Highs and Lows at Michigan

"With first year fresh in my mind, how can I possibly condense it without scaring people to death?"

I've literally been staring at a blank Word document for an hour. Thank God I'm not in the midst of finals, because if I attempted such a useless task during that time, I'd be sunk!

For this journal entry, BusinessWeek has asked me to reflect on my first year at Ross, and I'm afraid that if I start typing it'll turn into a 46-page manifesto describing every little twist of events that made the past seven months a concentrated lesson of life's victories, failures, and the agonies that often come along the way. I'm sure any of my fellow first-year peers at Ross (and any full-time MBA program at that) could attest to the sensory overload that comes along with spurning the workforce for a final shot at academia. With such an experience fresh in my mind, how can I possibly condense it without scaring people to death?

Wait, I know what would work best in this situation: the tried and true Context-Action-Result method they taught us during internship interviews! Er, strike that.

I've recently been hooked on a simple game called "Highs and Lows," which serves as a guide to help compartmentalize the significant events that occurred in my life over a certain timeframe. Granted, for a 24-hour period it can be tough to come up with something substantial (I'm not dramatic enough, I guess), but I imagine this exercise would work out pretty well in this situation:

High No. 1: A High-Intensity Project in a High-Intensity Country

I closed out my last entry by mentioning the opportunity to visit a continent that's been of some interest to me for years:

When the Multidisciplinary Action Project (MAP) bid results were released on a snowy January evening, I was returning to campus from a meeting with an Ann Arbor nonprofit. As the Facebook status updates quickly flipped from "Eating a sandwich" or "Desperate for a summer job offer" to "Going to China!" or "Huh? Scranton?" I called my friend John to congratulate him on being selected for his top choice (and my own): a seven-week project with a high-tech firm in South Africa. That call was a tad bittersweet, however, as the odds of us both landing on the same project were slim to none.

Six weeks later, John and I would recollect this story to our teammates en route to our hotel in Johannesburg for MAP. But what made this opportunity all the more exciting was the nature behind our project: Our team was tasked with providing an operational model for our client which would serve the IT needs of the country's robust NGO [nongovernmental organization] sector. Was the task daunting? Absolutely. Were we up to the challenge? Well, considering that we all just emerged from the internship-recruiting season relatively unscathed, they could have thrown us into a pit of alligators for all we cared.

More important, though: Was the project a success? We'll get to that later.

High No. 2: Globetrotting for Good

Not three weeks after I set foot back in the States, I began preparing for another excursion sponsored through the Ross Emerging Markets Club. Four students, two MBA1s and two recently graduated MBA2s, traveled to Jamaica to provide assistance to the Blue Mountain Project, a nonprofit based in Hagley Gap, a rural village approximately two hours east of Kingston. I couldn't claim to be an expert on the country prior to my visit, but we certainly were granted some insight into the extremely difficult conditions the village faces: a skyrocketing unemployment rate, an infrastructure still recovering from Hurricane Dean, and the misperception that Jamaica's tourism industry fuels the citizens' well-being quite nicely. Each of these challenges affects Hagley Gap as much as other villages such as Penlyne and Mavis Bank.

Our team, while fighting through the lack of potable water and suffering from mosquito bites, discovered that the village's ample supply of mango trees weren't being fully utilized. Only 3% of the mangoes that ripen during key harvesting seasons were currently being collected, either for consumption or sale, while the remainder sat rotting on the ground during the hot summer months. So, during our time in Jamaica we brainstormed some of the potential value-added products that could be generated with this additional crop. By the time we departed, we left the nonprofit with a strong set of contacts, including a food producer in Kingston interested in buying locally sourced ingredients for its various products, and a business plan that would eventually develop a processing facility within the community. It was a successful end to our journey to the Caribbean.

What was even more fulfilling, however, was the assurance that the Emerging Markets Club, a relatively new student-run organization at Ross, would continue to partner with the Blue Mountain Project for years to come. I left Hagley Gap never having climbed Blue Mountain Peak or volunteering at the BMP-organized clinic; here's hoping for another journey up into the mountains soon!

High No. 3: Thinking More Critically

I admittedly encountered a bit of writer's block attempting to sum up my experience at Ross outside of the two challenging opportunities in South Africa and Jamaica. When I consulted a friend about how to proceed, she summed it up succinctly: "Well, Matt, consider how you read a newspaper differently now than you did a year ago." The suggestion couldn't be more appropriate. Whether it's been a discussion about my father's retirement plan or friendly banter over politics with a group of locals at a Jamaican brewpub, there's one thing Ross has taught me to reject: the status quo. It really is possible that the experts' ways of approaching the economy or pension plans isn't always gospel. As a future manager, business owner, and peer to my classmates, there's never been a better time for me to have realized this and actually found a way to prove it.

