Establishing Networks and Easing In

Wisconsin's Diversity Weekend is a great way to learn about the university's MBA program and meet other students of color

It's not competitive here…They work really hard to make you succeed…Blah, blah, blah. I remember hearing those sales pitches during my visit to the University of Wisconsin. Of course, my first thought was, "yeah, right, whatever." Now, I'm the one giving the spiel. Funny thing is, it's all true.

Last night, I had cocktails with roughly 20 prospective students at the kickoff of Wisconsin's Diversity Weekend. The weekend is full of social and informational events designed to attract students of color. I didn't attend last year, but many of my classmates say Diversity Weekend sold them on the merits of a Wisconsin MBA. After a really rough week (two exams and a take home midterm that made me consider dropping out), this was a great way to unwind.

It seems like everyone I met was suffering from GMAT angst. Who really remembers the formula for the surface area of sphere? It felt good to tell the prospectives my story of inspiration. I prepped for the GMAT in one month using books and CD-ROMs from the library. My score went up 200 points. No expensive prep course, no costs other than time.

Ease the Transition

The other big concern I heard: How am I going to pay for it? You can't go wrong by applying to the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management. The Consortium awards full fellowships to any of its 13 member schools. Instead of applying to each school individually, you fill out an online application that is good for up to six schools. Anyone can apply, regardless of race. You simply have to prove a commitment to increasing diversity in your academic and/or professional career.

The Consortium also gives you an established network before you start school. The other Consortium fellows: Adeola, Terry, Soly, Renee, Felipe, Richard, Michael, Ato, and Carlos have been my rock. We consoled one another after the dreaded finance exam (the mean was a 43); Soly and I have a monopoly on the right side, second row, third and fourth seats of every classroom (yes, we're that superstitious) and Felipe turns any occasion into a party. We bonded this summer at the Consortium's orientation program. Knowing some of your classmates before you start school makes the transition so much easier.

Overall, I told the group not to stress over the application process. If you work at it, you will get into good programs. Then, you have to find the right fit. Visit and go with your gut. You'll know if it feels right. After two months of classes, I can honestly say Wisconsin suits me.

Afraid of the Future

I'm one of 18 first-year students specializing in brand management. (There are 13 specializations.) The curriculum is heavily team-based. My class of 120 is divided into two cohorts. You take your four core classes: finance, accounting, marketing, and data analysis with your cohort. The fifth class is a career specialization course. Within the cohort, you have a team of people from different specializations that you do most of your group projects with.

I was terrified when I looked at the list of people on my team: four guys, and I was the only woman. I know that reflects the business world, but I feared I wouldn't be respected and my ideas wouldn't be heard. When I met my team members, everyone seemed nice, but I still was worried that it was going to be a long semester.

O.K. I usually don't like to say this: but I was wrong, very wrong. My teammates are the coolest people. We rely on each other's strengths. As a former reporter, I can talk my way out of anything. I love the presentations and marketing cases. Mike and Brian are whizzes in finance and accounting (thank goodness), Ivan is the finance guy from Russia who swears vodka will cure everything, and Puneet is our operations expert who keeps us from getting too crazy. They are totally respectful of my ideas and we work well together.

Dinner With the Boss

On a typical day, the real work begins once class ends at 12:15. Many of the specializations at Wisconsin have a center that helps students with career planning. The Center for Brand and Product Management keeps us busy. So far, we've been hosted by ConAgra (CAG), Kraft (KFT), and Kimberly-Clark (KMB) and took a trip to General Mills (GIS). SC Johnson and Kao Brands (KCRPY) conducted seminars on brand management and interviewing.

The Center's Advisory Board also invites students to its biannual dinner and board meeting. The Board is made of senior executives from leading brand and product management companies. The board dinner was held at a private home and I thought it was going to be stuffy and formal. Instead, students were sitting on the floor, chatting at the bar, watching the baseball playoffs, etc. with president and vice-presidents of the companies many of us want to work for.

Up and At 'Em

I was shocked to realize how members actually took time to learn about us before they met us. I introduced myself to Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit (INTU) and UW's brand center, only to have him tell me about my former profession and undergraduate GPA. That's impressive.

The pace does get overwhelming at times. I knew it would move fast, but not this fast. With so many projects, meetings, and social events, it's hard to stay sane. It wears on your health, too. Adeola, Terry, and I passed around the same cold for weeks. Adeola swears by this cold medicine she buys in New York called Buckley's.

She stayed sick for three weeks because she was waiting for the medicine to be shipped and refused to take anything else. After suffering for what felt like the longest weekend of my life, I gave Buckley's a try. It's the worst thing I have ever tasted, but I have to admit it made me feel better almost instantly. That's important because B-school doesn't give you time to stay sick for long.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.