Meet Duke Fuqua’s MBA Class Of 2020

Mary Fernandez

Fuqua School of Business, Duke University

Sassy, classy, driven and quirky.”

Hometown: Woodbridge, New Jersey

Fun Fact About Yourself: As a child, I was convinced real people lived inside the television. I often marveled at how they got such big houses in such a small box.

Undergraduate School and Major: Emory University, Psychology and Music

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: Project Coordinator, National Federation of the Blind

Describe your biggest accomplishment in your career so far: The career accomplishment I’m most proud of was writing a guide on inclusion of students with disabilities for a law school as a contractor. Though this may not be the most impressive product to many, my passion for disability rights and insuring that students with disabilities in higher education have the access they are guaranteed by law meant that this wasn’t just a professional undertaking, but also a personal one. Furthermore, I was asked to collaborate on this project by two women who are my mentors and whose opinions are extremely important to me. So being asked to take on the largest part of that project was all at once intimidating and exciting, and the fact that I was able to deliver something they approved of made all the work I put into it worth it.

What quality best describes the MBA classmates you’ve met so far and why? The classmates I’ve met so far are truly quality human beings. Of course, they are incredibly intelligent, extremely accomplished, and all seem to have a talent. But most of all they care about communities and the world around them. Meeting the current students at Fuqua and potential classmates influenced my decision to attend this program.

As a person with a visible disability I’m used to feeling like my every move is being closely watched, and as if I make anything that resembles a mistake someone will jump in and try to help, without asking if I need help, just because I’m blind. During my time at Fuqua, I have never encountered that. I think that somehow the community at Fuqua understands that inclusion is not just asking under-represented minorities to show up, but to truly include them in a meaningful way into the fabric of the community. And I think that’s what is special about the students here.

Aside from your classmates, what was the key factor that led you to choose this program for your full-time MBA and why was it so important to you? I think that the sense of inclusion I got when I visited made up my mind. Of course, Fuqua is a top program, great academics, great career outcomes, etc. Living with a visible disability means that often we are treated not as people who happen to have a disability but are reduced to just that characteristic. I find that I constantly must make an extreme effort to put others at ease because they simply do not know how to deal with individuals who are different from them. I never felt that way at Fuqua. I feel like I found a community that may have questions, and wants to help in whatever way they can, but which also understands that I am not just my disability. In short, there are few precious places I have felt so comfortable to be myself outside of non-disabled circles. And that is something that is extremely meaningful to me.

Furthermore, an institution’s commitment to inclusion is not simply measured by their marketing materials, but also by their policies and the way those policies are implemented. Though it is federal law that students with disabilities have the right to equal access in education, most of the time that does not actually happen. When I visited during the admitted students’ weekend, I met with the liaison for the students with disabilities office at Fuqua. It is extremely rare to find someone who isn’t disabled who truly gets that equal access to educational materials means that a student has a fair chance at succeeding. Speaking to her, I realized that Fuqua has a real commitment to equal access and supporting a diverse student body. She did not blink when I said that I preferred Braille for quantitative classes, or that I would need to use a laptop during class to take notes, even though Fuqua does not allow electronics in the classroom as a policy. And since I officially accepted the offer of admissions, the administration at Fuqua has truly taken the responsibility of equal access seriously to insure I have an equal academic experience as my peers. This may all sound logical, but it is rare.

What club or activity are you looking most forward to in business school? I’m looking forward to being part of the consulting club, and to take the opportunity to learn another foreign language while I’m here.

What led you to pursue an MBA at this point in your career? Since graduating from college, I’ve worked as a paralegal for a civil rights litigation law firm, as a program coordinator, and as a contractor. All these jobs have had something to do with disability rights and inclusion in some form. However, I’ve always found that in most jobs I started to feel bored after a while, because I yearn to constantly learn and be challenged. In addition, I always knew I wanted a graduate degree; it was deciding which graduate degree that was the real issue. As I started doing independent consulting work in 2017, I discovered that I loved it. I loved being given a problem or asked to produce a work product which would fit the client’s expectations. Figuring out how to best develop a solution that plays to the client’s strengths was my favorite part. And so, I wondered if this was something I could do for a living. I discovered the world of management consulting, and quickly decided that if I wanted to enter this field at this point in my life, I should get an MBA. So, I started researching last summer, took the GRE, applied, and here I am a year later.

How did you decide if an MBA was worth the investment? I always knew I wanted a graduate degree for several reasons. First, as a Latinx disabled woman, education is important if I want to pursue the type of career I want. Second, it took a while to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up, but I feel that consulting is the next step in my life’s adventure. I don’t know if I will stay in it forever, but it’s what I want to do in the foreseeable future. Third, an MBA will give me the tools and skills I don’t have right now. I don’t know much about accounting; my knowledge of economics has been mostly acquired by reading newspapers and magazines. So, even though I am slightly terrified of all things quantitative, I feel that the best way to get over fear is to face it head on.

What other MBA programs did you apply to? Yale School of Management, Harvard Business School, Stanford School of Business, Georgetown McDonough, University of Virginia Darden

How did you determine your fit at various schools? When researching MBA programs, I used broad criteria at first, such as ranking, employment outcomes, and geographic location. Once I had a list of about twenty programs I started to read about the school culture and values. To make my final decisions, I attended quite a number of coffee chats with students. I wound up deciding based on community values, the type of students I met, international and study abroad opportunities, the program’s demonstrated efforts in recruiting, and retaining minority students, and finally, the weather.

What was your defining moment and how did it shape who you are? I think that a moment that defined and changed the course of my life was immigrating to the United States. My mother immigrated to the U.S. when I was two, and it took five years for her to bring me and my brother to this country. As a blind child in Colombia, I did not attend school, and there was no expectation that I would ever do anything with my life. Blind people simply do not have careers, don’t get married, and don’t raise families. Having a mother who believed in me and who was determined that my disability would not stop me, and who instilled the value of an education into me changed the course of my life. I went from living in a place where all doors were closed to me, to coming to a place where – even though my mother worked doing housekeeping, and even though the only way I could afford the college education I received was through scholarships – I am now able to pursue an MBA at a top university. Being an immigrant child with a disability has meant that I don’t take the opportunities I’ve been given for granted. It has meant that I am constantly working to redefine how society views people with disabilities, particularly women.

What do you plan to do after you graduate? After graduation, I hope to work in a major management consulting firm.

Where do you see yourself in five years? In five years, I hope to have grown as a professional and worked my way up wherever I land after graduation. I also have an ambition of building a school for blind children in Colombia. I hope that by attaining an MBA, building a strong network, and learning best practices for business, I will be able to fulfill this dream in a sustainable way.

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