A Family Tragedy Leads to B-School

"It does not take long for one baby girl to alter your lifeand your career path"

My life before B-school may appear idyllic, but the tale is not for the faint of heart—mothers-to-be should be careful in reading on. I had two parents who were very active in my life despite their divorce when I was eight years old, and during my childhood there was little in the world for me to worry about beyond striking out during the afternoon baseball game. Sports and academics came easily to me and opportunities to succeed presented themselves seemingly without effort. These included everything from obtaining a job at a baseball-card store the summer before I turned 15 to taking beautiful girls to homecoming and prom my senior year at Skyline High School located in Sammamish, Wash.

In four years as an undergrad at the University of Washington I double-degreed, earning a bachelor's in economics and political science. It seemed natural to fit in an extra year's worth of credits to earn the two degrees while also studying abroad in Spain for the first quarter of my senior year. It was easy street and I did not even have to drive!

Life in Afghanistan

I liked big business, with a particular fascination for the big part of it, but I desired to study language both to enhance my international job prospects and to accomplish my childhood goal of serving in the military. Therefore, after graduation in 2003, I enlisted in the Washington National Guard to become an Arabic linguist. I left for basic training in South Carolina in August, moved to Monterey to start an 18-month language course, and was engaged to and married my wife, whom I had met in while studying in Spain.

Following two years of training and studying, we moved to Washington intending to start the civilian side of our life. The army had different plans for me; by November 2005, I was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan for a year-long tour. We decided to start our family before I deployed. Five days before I left the United States for Afghanistan, my wife shared the good news with me that she was pregnant. Life was intensifying but the pieces were falling into place nicely.

The following nine months were difficult to spend away from my pregnant wife. My limits were tested in the most remote and arid places of Afghanistan, where I spent frozen nights on a mountaintop in early spring and sweltering days in what could only be described as a Martian landscape during the summer. Despite the discomfort created by these locations, I developed a great sense of accomplishment and pride while doing my job.

Death in Washington

I was able to leave country for two weeks, a leave carefully timed for the birth of our baby. En route to Washington, I contemplated the career possibilities available in the military that would help me become a member of the Foreign Service or a regional expert for businesses looking to expand into the Middle East and Far East, and how these goals might be accomplished with a family.

It turns out that it does not take long for one baby girl to alter your life — and your career path. Isabella Sofia, born Sept. 10, 2006, at 1:03 p.m., was the most beautiful and healthy girl I ever laid my eyes on. Everything was picture-perfect for 12 hours. After midnight, Isa began to struggle with oxygenating her blood, due to what we later were told was a congenital disorder described by the doctors as "incompatible with life." Somewhere between all of the surgeries, the nights spent reading to our daughter while she was under a drug-induced paralysis to prevent her from pulling out the half-inch tubes protruding from her neck, and the nine days it took for her tiny body to wear out, I figured out that the military could not afford the new level of stability that our family now needed.

It took a while to emerge from the murkiness of the events that followed the death of our child; I doubt we have fully escaped yet. Decisions about what to do with my daughter's body were being asked of me before the scent of the hospital left my nose. For months, there were daily reminders from our insurance company of the expenses they incurred maintaining our baby's life. When it became too much, I made my first big decision in moving forward­—and that was to just do something.

Groping toward a plan

To help refocus my mind and distract me from the pain, I started doing some carpentry—which initially occupied me for moments a day, then minutes, and then hours. After accidentally shooting myself in the hand with a nail gun, I realized carpentry was definitely not for me, and I decided I wanted to strengthen what I learned in the military by attending business school.

The management skills I had from the army had been honed under extreme pressure and during ambiguous situations. I could easily see how they could translate into success in the civilian workplace, but I lacked the direction and knowledge of what I wanted to do. My stepfather suggested attending business school or another graduate school, and the process of applying turned into positive steps toward progress and healing.

Finding the Right School

My wife and I are of modest means, so despite wanting to attend a GMAT class, I decided to self-study by checking out various study guides available through the local library. I settled on a fairly popular guide and was not done with it by the time it was due. I ended up keeping it 10 days past the due date. My personal goal was to get a 700 on the test and I told myself that if I achieved it then I should be even more encouraged that business school was the right direction for me. I got my 700 on the GMAT for $1 in library late fees, but the confidence it restored was priceless.

Cost was also a factor in deciding which schools to apply to, as was location, since we are now expecting our second child and want to be close to family. In Washington, the Veteran's Tuition Waiver, recently approved for graduate schools, reduces the cost of in-state tuition by half. Besides cost, it was the intimacy offered by a small program (about 100 are admitted to the full-time program), the fascinating curriculum, and high job-placement numbers that most excited and convinced me to attend the University of Washington. I expect the relationships I develop during business school will extend beyond the classroom because students have the potential to contribute as much to the learning that goes on during the program as do the professors and the curriculum. The diversity of the Seattle area is mirrored in UW's student population, providing an ideal environment to study global business and learn about cultural differences.

Throughout the application process, it became apparent that the philosophy at UW is not to try to make successful people; instead, the faculty provides the tools needed to increase one's potential for achieving success. An aspiring MBA student should not seek the program that will give him or her success—for an MBA degree does not entitle one to a more successful career—but instead should seek the program that will enhance their knowledge in a way that can only be done in academia. My goals remain focused not only on a successful career but also a successful family life, and I believe that the UW MBA program will give me the best opportunity to learn the tools necessary to achieve those goals.

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