In mid-May, I gathered with my fellow first-years in the courtyard of the Darden School. It was a perfect Virginia morning—73F and not a cloud in the sky. The previous day we had our last day of class. As is traditional at Darden, on the day after the last day of class, all first-year students have a courtyard champagne toast to celebrate the completion of the first year and to be unofficially welcomed as second-year students. It was symbolic on many fronts, but maybe none so much as it was in this same spot that we first met as a class way back in August. On that day, it was a sweltering Virginia summer with the temperature around 95F and the humidity well over 90%.
I think the weather of each of those two days paralleled the mood of our class. Back in August, the heat and humidity made our opening picnic uncomfortable. Coming from the dry climate of Denver, I wasn't quite sure how to handle it. Everything was sticky, and it was too hot to move at anything more than a snail's pace. The feeling of discomfort as a result of the weather matched how I felt about my situation at that time. I was barely unpacked and about to be thrown into the deep end of the first-year program at Darden. The people surrounding me were strangers, and we were bonded only by the fact that, for diverse reasons, we had decided to make a change in our lives and go back to school. It was our orientation weekend, but it left me feeling decidedly disoriented.
In mid-May the weather, once again, mirrored the mood of the Class of 2009. It was the kind of morning that just begs you to go outside and do something; maybe hit the pool or go for a run or a walk, but just enjoy the day. After the champagne toast, I took a step back and surveyed the classmates that have now become close friends. There were high-fives, hugs, and lots of laughing. We took the time to reminisce about battles fought in the classroom, how stressed we were for that first round of exams, and everything we had learned since that uncomfortably hot August day. It is funny how time and experience can change your perception of things. The same group of people gathered in the courtyard in August as well as a few weeks ago, but we were clearly different.
I'm not sure that when I first decided to go back to school I knew exactly what I would get out of it. Like everyone else, I had read about the value of an MBA as well as the literature that says it is quickly becoming obsolete. My take after my first year is that an MBA is an invaluable investment for those people who want to approach their careers and life with a better understanding of everything going on around them, as well as for those who want the ability to take advantage of any business opportunity they may come across in their careers.
The argument about an MBA becoming obsolete centers around the fact that companies now have sophisticated training programs where they can teach employees whatever they need to know. I think this statement is true but at the same time, it misses the point. The training an employee will receive on the job is, by necessity, narrowly focused. If you are going to be a brand manager for a large corporation, you can probably become successful within that role on the job and progress through the ranks without an MBA. However, what the MBA provides is breadth of perspective. You could go on to be a brand manager and have a great career but to some extent, you are going to be tied to that position.
In my old career, I was on my way to becoming an expert in a small area of the real estate market. I understood my market well, but it had a narrow scope. I had no ability to place what I was doing in the greater context of the economy, running a profitable business, or working with various shareholders and stakeholders. After a year of business school, not only have I learned an enormous amount, but I have also become aware of the things I knew little or nothing about. In short, I didn't know what I didn't know. This summer and my second year will be an opportunity to continue to fill those holes. As a result, when it is all said and done, I believe I will have not only made a big step forward in my career, but, more importantly, I will be able to take advantage of opportunities in that career that I would have not even been aware of without an MBA.
Another great aspect of the program is that it is an opportunity to learn in a relatively consequence-free environment. What I mean is that you can stick your neck out at school—try out new ideas and voice new opinions without the negative consequences you might experience on the job. I have classmates who are researching and starting new businesses through the school's Batten Institute Business Incubator. The Incubator gives them access to resources and business expertise that allows them to develop their ideas while still in school.
The Confidence to Speak Out
Finally, the classroom is a great place to "find your voice." I have talked to other classmates who came to B-school lacking the confidence to express their opinions at meetings in their former careers. Now after a year of discussing, debating, and sometimes arguing 200 cases covering every subject under the sun, they have remarked that they will be more apt to speak up at work and fight for the ideas they believe in. This type of skill falls outside the technical knowledge that we learn but is perhaps even more valuable. Back in the "real world" it isn't enough to know the right answer—you have to be able to get other people to buy into your right answer.
I will be heading to New York for the summer to work for a hedge fund. The group I will be working with does everything from asset-based transactions to loans and corporate securities. It will be an opportunity to once again get thrown into the deep end and see exactly how much I've learned over the past year. Then, in late August, we all return to Darden for the start of our second year. I'm fully expecting more hot and humid weather, but I'm sure the mood of our class will be much different. As one of our professors joked, "When first-years arrive at school, it's impossible to convince them that they will be able to learn everything we are going to throw at them. Then, when they come back after their summer internships it is just as impossible to convince them that they still have a lot to learn!"
Second-years at Darden are 100% in charge of creating their own schedule based on their interests or area of focus. I've signed up for a lot of finance classes but a few marketing and accounting ones as well. My hope is to be able to continue to broaden my knowledge base so I will have the flexibility and know-how to take my career in any direction I would like, whether it is one year out of Darden or 10. Free time will no longer be at such a premium, so I am hoping that there will also be more opportunities to hang out with friends and explore Charlottesville. I'm going to try my best to enjoy it, because the next time we gather as a class in the courtyard, we will all be wearing caps and gowns, and this incredible experience will be coming to an end.