First Gen: Inspiring Stories Of MBAs Who Beat The Odds

Ashley Terrell

Harvard Business School

Hometown: Compton, California

Fun Fact About Yourself: I won a trip to Barbados as a contestant on “Let’s Make a Deal” (Season 8, Episode 35).

Undergraduate School and Major: Duke University, Public Policy Studies Major

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: Marketing Manager for a large medical device company in Los Angeles

What did your parents do for a living? My mother worked as a hospital clerk.

What was the highest level of education achieved by your mother and your father? My mother received her high school diploma.

Which of your family members is your biggest inspiration? Why? My maternal grandfather instilled the importance of education in me at a young age and will always be my biggest source of inspiration. Growing up during the Jim Crow laws of the South, he had limited access to quality education and instead sought to develop working skills by enlisting in the Air Force. He recognized the value of education and took advantage of technical skills training and vocational education offered through his service. Eventually, he participated in the great migration, settling in Los Angeles with his family, and earned a technical job in aerospace. He supported my curiosity for education at a young age by buying me several Hooked on Phonics cassette tapes when I struggled with reading in elementary school. He was also the first to congratulate me when I was accepted into a prestigious math and science high school program. Because higher education was not an option for him, he made me promise that I would attend college and take advantage of as many opportunities as possible afforded to me through higher education. Unfortunately, he did not live to see me fulfill that promise, but I know he’d be so proud to know that I not only fulfilled it by graduating from Duke, but I exceeded his expectations by graduating from Harvard Business School.

What was the moment that led you to decide to pursue higher education? I wouldn’t say it was one moment in particular. Growing up in Compton, CA, an underserved community notoriously plagued by drugs, gangs, and racial violence, I had few mentors to emulate and a professional career seemed beyond my reach. Nevertheless, I put all my focus in school and as I began to excel, several teachers provided me with encouragement in the classroom and guidance to participate in college prep programs outside of class. I think it’s also important to note that while I performed at a high level, I do not think I am an exception. A number of the peers I went to school with in Compton were also high achievers. Instead of allowing my community to become an alienating factor, prohibiting my ambitions, I turned it into a self-reflective, internal force that I continuously carry with me. With this force and determination, I was able to overcome many of the barriers that often prevent first generation college students from underperforming schools in low socioeconomic communities from excelling and pursuing undergraduate and graduate level education.

What was your biggest worry before going for your undergraduate degree? Financing my education was my biggest worry. Not only did my family not have the money to help pay for college, but I also wanted to go out of state, and I had very little money saved to fund my move. As a first generation college student, I couldn’t ask family or friends how to finance my education, how to apply for loans or financial aid, or for advice on a reasonable interest rate for student loans. I mitigated some of the financial risk by applying to merit-based scholarship programs and mostly to “no loan” schools for income-based aid.

What was the most challenging part of getting your undergraduate degree? As a first generation college student, everything is challenging, because you really don’t know what to expect. Academics were challenging, but that was to be expected. I think the biggest challenge was that you’re learning “college” for the first time and making (often uninformed) decisions by yourself all at once—in terms of academics, life skills away from home, professional skills, networking, career choices, etc. In addition, you also think your choice of major and performance in school will dictate all other future opportunities in life (spoiler alert- it doesn’t!). It wasn’t until I reached out to mentors from scholarship programs and participated in summer internships to explore career opportunities that I really began to feel comfortable and confident throughout my college experience.

What led you to pursue an MBA degree? I knew an investment in my academic development would be an investment in my career development and financial future. While I came to HBS with years of marketing and product management experience as a marketing manager for a large medical device company, I was ready to diversify my industry knowledge to address a broader set of business and management issues. In addition, I wanted to further develop skills essential to entrepreneurship, including microeconomics, business strategy, finance, accounting, organizational behavior design, and general management. An MBA degree would also allow me to develop key soft skills required for leadership positions and a transition into consulting to help solve some of the most challenging strategic and economic decisions facing executives today.

How did you choose your MBA program? I based my decision on several factors, including strength of career placement, academic fit, curriculum focus, teaching method, and personal fit after visiting each institution.

What was your biggest worry before starting your MBA? Being admitted to Harvard Business School became a reality only when I knew there was financial support available to make it possible for me to attend. My biggest worry before starting my MBA was the possible debt burden.

How were you able to finance your MBA as a first generation student? I was able to finance my MBA through a combination of HBS-awarded fellowships and government loans. As a beneficiary of the School’s Forward Fellowship, which “helps support students from lower-income backgrounds who have carried significant financial burdens or obligations” and the Robert Glassman Fellowship, I was able to offset my debt burden. As a result, HBS became more accessible, allowing me to focus more on professional exploration and transformational leadership development opportunities at the School. I also took out loans to supplement the remaining costs of attendance not covered by fellowship awards.

What advice would you have for other first-generation college students? Continue to exceed expectations— don’t let this “first” be your only accomplishment.

What do you plan to pursue after graduation? I graduated last spring and will begin a career in strategy consulting for Parthenon-EY based in Los Angeles.