MBA Journal: A Feeling of Uncertainty

After two weeks of numerous dinners, celebrations, and reunions with family and friends, the Christmas holiday is officially over. It is now the start of 2011, and I am in Heathrow Airport waiting to board my flight back to China, my home for the past six months, where I'm studying to earn an MBA at the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in Shanghai. I have a 12-hour journey ahead of me, which seems ideal, battery permitting, to recap my first semester.

Term One was both terribly hectic and competitive. For starters, the grades in Term One determine foreign exchange assignments later in the year. The university where you will spend Term Five as an exchange student is based on the average of your grades in Term One and your grade on the exchange application essay. If that weren't enough to bring out the worrier in us all, many CEIBS students hold total or partial scholarships that are good only if you score above the class average. Each one of the eight professors demanded individual and group assignments, daily attendance, participation, presentations, and partial and final exams. Imagine all that work interwoven with participation in seminars, talks, and all sorts of career events arranged by the school. As a result, the workload and pressure quickly mounted, and two weeks before the end of Term One, I wound up with a stress-induced rash on the back of my body. Not surprisingly, the skin condition was miraculously cured while I was sipping beer and bathing on the beach in Hong Kong to celebrate the end of exams.

Despite my rash, none of the subjects has been, in my opinion, terribly difficult. The sheer amount of things to do in such short period of time, however, was daunting. As a result, the single most difficult hurdle for a CEIBS student is prioritizing and managing time efficiently, especially in Term One. To top this off, each student comes into CEIBS with his strengths and weaknesses, some of which are determined by your pre-MBA background. I have struggled, for instance, with marketing, which is quite new to me, while other students without financial backgrounds have struggled with financial accounting. I was frustrated to realize that I seemed to lack the marketing gene that seemed innate in others. After dissecting a few cases, I learned that there really is no gene at all. Getting good at marketing simply requires practice. I saw marked improvements as the course moved forward.

Going for a Banking Internship

If marketing ever got me bored, just as the Term One finals were approaching, so were the application deadlines for investment banking summer internships. Believe it or not, these guys take up a lot of time. No matter how much time you devote to them, you always submit with the feeling that you could have turned in a better application. I should be hearing from 90 percent of those potential employers over the month of January, and although the crisis still looms on the horizon, I'm hoping the hard work pays off and I end up with a stellar banking internship.

While waiting to snag an internship, I'm heading up the Wine Appreciation Club at CEIBS. I find wine takes my mind off these other worries—and wine is a big deal in China at the moment for its place in business and social circles. Clubs are actually one of the most interesting parts of student life, in my opinion. Now that, according to second-year students, the worst is already behind us and Term Two should be much easier, we should have time to enjoy the clubs fully. For instance, the CEIBS MBA Finance Club organized Hong Kong Banking Days, a student initiative to travel to Hong Kong to meet with several top banks and MBA students from the Hong Kong Science & Technology University. I am really looking forward to this event: Every little bit of effort helps when searching for the perfect internship or job interview, and a brief break from the Shanghai cold mixed with the chance to celebrate with fellow students will make coming back to school much easier.

Struggling with Mandarin

Although the MBA Office encourages extracurricular activities like this, it also requires and strictly enforces attendance in classes, which makes it quite difficult to do everything you would like to do. If I could change something about the program, I would certainly make attendance to class optional. Every student is mature enough to decide whether he wants to attend a class, and it is unnecessary to penalize him. Arguably, he would not perform well in the exam already if he misses too many classes or those that are vital to his success. For example, as a statistics major who already has a background in the subject, I should have been allowed to skip those classes to study, for instance, Mandarin, which I cannot get enough of and have certainly much more to learn. Six months into the game, I am beginning to make sense of it, thanks in great part to the interminable patience of fellow local students who never get tired of correcting me as well as having a good laugh.

It's not just my classmates who are helping me along in this new country and culture with its difficult-to-learn language and entirely different set of traditions. I have also been impressed by the attitude of the professors. Although I indeed like some of them more than others, I admit that all of them are extremely close to students. They welcome interaction at all instances, often going out of their way to assist students and share their experiences and advice on all sorts of topics apart from the ones on which they lecture.

As flight MU552 enters the final hours of its journey, I wonder what my impressions will be a year from now when I approach graduation. Will I be talking about professors and staff in CEIBS as if they were people I have known for 15 years, like second-year students do? Will the financial crisis—nonexistent here in China—finally be over in the West? Will I have a nice holiday and tidy job lined up on graduation? Will I be glad I chose to leave everything for business school, or will I be regretting not having stayed in my last job? Every time I talk to fellow colleagues about these questions, the feeling is the same for everyone: Uncertainty is killing us.

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