As Harvard’s incoming Class of 2012 gathers on the school’s expansive campus this fall, it will be warmly welcomed by an energetic second-year named Justine Lelchuk who is co-president HBS’s Student Association. She has just returned to Harvard after working as an intern in brand management in the baking division of General Mills in Minneapolis.
A native New Yorker, Lelchuk went to Miami University of Ohio and graduated in 2006 with a B.S. in finance and marketing. She had a trio of goals for her first job out of school: “First, I had to travel. I didn’t want to stay behind a desk. I also had to be challenged. I want to be surprised by what each day has in store for me. Finally, I was looking for a company that valued training and would support my decision to go to grad school.”
Hired out of Miami by Deloitte Consulting, Justine was placed in a rotational program with exposure to three different industries. “Lucky number three was consumer products,” she says. “I loved the fact that I was working with tangible agricultural goods: grains, soy beans, adjuvants that help increase crop yields.” When Justine was accepted to HBS, Deloitte sponsored her in an “externship” program that took her to the Philippines where she worked with the International Institute for Rural Reconstruction. Over a four-month period, Justine helped 22 Philippine women set up their own fruit stand businesses, giving them advice on their business plans, working with local governments, improving their communications skills.
I applied to Wharton, NYU, Columbia and Harvard. My first filter was geography and the top ten. I’m from New York and wanted to stay on the East Coast. At Deloitte Consulting, I worked with a lot of people who had gone to these four same schools. So that narrowed it down quite a bit.
I visited the Harvard campus and asked the admissions director, Dee Leopold, for an introduction to professor Ray Goldberg. He is the guru of agribusiness. He coined the term agribusiness, and at Deloitte I was doing agribusiness consulting. He agreed to have lunch with me before I was even accepted to Harvard. It was a pretty good indication of how well Harvard treated students. My application wasn’t even in yet and admissions recommended that I meet with Ray Goldberg. After that, I knew this was the place where I wanted to be. I was accepted by Harvard in the first round and also accepted by NYU.
My first impressions as an incoming student at Harvard? When I first arrived and was welcomed to the school, Dean Jay Light told us to ‘look to your left and look to your right. These people will be sitting next to you on the graduation platform.’ It was such a welcoming statement, so different from what you might hear about Harvard. There’s the old story about a dean who said that a certain percentage of the people to your right and left wouldn’t make it. That’s not true anymore. The school wants you to succeed here and thrive.
I was shocked by how extroverted everyone was. People asked me to breakfast and to lunch constantly. I was totally blown away with how interested people were in wanting to know me.
The first year workload, I thought, was just right. It did take about two months to learn how to triage the case study work. You have 12 case studies a week, a total of 272 cases in the first year and easily 500 cases over the two years you’ll spend at Harvard. You have to read through each of those cases and there are references to exhibits in the back. You need to focus on what to think about, what the key questions are in each case.
In the beginning of the year, we’re placed in learning teams of seven people, none from your section. Learning teams are chosen by the school itself for geographic and career diversity, and the teams stay together for the entire first year. You meet for an hour at 7:30 a.m. and in our case, we gathered in an alcove in Aldrich Hall or the dining hall. We divvied up the cases. One person took the lead on the case and we discussed them. You almost always get these juicy nuggets from your fellow students. Your learning team breaks up at 8:30 and you go to your 8:40 a.m. class. We would meet all five days, every week.
Harvard’s professors are very good and they’re always interested in getting better. If a professor is forgetting about the left side of the room or ending the class late and making you late for your next class, you can ask the student academic rep of the section to get that feedback to the professor. There are some professors who light up the room when they come in, and there are others who might be a bit timid, but are remarkably thoughtful.
Almost all of the professors at Harvard hold lunches in small groups of students to talk about their research. Student evaluations of teachers are not made public here, but there are many opportunities to gain exposure to a professor before taking his or her class. Amy Edmonson, the co-head of the technology and operations group, coined the word ‘psychological safety’ in the workplace. It’s the idea that you can fail forward. I saw her on a panel and realized this was her perspective in the classroom.
The school does a really good job in connecting students with the faculty. Each learning team went to dinner with a faculty member and the school paid for the meal. So were the student luncheons with professors. Just this year (2010), we also started an alumni dinner event where alums host ten current students in their homes for a dinner that is also paid for by the school. About 250 students went to alumni homes this past year alone.
The phrase we like a lot is this whole notion of becoming leaders of consequence. Many students are helping out in homeless shelters or in the Boston public schools. I’m hoping we can get every student to give at least five hours of community service every year. If we can get all 1,800-plus students to do that, we’ll be giving Boston nearly 10,000 hours of community help a year.
When I think of adjectives to describe this place, here’s what comes to mind: humbling, challenging, stimulating, collaborative, and inclusive. You come thinking what do I have to offer and every time you talk to someone, they are the most generous person you could ever meet, and you don’t find out until later that the person started three schools in Africa or is the number one squash player in America. Harvard is challenging mentally and it’s a bit disconcerting when you think you have your perspective and whether it’s the right one. But you quickly find that there are 94 other perspectives in every class and they are just as valid as your own.
Harvard is stimulating. I had this notion of what I wanted to do when I came here but I’ve now opened my eyes to so many other possibilities. There’s something called Research in Action Day when there are no classes and professors talk for an hour on what they’re working on. It just opens your mind to all the opportunities and fields out there.
People here are competitive. They want to succeed, but not at the expense of others. It’s not a dog-eat-dog place. You see that all the time but especially during the annual business plan competition. People want to work with you on your projects and help you anyway they can. So Harvard is a very inclusive place, whether it’s going out to dinner with other students or going away on a trip. I’ve never experienced a clique here. I was shocked by it.
What would I change? I’d like everyone here to have more of a professional excellence mindset. It’s about conducting yourself in direct alignment to the position you’re in. It’s about how to relieve stress and understanding how to have a professional demeanor. There’s a cultural taskforce on campus working on this idea.
Applying to business school is the time to do soul searching on what your life has amounted to and what you want it to be. Don’t just write what you think the readers want to read. Each application you fill out should take 40 hours, and 30 of those hours should be thinking time. Ten hours should be devoted to writing. One of the questions at Harvard that I brainstormed was ‘What are your three greatest accomplishments?’ I thought deeply about what I was proud of and the story that came out was on agribusiness in the Philippines. It was tough to think through these things and also realize what I hadn’t accomplished.
Other “My Story” features:
From a Hollywood Talent Agency to Chicago’s Booth School of Business
From an Army Ranger in Iraq to the Harvard Business School
From West Point to Berkeley’s Haas School of Business
From Communist Romania to London Business School
What’s your story? Share your own experiences in the comment section below.
Comments or questions about this article? Email us.