Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, Cornell University
Hometown: Baltimore, MD
Fun Fact About Yourself: My favorite book is The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Malcolm’s story challenged me to think about my purpose in life and what type of leader I would like to become. I’ve re-read it front to back at least twice.
Undergraduate School and Major: University of Maryland, Accounting & Information Systems
Most Recent Employer and Job Title: Freddie Mac, Operational Risk Senior
What did your parents do for a living? My mom is a bank teller.
What was the highest level of education achieved by your mother and your father? My mother obtained her high school diploma.
Which family member or mentor is your biggest inspiration or role model? Why? My maternal grandmother is my biggest inspiration. My grandmother personifies perseverance – she grew up in the Jim Crow South during the Great Depression where she began working at an early age to help her family make ends meet. She went on to raise three kids, including my mother, as a single parent during the U.S. Civil Rights movement. Later in her life, she played a huge role in raising me and teaching me about the importance of hard work. I’m a firm believer that if you don’t know where you’ve come from, then you won’t know where you’re going. The sacrifices that my grandmother, my mom, and other family members have made paved the way for me to pursue my educational and career goals today. My grandmother motivates me to always strive for excellence, no matter what obstacles I may encounter along the way.
What was the moment that led you to decide to pursue higher education? My family, especially my grandmother, always made it very clear that it was the expectation that I would graduate from college. When I entered my teenage years, I began to understand the financial struggles that my family encountered because they did not obtain a college education. It was then that I knew it was an absolute must for me to attend college. Earning a college degree enabled me to position myself to better financially support my family and to begin mentoring others in my community to reach for similar goals.
What was your biggest worry before going for your undergraduate degree? My top concern was funding my degree. I did not want to place any additional burdens on my family to help me finance my education, so I recognized very early on that I would need to take an entrepreneurial approach to obtain funding. I actively applied for scholarships and grants from all types of organizations. I also worked part-time to save money to pay for college expenses. It was very stressful at times because my family and I were unfamiliar with completing the financial aid and loan request process. In the end, I was very fortunate to receive scholarship funding to attend the University of Maryland, which was a huge relief for my family and me.
What was the most challenging part of getting your undergraduate degree? I often struggled with imposter syndrome. I recognized that many of my college classmates had graduated from top-ranked high schools and had strong networks that they could leverage to help navigate the college matriculation process. I was intimidated and unsure if I would be able to access the resources that I would need to succeed in academics and recruiting, especially as a first generation student. Additionally, I had to balance family and work commitments in addition to my studies, which added an extra level of stress. Fortunately, my scholarship program offered advising that helped me find my way. As I got more involved on campus, I found mentors and friends who pushed me to step out of my comfort zone to try new experiences such as traveling out of the country for the first time and to take advantage of resources like tutoring. The support of my family, friends, and mentors helped me manage my doubts and reaffirmed that I had what it took to graduate from college.
What didn’t your family understand about the higher experience that you wish they would understand better? My family was always extremely supportive regarding my higher education goals. However, sometimes it was difficult for family members to understand the emotional and spiritual transformation that I was going through as a college student. Though I attended Maryland to study an academic major, I ended up learning so much more about other cultures, beliefs, and ideologies that my mindset significantly evolved by the time I graduated. It was sometimes challenging for my family to understand these changes, but ultimately we were able to reconcile the differences and engage in discussions that strengthened our family dynamic as a whole. Now that I have been through that process, I am motivated to help younger family members navigate the process during their college experience.
What led you to pursue an MBA degree? Prior to business school, I worked in risk management and Big 4 auditing roles that strengthened my financial acumen and skillset. Though I learned a lot, I eventually realized that I enjoyed the problem-solving, consulting-like aspects of my prior risk management role more than the technical accounting components. I knew that if I wanted to transition out of traditional accounting roles, I needed to return to school full-time to sharpen my business acumen and build new skill sets.
How did you choose your MBA program? I chose Cornell Johnson because it was the one place where I felt at home. Even when I was a prospective student, Johnson students, faculty, and staff consistently made me feel like I was already a member of the Johnson family. They made a point to remember my name, ask about my family, and speak with me for hours to help me decide which school was best for me. If these people were willing to help me so much as a prospective student, I could only imagine how committed they would be to help me as an enrolled student. An added bonus was that Johnson had an Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which demonstrated Johnson’s commitment to promoting inclusion and belonging efforts for students from diverse backgrounds like mine.
What was your biggest worry before starting your MBA? I was concerned about the opportunity costs of attending an MBA program. I knew that I would be placing my career on hold, leaving my family behind, and incurring debt. If I was going to take two years off for school, I wanted to make sure I chose the right school where I could grow as a leader in my community and in my career. Johnson has exceeded my expectations and I am confident that I made the right decision to invest this time to focus on my personal development.
How were you able to finance your MBA as a first generation student? Fortunately, I was selected to be a part of Johnson’s Roy H. Park Leadership Fellowship program that provides a leadership development program and generous fellowship that significantly reduces the financial burden. The remainder of my costs are funded with loans and savings.
What advice would you have for other first-generation college students? Don’t be ashamed of where you come from. Your story brings a unique perspective to the classroom and workplace, and leverage that perspective to stand out in a positive way. You deserve to have a seat at the table.
What do you plan to pursue after graduation? In the short term, I’d like to pursue a career in consulting where I can strengthen my analytical and problem solving skills. In the long-term, I plan to leverage the skills that I gained as a consultant and apply them in the education sector to improve educational outcomes for underrepresented students from low-income areas, similar to the area where I grew up.