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My Story: From West Point to Berkeley

Growing up in Cedar Falls, Iowa, Liz Callahan never imagined that she would one day fly a Black Hawk helicopter over the broad plains and reedy marshes of Iraq. Yet, after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2003, she soon found herself piloting the $14 million aircraft, as a captain in the medical service corps. It was a job that tested her like no other. “Day in and day out, we saved lives,” she says flatly.

After her military service, she landed a job as program manager of a DaVita Inc. healthcare clinic in Atlanta and also helped to launch Rooster 14, a baking company that sells “scoop cookies” via the Internet and at local markets in Atlanta. Callahan took the GMAT in February of 2009 and applied in the third and fourth rounds to five top schools: Yale, Chicago, Columbia, Duke, and Berkeley. Lured by Berkeley’s strengths in entrepreneurship and health care, as well as its Northern California locale, she opted for the Haas School of Business and entered the full-time MBA program in late August of 2009. She expects to return to Rooster 14 after getting her degree.

Her story:

One of the big draws of Haas is that the school is very open about what it’s about. It’s not merely about a test score or a GPA. Haas really wants to make sure it’s the right school for you as an individual. We are a student-driven school, and the administration wants to know what students think and listens to what students have to say.

The five adjectives that describe the Haas School? We’re transparent, forward thinking, trusting, engaging, and unique.  It’s a very welcoming environment and it pulls you in. We’re competitive on the outside, but collaborative on the inside. We’re here to work together as a team.

The place really lives up to its four cultural principles: To question the status quo; to produce MBAs with confidence but no attitude; to pick people who are students always and don’t think they’ve learned everything, and to reach beyond ourselves, putting larger interests above our own. Those four pillars aren’t anything new to Berkeley. They are spot on. We want to use who we are to get to better places. To be at the business school at Berkeley is unique in itself. As the president of our MBA Association, I had the chance to meet with the student presidents of the top 50 schools in the world and my impression is that Berkeley is not a cookie cutter business school.

If I could change one thing about the school, it would be to get more space. There’s a constant need for group study rooms. There’s just very limited space here.

The best advice I ever received came from my father and at a very young age. The words, “Don’t force it, Elizabeth,” were said to me more than once during my childhood. He usually shared this with me when I was jamming a cassette tape in the wrong way or trying to ‘help’ my little sister brush her hair. While these words started as a basic way to help me learn that pushing a square peg into a round hole might break something, they evolved into much more. I often find myself thinking about this phrase when faced with a difficult situation, whether it was during my deployment to Iraq, working on a project for class, or making a decision for my cookie company. These words help me decide whether a little extra pushing might do more damage than good. In fact, the right course of action may be to slow down and take another look at the situation before executing.  His voice often echoes in my head at just the right moment when it comes to making decisions.

The greatest challenge I ever faced occurred while I was serving in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It came eight months into my deployment as a medical evacuation helicopter pilot and team leader. One of our unit’s aircraft crashed, and we lost two remarkable young men. The crew came from another remote location, but our entire unit felt the loss. These men were extremely close to several members of my team, including me. My unit arranged a memorial service. But the location of the service was over an hour’s flight away. Obviously, my entire team wanted to attend – as did I, but we could not leave while charged with our medical evacuation mission.  Medical evacuation is an essential aspect of any war, but in Iraq where civilians are sometimes caught in the middle, our lifesaving role is not limited to U.S. soldiers. I took a good look at my 17-member team and knew that they needed me to lead them through this terrible ordeal.