First Person: Experiencing ESADE

I am an American getting my MBA in Spain. I was educated in the States and have worked at the heart of it all—in New York City—and loved every minute of it. But I have also lived in many different countries throughout the world. When I decided to do an MBA, I never stopped to consider a U.S. university.

Not that the U.S. education system is passÉ; in fact, it remains home to many leading institutions internationally. Students laboring away at the likes of Wharton and Harvard are probably some of the smartest people. It just wasn't for me.

Instead, I found myself in Barcelona. Orientation began on a balmy Spanish summer day in August. I was sitting among what you would expect to find in a room full of MBA students: engaging, bright individuals who have already accomplished varying and remarkable things within their lives. The difference here at ESADE is that I was with 113 extraordinary students comprising 38 nationalities.

Between glasses of Valencia orange juice and asking each other about our backgrounds and plans, we were told by a program director standing under the emblazoned "E" emblem I have now come to know so well something along the lines of: "You are now ESADE students. You are part of one of the best business schools in the world. Each of you helps to comprise a multinational, multicultural class of remarkable students. Get ready. Work hard. Welcome." Chills of fear and excitement rolled down my spine. It had begun.

Lacking Hard Skills

I chose an MBA for many of the standard reasons. I sought the leadership path, or at least to begin the leading process. I came here hoping to increase my knowledge and sharpen my existing skills. With a liberal arts background and a desire to run my own business one day, I needed the fundamentals. Boasting an education in English literature and art history—and professional experience ranging from translating Italian to advertising, journalism, and marketing—I was lacking in the hard skills department. I didn't even know the difference between an income statement, balance sheet, and cash flow statement, and if I had seen any of them I wouldn't have had a clue how to interpret them.

Choosing an MBA was a means of transitioning from one career to another. However, coming to Spain to get an international MBA was a shift of everything—a move across an ocean and a change of cultures and societal norms. In short, it was an evolution from the life I had been living to a completely new existence. I have written about my experience all year on my personal blog, "I Bet Elephants Taste Like Mushrooms." But as with moving from arts to sciences, choosing an internationally focused MBA is about widening one's own universe.

Having chosen ESADE for its location, focus on teamwork, diversity of student body, and the LEAD seminars (a series of programs focusing on interpersonal skills), my expectations were high. I sought more than what a standard MBA could offer me. I desired to live my life as I always had, while finding a route into business as boundless as the life I had come to know.

A Shared Experience

In the end, I may not personally understand Brazil's import laws or the subtle mechanics of B-to-B marketing in Japan, but I will surely know people who do. And not only will I know these people, but we will have shared this experience together. In a sense, they will be forever ingrained in the threads of my life, and I in theirs.

For me—someone almost entirely right-brained, who has always banked on her people skills as opposed to quantitative aptitude—the MBA is like learning to swim and ESADE is my Olympic pool. Some days I feel as though I was thrown in from the highest diving board while my back was turned. Other days, I'm Michael Phelps.

Every so often, I catch my breath at moments of surprise and delight. There were the revelations in a class on marketing insight into pressing environmental issues, and the presentation about Julius Caesar in Organizational Behavior. And I won't forget when my classmates forgave me for not championing Corporate Finance homework and instead taught them tricks of English rhetoric.

Often, my breaths come in the moments I find time to write about my experience in my blog—to make sense of it all with my own words. And the deepest breaths of all happen when a fellow student approaches me out of the blue and mentions that a certain blog entry helped him or her make sense of it all, too. In the end, we're all in this together. I'm just hoping to make it through this lap, and the next one, so that I can pull myself out of the pool at the other end and know that, despite the odds, I swam.

Strength in Diversity?

ESADE's focus on group work has already taught me more than what 20 semesters of Operations Management ever could. I remember the first division of our class into groups of six or seven, one of the trademarks of the ESADE MBA. You could have cut the tension with a knife: There was me, the American "poet" (that's what right-brainers are called around here), in the same group as a Canadian pharmaceutical sales whiz, an Indian IT expert, a Portuguese master in marketing, a Swiss engineer, and a Mexican economist. We were told our success depended on one another—not a pretty sight.

Now we're in the second term and our work groups have changed. The differences between the individuals have remained the same or widened even further, but we have found ways to plot a course with greater ease amid each others' learning styles, work ethics, and cultural differences. We've accepted this mutual reliance and have learned to profit from it. Now, I could confidently enter into any company, in any part of the world, and more than survive: I'd thrive. In short, I'd rock it.

It's still too early to decipher exactly what I will get out of my MBA, but I trust I'll know how to run a business successfully, effectively yet respectfully manage people, and create a true and fair view of my company's accounting through a balance sheet. And maybe my dream job won't even be in business: I could fall onto another path that leads to something else, and something after that, until one day it all comes together. In any event, I hope to fuse my passions for the things I find beautiful in the world with raw business.

And before I worry about finding a job in this turbulent economy, or where I will be when I do find that dream position, I am trying to get the most I can out of my time in Barcelona. That includes continuing to embrace Spanish culture, like the fact that arriving someplace 10 minutes late often means I'm 20 minutes early. Little things like that are the hidden extras of getting a degree in a different country, and someday they'll all fuse together to comprise the collective memories of my international MBA.

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