First Gen: Inspiring Stories Of MBAs Who Beat The Odds

Dick Tam

University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School

Class: 2020

Hometown: Rosemead, California

Fun Fact About Yourself: I grew up right next to the Huy Fong Sriracha factory before it moved in 2010.

Undergraduate School and Major: University of California – Berkeley, Economics

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: Navigant Consulting, Inc., Managing Consultant

What did your parents do for a living? Cook and certified nursing assistant/seamstress

What was the highest level of education achieved by your mother and your father?  High school

Which of your family members is your biggest inspiration? Why? Cliché, but my mother and father. They left their home country with barely the clothes on their backs to a land where they didn’t know the language, culture, or geography, with no family to fall back on in search for a better life. Knowing they were at a major disadvantage, my parents admitted they needed help and sought out resources around them. They were able to learn the English language from scratch, acquire jobs, and become contributing members of society while being able to send three children to college. Although we’ve never had the newest TV or brand name shoes, they always made sure we always had something to eat and ensure money was not a limiting factor to our education. The personal sacrifices they made to make sure we had the tools to succeed in life is an admirable characteristic that I can only hope to bring out on me.

What was the moment that led you to decide to pursue higher education? This sounds very silly, but during a hot summer day in Los Angeles, my dad came home from work covered in sweat. I asked him if the restaurant kitchen’s air conditioning was broken. He laughed so hard. He told me if I wanted a comfortable job in life, I should get a college education so I can get a job that allows me to work in air conditioning instead of the sweltering sun or a baking kitchen. This was after I complained about why he refused to turn on the air conditioning at home on a 100-degree day.

What was your biggest worry before going for your undergraduate degree? For 13 years of school, my parents were there at the end of the day to make sure I was making the right decisions. But as my parents were dropping me off in my college dorm, my parents’ parting words were, “We’ve done all we can for 18 years to get you here. This is all you now.” The two people who I could shout across the room for advice from were no longer a shout’s away.

What was the most challenging part of getting your undergraduate degree? College made me realize I was not the smartest kid in the class anymore. I had to relinquish my pride and admit I needed help if I truly wanted to succeed. UC-Berkeley had armies of tutors, mentors, and resources ready to help me. However, I had to activate that network of resources myself in order to maximize the benefits offered.

What didn’t your family understand about the higher education experience that you wish they would understand better? Sometimes just being the smartest kid in class isn’t enough anymore. Another key to success is networking. Networking is not simply a check mark and there is no formula to conducting networking. It really is an experience where two people get together to improve each other through sharing the knowledge they have learned while developing as a person. No two individuals will have the same experience in forming these relationships.

What led you to pursue an MBA degree? Growing up, my quantitative skills were never in question. There was always a definite and derivable answer and I was comfortable in my work. However, the world is much more than a number on a piece of paper. I continued to ask how does the number I calculated affect decisions being made on a global scale that could affect economies of people. I wanted a program to help me continue tying all the knowledge I’ve learned over the years and being able to effectively communicate my ideas. An MBA was the best place to challenge me to put all these skills together, develop myself as a person, and fast-track me to roles that would allow me to exercise all these skills.

How did you choose your MBA program? It was key for me to get out of California and learn to live in a different environment. Although I love California, there are 49 other states that think and live differently. It was also crucial to me the program was small, which encourages a tight-knit community. It is possible to see everyone and wave “hi” every day in the halls of McColl. Despite the small program, the resources and support are overwhelming at Kenan-Flagler. The staff here really put the students first. No matter what the issue is, the staff would work to find the answer and go out of their way to make sure our success is imminent versus questionable.

What was your biggest worry before starting your MBA? I worried I would not fit into the stereotype of the competitive and self-serving environment that is business school. Since arriving at Kenan-Flagler, my original views have changed. It was clear the admissions committee put a lot of effort in designing a class that would fit well together that exudes Kenan-Flagler’s core values and support each other in our personal and professional goals.

How were you able to finance your MBA as a first generation student? Personal finance is a class every person should take. Understanding the concept of saving and compound interest goes a long way. However, there is always graduate student financing, which has preferable rates of interest compared to the rest of the market. In the long run, it would all pay off and money would have just been a number.

What advice would you have for other first-generation college students? Know your boundaries, but know when to ask for help. Professors are not out to get you. They challenge you, but really want you to get to the right answer. Connect with them as they only want you to succeed and hear your experiences. Mentors are so much more than the finger wagging lecture you would normally get from mom and dad. Mentors would actually tell you how it is and what dead ends to avoid and are eager to tell you so! Always ask questions and never accept the answer, “Because I say so.” That answer might have been fine when you were five, but nothing improves if people just accepted things are the way they just because we’ve done it this way before.

What do you plan to pursue after graduation? I plan to go into a marketing operations role for several reasons: 1) I want to continue deriving recommendations from analyzing data; 2) The answers are never clear and intuitive on how to solve the problems so it encourages different perspectives; 3) No matter what, the job is never done as there is always room for improvement and, ultimately; 4) I want to help get the right message, products, and services to the people who need it most in the most efficient way possible.