From Au Pair to MBA Student
We deemed Wednesday our "get ahead morning." I'd set my alarm an hour early, shuffle downstairs, brew coffee, and meet my roommate at the kitchen table for a weekly "What are we going to do with our professional futures?" talk. Through these morning conversations, which involved a back-and-forth idea rally over steaming mugs and open laptops in a house seven blocks east of the U.S. Capitol, I began to synthesize my education, life, and professional experience to build my "What next?" vision.
Raised in Georgia by a mom who had lived all over the world, I always felt that upon graduation, I too would move beyond Atlanta's perimeter to a life of world travel. Naturally, as an undergraduate I studied not business but international business. In my final year of studies, books for international economics and law found their way into my hands, enabling me to build an awareness of the interdependencies existing between international relations, business, and politics.
Suddenly, I was a news junkie, actively perusing The New York Times and The Economist, seeking to educate myself about the world. At this point, I also made what became a fairly large decision for my future. I stopped running competitively. Although I had dedicated several years of my life to it, had run at a Division I college, and served as captain my junior year, what talent I had was not enough for a career in professional running. Senior year I retired, freeing time for new pursuits that would directly affect my future career.
Recharging My Battery
I took courses in comparative politics and international relations and interned with a policy research center, the Center for International Trade & Security (CITS). While catch phrases such as "our globalized world" and "interconnectedness" began to actually make more sense, the value of my undergraduate business degree seemed to make less. Nearing graduation, grand ideas about what I could do in the world filled one side of my head, while doubts such as "How will my accounting knowledge help the world?" filled the other. This was not time to question the value of my educational focus.
After graduation, to recharge my battery, collect my thoughts, and improve my French, I crossed the Atlantic to the west coast of France to au pair for a family I had never met. At summer's end, four French friends richer, renewed in spirit, and ready to take on the world, I headed to Washington, D.C., which in my view, provided the perfect stomping ground to explore the nexus of business, politics, and international relations.
When I first arrived in D.C., I took a position with the D.C. office of CITS. By day I dove into a new professional world and by night I waitressed at a local diner to supplement my earnings. Some days I liaised with colleagues domestically and internationally from academia, business, and government, to organize a Moscow-based international research workshop. Other days I immersed myself in literature, articles, and policy briefs, researching and writing a paper on U.S. counterterrorism legislation. Traveling to Moscow to implement the workshop and attend the briefing where my paper, translated into Russian, was distributed, I felt something clicked inside. Working across country lines through language and cultural barriers met my ambitions, but my assistantship was finished.
Fueling a Small Nonprofit
Staying in D.C., I worked for my senator before joining a startup business consulting, technology, and government affairs firm. My undergraduate degree regained value. I tackled tasks from bookkeeping and budgeting to hounding the firm's health insurance provider and providing research support. Watching ideas evolve from rough sketches into fully running projects, my entrepreneurial spirit flourished. I began to think, "If my superiors could start an organization, I can too."
On a small scale, I did. At my nighttime local diner gig I met a wonderful Liberian national, who sent his hard-earned wages back to Monrovia to build and staff schools. His selflessness admirable and his passion contagious, he inspired a few of my fellow "young professionals by day/servers by night" co-workers and me to help. What began as an idea for a small fundraiser grew into a small nonprofit, FUEL Youth, which supports educational opportunities for children in rural Liberia.
So there I sat in Washington two years later, on a Wednesday morning, bleary eyed with coffee in hand verbally processing my professional "journey."
Organizing international conferences, working for startups, building a nonprofit organization, and developing a professional network in D.C. leveraged the skills of my undergraduate business degree. These skills—marketing, finance, and accounting—were useful, and I felt I could use more. I envisaged a future that combined my interest in business, politics, and international affairs, allowed me to act entrepreneurially, philanthropically, and achieve results. Pursuing an MBA would help me get there.
Still relatively young, I wanted two more years of professional experience and more exposure to foreign policy work. Leaving the startup firm, I took a position managing events and outreach for the Center on the U.S. and Europe in the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution. With this incredible opportunity, I learned a great deal through my interactions with dignitaries from abroad and foreign policy thought leaders as I worked to arrange meetings and conferences on topics related to the current event of the moment. Outside of work, I embarked on the arduous process of preparing business school applications.
First step: GMAT. Two years post-college my test-taking skills were rusty, so I hired a math tutor to help polish them. Luckily I had self-motivation for GMAT success because I lost the tutor and tackled the review on my own. Countless practice problems and dreams of algebraic equations later, I swallowed my anxiety and took the test. After three and a half hours of verbal and quantitative blur, my GMAT fate was near. I just needed to click to accept my scores. Biting my tongue, and squinting my eyes, I clicked to accept. Phew. My results were satisfactory, and I had several months of down time before applying.
Seeking a Strong Community
The second step was to choose the right program. I sought a program with a heavy international focus, an emphasis on corporate social responsibility, and a joint degree with a leading international policy school. I also sought one with a strong community situated near a large metropolitan area.
In my research, I talked extensively with current MBA students, e-mailed old professors, met with former bosses, and visited schools. This was going to be a big investment in terms of time and finances, so I wanted a good fit.
With much of my preliminary groundwork under my belt, I buckled down, bought a copy of the soon-to-be dovetailed How to Get Into the Top MBA Programs (Prentice Hall Press, 2007), contacted my recommendation writers, and set to work. Many essay drafts and hours of introspection later I submitted applications to my top three schools. Expecting to feel relieved, I felt something akin to post-traumatic application stress disorder instead. "Oh no," I would gasp. "Is that a typo in an already submitted application?"
Vacationing in Morocco
My anxiety began to subside as my business school interview requests arrived. During this "apply and wait" period my interest for one school in particular grew. Six months before applying, while vacationing in Morocco, visiting the very coffee-sharing roommate from my days of living near the U.S. Capitol, I learned of what I thought to be the perfect program. Over a cup of mint tea she clued me into HEC Paris (HEC Paris Full-Time School Profile), a highly regarded school with a heavy international focus, multicultural environment, coursework in corporate social responsibility, and partnerships with several international relations programs. It seemed a perfect match.
I decided to apply.
With the interviews done, the acceptances in, my decision was made. In fall 2009, I am Paris bound.