so many opportunities available to you, the only thing you don't have is a clue of what to do or where to start. You could aspire to start your own business, utilize faculty resources, and build your network, only to learn from finance class that there is permanent, negative ROI (return on investment) in your business plan.

Or you could aim for brand management, watch every commercial, and test every product in the grocery store but discover during an internship that you really hate marketing-math. While the standard tools are seamless for self-evaluation, industry research, and career exploration, the job search is never the same experience for every MBA—except that it is always entirely frustrating and based on trial and error.

The Drama Beyond the Curriculum

On top of that, there is also a flexible curriculum over which you have a lot of control, and consequently more decisions about your life to make. The majority of MBAs at the Johnson School have two years to complete eight required courses of the MBA core curriculum while deciding which immersion to pursue, if any at all. Outside of the core, there's also independent studies, consulting projects, and study abroad programs. And if that's not enough learning for you, students can opt to take courses outside of the business school as electives, toward a dual degree or just for fun.

However what's more fun is actually not found in the popular wines course at the hotel school, or in any glossy brochure. The biggest thing about business school is that it is a life change in itself, and in a class with 300 like-minded 20- and 30-somethings, business school can add a whole lot of drama to your social and love life. It's natural for classmates to become quick friends and at many times, quick more-than-friends. And while there are just way too many men in suits to go around, somehow the women always end up competing for the same guy. At its ugliest, it can feel like a cross between The Apprentice and Flavor of Love.

But at its best, business school is actually more like Oprah being interviewed by Conan O'Brien. It expands your perspective, but you get to laugh at yourself and other people during the whole thing. Like it or not, you form strong relationships at the Johnson School, including ongoing ones with faculty and staff. Your life becomes intertwined in the lives of others just as they are intertwined in yours.

Two Years, No Regrets

You watch people get that nerve-wracking phone call from their top company, or that text message from their favorite undergrad. You are a part of someone's life when they get married, get promoted, get dumped, or fall in love. You meet spouses and significant others, their cute kids, their not-so-cute kids, and newborn babies who have transformed your party girl into supermom. For most of us students, it is a transitional life period, and the education is as much personal as it is professional.

As for me, I am coming out of business school with more than I expected and absolutely no regrets. Through all the twists, turns, poor decisions, and mistakes, I somehow managed to meet a great guy, get a job offer from Target (TGT) I couldn't refuse, and make friends I consider some of my best. I have learned to take chances, set priorities, and appreciate what I have and what I have to come.

Most of all, I have come to admire others' humility, integrity, and love of life, and I aim to emulate them. I don't know where I will be in the next 10 years, but even if I miss being a student, I know I will not miss business school. I am taking everything about it with me.

This journal is dedicated to Ofri Sharon, who was diagnosed with leukemia in May. Your courage and strength inspire us all.

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