Meet USC Marshall’s MBA Class Of 2021

Things are about to get interesting in Southern California.

Last year, Geoff Garrett, the Dean at the Wharton School, made a game-changing announcement. Come June, he would be leaving Wharton – perhaps the best business school at both the undergraduate and MBA levels – to take the helm at USC’s Marshall School of Business. On the surface, the move appeared to be a downgrade – a way to dodge the pitchforks and torches after Wharton lost ground in leading MBA rankings. In reality, Garrett was simply following instincts he’d honed as a political economist: he saw a remarkable opportunity – and decided to capitalize on it.

Recently, the Marshall School has been the model for momentum, even cracking the Top 20 in P&Q’s new MBA ranking. Why wouldn’t Marshall be attractive to the top business minds? It boasts world-class career services and a revamped curriculum. It is based in Los Angeles – the entertainment capital of the world and an emerging media and tech leader. Best of all, its “Trojan Network” – another name for its fervently-loyal alumni – represents the most supportive MBA alumni west of New Hampshire. In other words, the fundamentals are solid and the table is set for USC Marshall to make a huge move in the MBA rankings…and beyond.


The students are equally bullish on Marshall as Garrett. In last year’s student survey conducted by Bloomberg Businessweek, Marshall garnered Top 10 scores in seven categories: Prestige, Diversity of Recruiters, Inspiring Faculty, Right Mix of Faculty, Developing Applicable Skills, Ethical Career Preparation, and Low Competitiveness. In fact, Marshall earned the survey’s highest score for attracting a diverse range of recruiters. It isn’t just students singing the school’s praises. In Bloomberg Businessweek’s accompanying alumni survey, Marshall placed 4th for Career Development.

Garrett enjoys another building block when he arrives in July: The Class of 2021 – a cohort well in harmony with the school’s tradition of being team-oriented self-starters who are always looking out for their peers.

Summer Orientation

“The way we cheer each other on has been amazing,” writes Aria Aaron, a Georgia-Pacific brand manager. “When someone gives an insightful opinion in class, we clap and cheer. Classmates have offered to help me network with some of their contacts before I think to ask. The way my classmates have championed one another so soon in the process speaks volumes about the Marshall community.”


Mind you, there is a healthy level of competition among the core groups, says Sandra Luo. Still, it is more channeled more towards their passions. Luo cites one classmate, a former consultant, who helped “demystify” the field by developing a “Day in the Life of a Consultant” gathering. Such efforts, adds Lawrence Rolle, creates an “inspiring aura” around the group.

“We are all from so many different environments, yet there is a mutual understanding of how this experience with one another is the catalyst for taking us to the next level. It seems the information we can learn from one another is limitless. It also seems I will have some powerful friends throughout the world. I’m really excited to learn all of their secrets to success.”

That level of support is critical at a full-time program like USC Marshall. According to Katya Buchneva, 70% of her classmates are career changers looking to reinvent themselves. Buchneva herself is a former senior editor and producer in Russian media. During her career, she has managed a 50-member creative team that increased a broadcaster’s YouTube platform viewership seven-fold. This move into journalism, she says, stemmed from abuses she witnessed – and a view that she could do more to curb them.

“[My defining moment] was the first mass protest in Russia against the rigged election on a -20C cold day in December 2011, which followed censorship that I witnessed in major media. This is what made me seriously switch into news coverage, despite previous experience with scripted shows, and focus on delivering the most accurate high-standard journalism possible via international broadcasters. I truly believe in the essential role of media for democracy and humanistic development of the societies. It applies not only to the informational media but to creative narratives too – the stories we tell define who we are and we all should learn to speak up, listen to others, and maintain a healthy dialogue.”

USC Marshall Classroom


That was just one rite of passage faced by the Class of 2021. Xin Chen’s moment of truth came when she decided to drop out of medical school…seven years into the program. For her, medicine extended far beyond the interactions between physicians and patients. To drive quality and innovation, she needed to look at a far bigger picture.

“Healthcare in China – and globally – can’t meet the required scale right now, leaving professionals in vulnerable and helpless positions,” she explains. “I committed to utilize my unique clinical and industrial experience to bringing corporate researchers and healthcare professionals together, translate the unmet clinical needs into business opportunities, and equip doctors and nurses with the tools they really desire.”

For much of her life. Aria Aaron was dogged by a pursuit for perfection. It left her fearful and exhausted. Her epiphany came, she says, from a most unlikely of sources: Will Smith. “I was limiting my happiness and success by not giving myself space to make mistakes. Fear of failing prevented me from taking risks. As long as I was playing it safe, I never exercised my full potential. After watching an Instagram post from Will Smith about skydiving, when he said, “God placed the best things in life on the other side of fear,” I adopted that mantra, and let my inhibitions go. The result has been that I have become emotionally lighter and more able to fly. My happiness and self-love have soared, and I slow down to appreciate life in all its colors.”


In fact, you could say the Class of 2021 has embraced life both in their interests and their careers. It is certainly a star-studded class. After earning an MFA at New York University, Jamie Bock took a leap of faith in Hollywood, eventually landing roles in TV shows like Criminal Minds. Her classmates, Katya Buchneva and Cassie Tate, have produced films and written a novel, respectively. Aria Aaron even starred in the Monday Night Football opening with Amy Grant…when she was two-years-old. Intrigued? Just wait until you hear how Jeff McDermott’s family celebrates graduations.

“We go running with the bulls in Pamplona Spain the summer after completing an undergraduate degree. So far, I’ve run twice (once for myself and once with my brother) and both times I’ve been hit by a bull.”

Marshall School entrance

Back to Aria Aaron. She went from journalism to paper…literally. Her claim to fame? She spearheaded the commercialization of Angel Soft® Mega roll items. “[They] have now become a staple of the brand’s portfolio. Not only was it a new product offering, but the design introduced a new color scheme to the brand block on store shelves. It is my personal favorite because it taught me a lot about the power of persistence in the midst of challenges. The day I first saw the package on a Walmart shelf is one of my proudest moments.”


At work, Sandra Luo used to hide something – and it wasn’t Luo’s love for Dungeons and Dragons. Luo’s proudest moment came when Luo was invited to speak on a company panel on diversity, equity, and inclusion in front of 300 people. During Luo’s talk, Luo did the unthinkable for many.

“I came out to them as bisexual and shared how I had been scared to talk about it at work. Without realizing it, I wasn’t bringing my full self to work and it impacted my performance…Afterward, I received a flood of positive messages from my coworkers and a few people I didn’t know reached out specifically to thank me for sharing my experiences and said that they were also afraid to be out at work. Hearing me talk about my sexuality so openly encouraged them to be more out at work.”

That’s not the only tough assignment where the Class of 2021 has come through with shiny colors. Jeremiah Pearse, for one, ran a major military exercise…as a junior officer…for 1,500 soldiers…that included foreign personnel…and leaders with 20 or more years of experience operating in mountain and arctic environments. How is this for trial-by-fire? Out of college, Cassie Tate’s first job was – wait for it –was launching a recruiting department.

“When I started, there were absolutely no processes, no way to track metrics, and no standard interview questions. We had an applicant tracking system but didn’t use it. With basically no training, I created standard questions and set up systems to make the recruitment process as efficient as possible while keeping track of key metrics like time to fill. My new systems reduced our recruitment time by 40% and improved our relationships with hiring managers!

Go to Page 3 to see a dozen in-depth profiles of the Class of 2021.

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