"Haven Hall, Haven Hall…" My mind scanned the multiple buildings on the University of Michigan's campus where I had classes as an undergraduate student, and for the first time since returning to Ann Arbor, I was forced to trudge 500 yards from the B-school (the nerve!) to attend a class. My first foray into my newly christened Master of Public Policy program wasn't met with the standard fanfare that came with Professor Karnani's first strategy class the year prior, but I reckon it wasn't due to the 3 p.m. class time.
I entered the Haven Hall classroom and was greeted by a contingent of stoic, young faces, silent either due to the awkwardness of interaction or the pangs of dread for what was to come over the next 14 weeks. I chalked it up to the former, although this sudden lack of classroom interaction was another foreign experience to me:
What, no section grilling competitions? Where's Shout-off? Are these folks practicing cases with each other? And then it struck me: I was no longer trapped in the invisible, 300-foot high bubble that surrounded the Ross School of Business. No, I was about to embark on a course led by a wacky mad scientist of an economist with a group of undergraduate political science and econ majors. And, admittedly, I myself was a bit intimidated.
Even in the midst of undergoing the MBA application process, I typically requested information from each of my target schools on the possibility of pursuing a dual degree in public policy. After reviewing the curricula at each program, I questioned whether or not I'd be able to transition successfully from a career as an engineer, with little to no background in political science and economics, to a consultant focused on business development in emerging markets. And I received a handful of responses from students and administrators alike, some suggesting that a dual degree wouldn't be logistically possible or helpful toward my cause. However, I received some great nuggets of wisdom from a Ross alumnus, Patrice Harduar, who came from a somewhat similar background and was intent on a very similar post-MBA career. Her words of insight were helpful, yes, but it was the opportunities she pursued that made the dual degree all the more attractive. In particular, of all the programs I considered for my MBA, Michigan was head and shoulders above its peers in terms of robust, doable dual degree opportunities, and I now know that it speaks volumes about the quality and caliber of educational opportunities at the university.
A Few Drawbacks My first semester on campus at Ross was merely a period for deciding whether or not pursuit of a dual degree was the right decision. Since the application deadline wasn't until January, I had some time to dig deeper into the course offerings, stop by the building and chat with some administrators, and speak to some peers pursuing dual degrees. Granted, some drawbacks existed: It would place me deeper in debt, I wouldn't graduate with my Ross classmates, and it raised some questions about how to approach my internship recruiting strategy. But the positives of attending one of the country's renowned public policy programs injected an air of excitement into my ongoing education. I recognized that I could further tailor my academic and personal experience around the emerging markets space, and I would need another year to pack everything into my schedule.
Academics aside, I questioned how I would best be able to fit into the Ford School zeitgeist. After all, I knew that many of my classmates would have Peace Corps, federal and state government, and nonprofit experiences that would make my volunteer work look like paltry kindergarten projects. And I was right: upon meeting my classmates through happy hours and preterm excursions to Cedar Point, I was completely floored by the places they had traveled. It was an experience eerily similar to the one I had when I first met my Ross classmates. It was intriguing, though, to see that a public policy program known for heavy analysis (i.e. math, math, and more math) would attract the same breed of well-rounded, accomplished, and worldly individuals that Ross did.
Upon entering my first class in the policy program, though, I knew my experience there would be in stark contrast to what happens at Ross. First and foremost, the amount of group work was notably absent. When I asked a second-year MPP student about this phenomenon, she explained that a lot of policy work is typically done individually due to the heavy amount of analysis involved. Nevertheless, I struggled this past semester with the amount of work involved, not only due to the additional amount of effort required, but because of a bit of a disconnect between the two schools' extracurricular involvement. Several times last year, I mentioned in my articles that a student at Ross could become completely overwhelmed by their work outside the classroom if not kept in check. Well, you can add me to that category. I underestimated the additional effort required to excel in my policy classes this semester, and as a result I had to sacrifice time I normally would set aside to spend with friends for the sake of improving my understanding of core topics.
Lonely and Trying Unfortunately, with another round of recruiting rolling around in January, it may not get much better. Even though the "grades don't matter" mantra is just as true for policy students (aside from a handful of fellowship opportunities), the drive to succeed is just as apparent and ingrained in the Ford student body's psyche. I will admit, the life of a dual degree student can get somewhat lonely and trying, as you hope to balance a social life consisting of three different and distinct groups (MBA1s, MBA2s, and Policy students), all the while trying to find a summer job and not fail out of school! But the sacrifices and challenges involved have been truly rewarding, for they've allowed me to develop an even deeper perspective on how my career may pan out in the next several decades.
I've learned, in a few short months, more about Africa than in my previous 27 years. To suggest that I knew a shred of useful information about the continent after returning from my MAP would have been a stretch. Yes, the experience of setting foot in South Africa and developing a business strategy was worthwhile, but I could speak with little knowledge of the multiple avenues being pursued to address poverty. With that, I'm grateful for Professor Dean Yang and Howard Stein, academic geniuses in their own right but also extremely knowledgeable about African development. Their courses, supplemented with an additional economics and trade policy class, painted a far more realistic landscape of the happenings on the continent—past, present, and future. I had the chance to evaluate Nigerian tariffs and the country's relationship with the World Bank, as well as to develop a field trial for examining the effectiveness of portable energy devices in Rwanda. And the opportunity to contribute a business-oriented perspective to a development class helped me piece together this ever-expanding puzzle that I've been attempting to solve since coming to business school.
Secondly, I believe that this experience provides some perspective when advising my fellow classmates both at Ross and Ford. For example, Ford is undergoing its first major curriculum review in decades in an effort to ensure its academic reputation continues to be upheld. I've been able to suggest MBA courses to the dean in an attempt to further bridge the unspoken gaps between the public and private sector, while also recommending to first-year Ross-ers (and prospective students) a variety of classes that may help them develop a deeper understanding of the subjects that drive them. I've been able to help Net Impact and the Emerging Markets Club, traditional MBA-oriented clubs, link arms with the International Policy Center and the International Policy Students Assn.—relationships that will only create a more beneficial series of opportunities for future Michigan students.
Despite the challenges I faced this past semester, I imagine that I'll reflect on this time and realize that it was a key transition. I hit many breaking points, both personally and academically, but I believe I emerged with a set of tools—and strong relationships with students and faculty alike—to make the world a better place, even more than my first year of graduate school. I know, it sure sounds cheesy, but the fact that I can say such a thing in the midst of my own challenges and struggles speaks volumes. Here's to hoping we can all discover our own little ways to make an impact in 2009!