One of the volunteers in Hagley Gap told a story to me of several professors who occasionally visited the community and their insistence on staying together, a slight deviation from the nonprofit's custom of having visitors stay with host families. As a result, he said, the community wasn't able to connect and identify with the efforts these professors were hoping to undertake. I hope to never lose sight of the people that will be most affected by the decisions I make as a business leader, and my time at Ross so far has been nothing less than a grand experience to understand how it might look once I'm done.

Of course, not everything at Ross has been rosy. Let's move on to the lows.

Low No. 1: The Internship-Colored Glasses

In my previous entry I also alluded to the somewhat grueling internship process that seemed to plague every major MBA program. Although the vast majority of my classmates emerged from the process relatively satisfied with the outcome, I'll admit that the approach many companies use to select candidates leaves a somewhat bitter taste in my mouth. Oddly enough, it was one of the companies high on my list that forced this observation on me: I felt a strong disconnect between the conversations I had with multiple employees at the firm and my interview experience. In particular, the recruiters spent no time examining my own interests, past experiences working with teams on a critical project, or even providing a substantial amount of time for me to ask questions about the company and get a deeper perspective on the firm's pro bono work. I was a bit rattled by the lack of investigation, honestly, and it probably provides one (of many) explanation why I didn't do so well on the cases presented.

It's a valuable lesson learned, though, and the public-sector work I'm doing this summer includes that very firm on some of the more major projects in Chicago. Next year, it's my responsibility to understand how the process works, realize that the firm does emphasize pro bono work to its employees, and improve my case-solving ability to prove that my passion for the public sector and a strong business acumen can coexist.

Low No. 2: MAP, Unfortunately…

It's actually surprising how many colleagues of mine expressed a significant amount of frustration with their MAPs this year. Oh, but the second-year students, the keepers of all sacred wisdom at Ross, warned us that myriad factors can contribute to an unsuccessful project. For one, MAP comes with an air of anticipation and excitement; after all, it's one of the key reasons, aside from football games and those fantastic Midwest winters, why 430 young professionals choose Ross every year, so we want proof that the investment was well worth it.

Unfortunately, all this pressure seems to lead to disappointment, and in our project's case I was left quite unsatisfied, both personally and professionally. I'd prefer to keep silent about the difficult team dynamics (after all, putting six randomly selected students in a foreign country for five weeks is never an easy task), but I will say that I was more disappointed in our sponsor company's reaction to what we produced. Whether it was substantial changes in scope or the fact that the creator of the project itself left our presentation before it was finished, I never got a pulse on what exactly the company planned to do with our findings.

I came to Ross to make an impact on the world, and as idealistic as that sounds, I intend to make good on that goal. Moreover, selecting this MAP in South Africa emerged from this very idea of creating good, and I emerged from this project with severe doubts of whether I have the capability to do so. It, along with many other experiences this year, has stoked the fires of realism that I tried to suppress.

But I wouldn't consider all hope lost. The trip to Jamaica instilled some glimpses of hope, and the work I'm doing this summer has quite a bit of promise and a fantastic team supporting it. And I'm working on my own personal abilities, whether it's signing up for training courses or reading books on management and personal development (most recent read: Crucial Conversations).

Low No. 3: Farewell, MBA2s

Last month, I was forced to say good-bye to the 400-plus mentors who guided us first-year students through the Ross labyrinth. Whether it was sitting across the table administering case interviews (thanks Abhishek, Sri, Rosie, Lara, etc.), serving as a MAP communications coach (Dave, hope you had fun!), or even inviting me out for an occasional cognac at Café Felix (Sach, I'm gonna miss you!), these individuals served a role in my life that I can only hope to emulate for next year's incoming class. I can't even begin to explain how much I'll miss them. Or maybe I'm just a bit jealous as I receive updates from their pre-employment vacation destinations!

So, it's been quite a year, enough for me to sign on for a third, actually. Earlier this winter I decided that I'd like to supplement my MBA with a master's in public policy at Michigan, thus extending my education through 2010. I've had to convince my parents that, yes, I will be returning to work at some point in my life! In September I'll begin a full year at the Ford School, and I hope it serves as a bit of a unique perspective to you readers, particularly if you're thinking of pursuing a dual degree. (My advice? Do it!) I look forward to continuing my coursework, being challenged on how to solve the world's most pressing issues, and of course hoping that our football team can bring another national championship to Ann Arbor!

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