Cornell to the Core

Covering a semester's worth of B-school material in seven weeks can render a student "humbled, impressed, and inspired"

My friend Tej describes it well. During the first semester of business school, you want to do three things: study, socialize, and sleep. Unfortunately, you only have time for two.

While there is truth to Tej's quip, naming just three priorities barely scratches the surface of the B-school experience. Yes, you study and socialize. Yes, you forgo sleep. But you also face an endless stream of opportunities to learn, produce, lead, volunteer, travel, network, and compete.

The past three months at Cornell have been among the most intense months of my life. I have felt challenged and stimulated every day. I have made dozens of new friends and learned more quickly than ever before. I have been humbled, impressed, and inspired. I have felt exhausted and exhilarated.

We began "the core" in August, already sleep-deprived after a busy, two-week orientation. The core consists of eight classes divided among three quarters. Thus far, we have battled our way through accounting, marketing, and microeconomics, and we are nearly done with finance, statistics, and strategy. Core classes are not abridged, so we cover a semester's worth of material in just seven weeks. We are always on the steep side of the learning curve.

Total Immersion

The intensity of the core learning experience demands that you fully immerse yourself. Recently, an I-banker hopeful told me that he actually has dreams about stock valuation and risk and return. I related, remembering a morning in September after my alarm clock had rung. In my sleepy delirium, I assigned utility values to snooze-units of time, and weighed the marginal benefit against the costs of skipping breakfast or having to run up the hill to class. Embarrassing but true—the core gets in your head.

The core faculty is an impressive cast, each with their own engaging style. Professor Robert Frank, writer of the The New York Times "Economic Scene" column, has a wry sense of humor, a visionary's intellect, and a knack for making microeconomic concepts memorable. Methodical and clear in his instruction, accounting professor Bob Libby possesses the uncanny ability to inject new humor into his three-joke portfolio day after day. By far the most feared of Johnson School faculty is professor Roni Michaely. With a bloodhound's nose for unpreparedness, Michaely is infamous for the aggressive cold-calling that makes finance class an adrenaline-pumping experience. And then there's professor Vrinda Kadiyali, who provides a cherished dose of motherly love amidst probing corporate strategy discussions.

The core faculty is Johnson's gold standard. They are intensely smart, widely published, and proficient in creating deep learning experiences. They coordinate syllabi, so they can cross-reference material and provide us with almost enough time to complete everything—as long as we don't waste time on frivolous activities such as sleeping or eating.

Despite the fact that all grades are curved, I have found my classmates to be generous and supportive. Cut-throat competition is replaced with a "we're all in it together" mentality. My friend Ben is impressively smart, but instead of hoarding his brainpower, he shares it. Before exams, he donates his time (a precious commodity) to hold review sessions and tutor laggards. There is a true feeling of community at Johnson.

A Sea of Go-Getters

While classes are our primary reason for being here, they are just one element of many. One of the greatest pleasures of business school is that it's full of "go-getters." It seems that everyone wants to found a club, champion a cause, plan a party, enter a competition, start a business, and organize a conference. Business school students are a fount of ideas and motivation, and the resources are readily available here. Each day brings new club meetings, corporate briefings, theme speakers, happy hours, symposiums, fundraisers, and sporting events. Life at Johnson is exhausting but tremendously exciting.

A few weeks ago, I called my father and excitedly told him about my day. I had gone to classes, discussed sustainability with the CEO of Kraft Foods (KFT), interviewed the founders of a nonprofit in Ghana, worked on a consulting project through the Big Red Incubator, and sipped wine at the Sage Social. And that was all before dinner.

Over the past few months, I have learned many lessons that extend far beyond optimizing an investment portfolio and evaluating potential competitor reaction. I have learned to be comfortable with not doing everything I'd like to. At B-school you can run yourself ragged and still miss half of the amazing opportunities that come your way. I have learned, again, always to remain aware of and focused on my personal ambitions. In an environment with a constant flow of advice, guidance, and opportunities, remembering to check in with myself has been essential. And I have become an incorrigible multi-tasker. I read cases on treadmills, make conference calls while doing the dishes, draft letters while walking, and cook while in class (thank goodness for my slow-cooker).

As the end of the core draws near, I find I am preemptively nostalgic for it. It has been incredible—a consuming and inspiring experience. I have been surrounded by people I respect, admire, and enjoy. I will miss the intensity and solidarity of the core next semester, as my classmates and I begin to customize our programs and pave our own paths.

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