Nitish Tripathi was accepted to four elite business schools. He made his choice in January. Then he watched the world fall apart.
Tripathi, an engineer with a background in social work in rural India, spent much of the last two years planning his application to business schools in the United States. His hard work paid off with admits to Columbia Business School, Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, Yale School of Management, and The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He chose Wharton, despite being offered a big scholarship by Kellogg, and this spring quit his job to begin preparing to travel to Philadelphia in the fall.
Then coronavirus hit. And a slow-rolling chaos ensued that still hangs over everyone and everything, in graduate business education and beyond.
“I am scared about the coronavirus — I really hope it goes away soon,” Tripathi tells Poets&Quants. “Numbers seem to suggest that the danger falls outside my age bracket, but there are so many old people who are vulnerable. I am concerned for them.
“I am doubly scared of what this means MBA-wise. The application process was extremely grueling both physically and economically for me. I have already resigned from my job. Considering my financial situation and my current investment, I simply cannot afford to not go.”
‘SURREAL’ TO WATCH THE PANDEMIC SPREAD WHILE PLANNING TO GO TO B-SCHOOL
Tripathi earned Bachelor of Technology and a Master in Computer Science and Engineering from the International Institute of Information Technology in Hyderabad. In 2016, he decided to forsake an engineering career to work as a consultant for People’s Action for National Integration, a social development group working to help communities living in poverty and inequality in his home state of Uttar Pradesh; among his projects was working with older sex workers and other “un-empowered and disenfranchised women.” Tripathi began to think about going to business school as a way to further his mission to protect and preserve the folk stories of rural India: first a job in consulting, and eventually social entrepreneurship connecting female folk artisans, art, and folk tales of India to global markets.
He was all set to travel to the U.S. in July for a pre-MBA internship, becoming the first in his family to travel abroad, when the novel coronavirus COVID-19 began to make headlines in the U.S. Cases and deaths began to mount, classes and travel and events were canceled at B-schools around the world, and everything stopped. Tripathi, about to travel home to his native Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, has been self-quarantined in New Delhi for weeks.
“As far as I know, people (in India) are observing the quarantine,” he tells P&Q in a March 31 email. “But given the nature of the disease even a few people breaking quarantine could be literally catastrophic — and India is huge. Already there has been a case of a congregation of 2,000 people in the heart of Delhi who broke quarantine a while back but went undetected. It was on the news today and the situation is developing, I hope the authorities manage to round up the people who were infected.
“I think largely the people are quite determined to get through the crisis. On a lighter note and with the risk of being politically incorrect, the scale of the disaster is still quite small compared to what the poor of my country are used to. I am optimistic because we have a strong spirit and we will overcome this. Same goes for the world as well. But considering the nature of the pandemic, we cannot afford to be callous and I think, by and large, people across India do understand it.
“It has been surreal. Starting out it was tiny. People here were making jokes about it; we celebrated the festival of Holi with colors — if you know about Holi, you’d know it’s unimaginable with social distancing. That was barely three weeks ago and now the entire country is under lockdown. The thing with global events is that they don’t bother you if they don’t affect you. So, while its disruption was clear by January end, the magnitude didn’t quite register till 16th of March when the U.S. consulate cancelled visa interviews. Thereafter India swiftly went under lockdown, and it became scarier.”
The potential for a major impact on India is great, Tripathi says. “Our population is comparable to China. A large proportion of it lives in places where social distancing isn’t feasible. Plus, given our inability to impose restrictions as strict as the Chinese (for political reasons), I shudder to think the havoc it can wreak on the underprivileged sections of the country. I have worked in places where social distancing or quick medical help wouldn’t be possible — for example when the migrant workers get crammed in buses and go back to the villages.”
MANY QUESTIONS, FEW ANSWERS
The U.S. embassy’s cancellation of all visa appointments for Indians is indefinite, Tripathi says. So he has spent his time in lockdown waiting and watching from afar. If it has been announced by Wharton’s, he is aware of it. Among the developments he has noted: the school shifting all students off campus and all instruction online for the duration of the spring.
While the start of fall classes September 10 has not been changed yet, “In the light of all of this, I am concerned about whether or not the authorities (or the school) will let me attend, come fall,” he says. Or whether he wants to, since he finds online courses far less appealing. But is deferral a better option, and if not, will the school show consideration for special cases like his?
“Being in lockdown has also brought considerable financial strain on me, so a deferral request seems not so bad,” he says. “But considering I have already turned in my papers and was slated to join a pre-MBA internship, I don’t know what my employment position will be during and post-July. I am praying that the visa process starts soon and I am allowed to travel in August for the pre-term.”
Tripathi has other questions: Will job recruitment be better when he graduates in 2022 than in 2020? Given the economic impact of the pandemic, isn’t now the best time to do an MBA, considering things will only get better from here? Will the U.S. elections in November have an effect on the current administration’s effort to normalize things as quickly as possible?
Wharton, Tripathi says, has not communicated much to him personally.
“So far there hasn’t been any communication apart from the regular news from campus regarding how they are tackling the situation,” he says. “I know that they postponed the Welcome Weekend and the graduation ceremony. But as far as the admission cycle goes, it is business as usual as far as I know. Like I said, online doesn’t seem very attractive to me. Given my investment in it, in the worst case, I would much rather seek deferral. But to be honest, I haven’t given it that much thought as I am really hoping to attend on August 10.”
Should he choose to defer, he would likely have lots of company: According to a Poets&Quants survey, a third of fall admits at top U.S. MBA programs may choose to wait before starting their MBA, rather than begin in an online or blended format.
HOPING FOR A FRUITFUL JOURNEY
Even amid the uncertainty, nothing could dampen Tripathi’s enthusiasm for Wharton.
“An elite program is a key to my dreams and Wharton is my dream school, I don’t see that changing,” he says. “I passed on an exceptional scholarship offer to attend Wharton. The pandemic will inevitably end, but my association with the school will stay forever.”
His determination is fueled by the knowledge of his father’s unfulfilled education. Accepted to a program in the UK, the elder Tripathi was prevented from accepting because of financial difficulties. “So this is full circle for my family,” Nitish says. “With all due respect to my peers, I honestly don’t think anyone else is more psyched to be attending Wharton than I. The recruitment journey may be a little more difficult than previously anticipated, but that’s life.
“I absolutely want to come to the U.S. in the fall. Traveling and lodging is a concern for sure, but it can be managed. The only concerns raised by coronavirus are its effects on the MBA experience in terms of recruitment and the commencement of the term. I am really looking forward to September 10th. I naturally want the term to start on time. I understand that I am as non-traditional as they come. And that because of the recession getting an internship will get even tougher. For that I want to start learning and networking as fast as possible. Having a virtual session wouldn’t work, therefore.
“Correct me if I am wrong, but after 2008, didn’t recruitment, etc. become better in the next two years? I really do feel bad for the people who are in doldrums right now. Hopefully my journey — even though a little more difficult than earlier imagined — would be fruitful.”