In a candid first-person account published on LinkedIn, recent Haas School of Business graduate Ryann Kopacka describes feelings of loneliness, vulnerability, and even despair in her second year at the University of California-Berkeley school, saying “Business school ruined me” but sparked a rebuilding process that continues promisingly today.
Kopacka said she originally hoped her story, a frank account of B-school challenges beyond the rigors of scholarship, might reach a couple of hundred people.
As of Friday (May 27), it had been read by 34,000.
“Whenever I would share glimpses of what I was going through in business school, I would get one of two responses,” says Kopacka, an Atlanta native who wrote the piece a week before graduating May 20. “One was, ‘I never would have guessed.’ And then the second was, ‘I feel the same way.’ And so it was for both of those reasons that I felt compelled to share what I had written down.”
BREAKING DOWN AND BUILDING BACK UP
In the piece, Kopacka describes entering Haas as “Ryann the Robot,” an accomplished engineer who prided herself on logical thinking and efficient problem-solving. Likewise, she writes, it was her “calculated purpose and discipline” that led her to excel as a collegiate swimmer and Team USA amateur triathlete.
But by the beginning of her second year at Haas, working for a facilitator at a program that teaches interpersonal and feedback skills to first-year MBAs, Kopacka hit a breaking point.
“’Ryann the Robot’ was not ready for the scary world of emotions, feelings, vulnerability, and self-expression that had been opened to me,” she writes. “I had never verbally expressed my emotions or needs before. I lacked the skills to navigate these new waters (rather, this raging ocean) on my own, much less coach first-year MBAs through the process.”
Kopacka struggled. She stopped participating in class, and she neglected family and friends. She pushed away those who tried to help her — and she blamed Haas for causing the pain.
‘I LEARNED THAT I AM ENOUGH’
Finally, she sought help. With it came a deeper understanding of who she is as a person — and how to be a better leader.
“With guidance, I learned that recognizing my emotions, naming them, and communicating them to others was an important part of getting to know myself not as a leader, but as a human,” Kopacka writes. “I learned that listening is far more powerful than any leadership skill in my arsenal. I learned that appreciating the humanity in myself and the humanity in others creates relationships that are far deeper and more meaningful than I ever could have imagined.
I learned that I am enough.”
OVERWHELMING SUPPORT — AND SOLIDARITY
As part of the healing process, Kopacka wrote down what she was feeling, and those notes became her LinkedIn article. The volume of response took her by surprise. The tenor — overwhelmingly positive — was gratifying and encouraging.
“The article exploded compared to what I thought it would do,” she says. “The comments have been overwhelmingly supportive, and there’s been a lot of gratitude. There have been people thanking me for being vulnerable, for sharing my vulnerability, for putting into words things that they had felt but weren’t able to express.”
She heard from many who used her article as a way to share their own story. “Reading those comments — some of them from people who were in business school 15, 20 years ago — has shown that in a way it’s been healing for others as well.”
AN MBA MOVES FORWARD
Kopacka plans to take the next three months off, traveling to the Rio Olympics and Europe before returning to Atlanta to plan a family reunion with her mother. She will start work as an associate marketing manager at The Clorox Company in Oakland, California in September.
“Haas taught me how to lead with my heart, not with my head,” she writes. “I am a different person, and I am a fuller person of it. However, it was a painful process to get there. I had to be completely broken down and excruciatingly split into pieces until my very core was exposed in all of its vulnerability and flaws. Then, I had to build back up, piece by piece. …
“Business school ruined who I was. I am still in the process of rebuilding myself, but I believe that I am becoming a more whole person because of it. Thank you, Haas, for redefining me.”