2020 First Generation MBAs: Albert James Rabago, Columbia Business School

Albert James Rabago

Columbia Business School

Class: 2021

Hometown: Pacoima, California (Greater Los Angeles)

Fun Fact About Yourself: I volunteered as a talent handler for Disney movie premiers. I helped celebrities make their way to their seats in the theater from the red carpet.

Undergraduate School and Major: University of Southern California (USC), Double Major Accounting and Business Administration with an emphasis in Finance

Most Recent Employer and Job Title:

MBA Summer Internship: Strategy&, Senior Associate Consultant

Prior to MBA: The Walt Disney Company, Senior Financial Analyst (Licensing Finance and Business Development for Star Wars)

What did your parents do for a living?

Mother – Human Resources Manager within the Insurance Industry

Father – Sales and Marketing Manager within the Healthcare Industry

What was the highest level of education achieved by your mother and your father? My mother and father both attained high school diplomas.

Which family member or mentor is your biggest inspiration or role model? Why? My mother and father are my biggest inspirations because they embody perseverance and positivity. My family and I lived in a converted garage for one year when I was twelve years old. Because the garage was one large room, my parents’ work ethic was always visible. For a whole year, I heard my parents’ alarms ring early in the morning for work, and at night I’d hear them come home late from work. My parents remained positive throughout this financially difficult year and ensured our unconventional home was happy, positive, and loving. My parents’ sacrifices, perseverance, and positivity inspire me to chase my dreams despite the circumstances.

What was the moment that led you to decide to pursue higher education? From an early age, my mother encouraged me to pursue higher education so that I could have access to more opportunities than those that were afforded to her. However, I experienced the most defining moment to pursue higher education when I was twelve years old.

One weekend, in one of my mother’s many attempts to inspire my pursuit of higher education, my mother took my sibling and me to Fresno, California to experience the laborious and grueling work of grape pickers – a job she had held with her father and sisters from elementary through high school to support her family. I remember the sun was scorching hot, it must have been more than 100-degrees Fahrenheit. The field workers ended their days with dried sweat and dirt on their faces – showing the true meaning of hard work and sacrifice. Even though I was young, I saw the contrast of opportunities accessible to those with an education and those without. I decided that if I wanted to help my family and my community, I needed to go to college because it would provide opportunities that hard work alone would not.

What was your biggest worry before going for your undergraduate degree? Representation matters. It was difficult for me to imagine myself as a graduate of a 4-year university because I hadn’t seen it done within my family nor had anyone around me achieved such an accomplishment. An undergraduate degree was unchartered territory for me, and I didn’t know if I had the grades or test scores to be accepted, nor the resources financially to graduate. Throughout the entire undergraduate degree process from applications to graduation, I had severe imposter syndrome. As the first in my family to pursue an undergraduate degree, I felt immense pressure to excel in this new environment and to live up to my family’s expectations of me.

What was the most challenging part of getting your undergraduate degree? The most challenging part of getting my undergraduate degree was the actual process of receiving an acceptance. I suffered a severe ankle injury going into my senior year of high school that erased my prospects of playing college basketball and erased any scholarships that would make college financially attainable. Soon after my ankle injury, college coaches’ interest sharply decreased, phone calls and letters of interest became less frequent, and a chance for a full athletic scholarship was out the door. Despite earning admissions to multiple UCs, the financial burden of attending a four-year institution was too steep for my family.

Remaining hopeful and aspiring to earn a four-year degree, I enrolled in four community colleges within two years to minimize the credits I’d need to take a 4-year university and therefore minimize the cost of attendance. For a semester, I attended three community colleges at once and drove forty miles one way to attend classes. Ultimately after two years of community college, I had enough credits to transfer to a 4-year university and cut the cost of attendance by half. I earned admissions to the University of Southern California where I double majored in business and accounting and became the first person in my family to earn a college degree.

What didn’t your family understand about the higher experience that you wish they would understand better? My family did not understand the level of work that USC would take. During my first year, I struggled academically and found it difficult to communicate my shortcomings to my family. It was also difficult to communicate the amount of time I needed to study to successfully compete in the classroom. Often this meant I missed or cut my time short at family gatherings – a difficult choice, especially in tight-knit Latino families.

However, the most difficult part about higher education that my family has misunderstood is the professional aspect. Getting a four-year degree and earning an MBA has not guaranteed me professional success. Many of the interviews and jobs offered to me because of higher education require substantial interview preparation due to the competitive nature of the roles. Often, preparing for interviews cuts time spent with family short, and has even interfered with important family events.

What led you to pursue an MBA degree? While working on the Walt Disney Studios Finance and Planning team, I screened Star Wars Rogue One before the theatrical release dateHearing Diego Luna’s Mexican accent in the Star Wars film was the first time I experienced a blockbuster film with a superhero who resembled someone like me and my family – it was the first time my family and I felt accepted in a Hollywood film. Fearful of being reduced to their Mexican accents, my family members are often reluctant to speak English in public. Star Wars Rogue One minimizes that fear as finally the lead superhero in a major film is heard confidently speaking with an accent that eclipses cultural barriers.

While sitting in the theater on The Walt Disney Studio lot, I was inspired to pursue an MBA to diversify media content. I aim to share the feeling of acceptance with other cultures through inclusive stories. I knew an MBA would help me develop the soft and technical skills that are required to lead the strategies and allocate the capital to make the world a more inclusive place through storytelling. With the MBA I know I can lead the development of trailblazing content that transcends cultural barriers across the globe.

How did you choose your MBA program? I based my decision on several factors, including the strength of career placement, academic fit, location, personal fit, and curriculum flexibility.

On a personal level, I felt like I owed it to my parents, greater family, and community to attend a Top 10 and Ivy League Business School. My grandparents, both maternal and paternal, immigrated to the United States in search of more prosperous opportunities for their families and future generations – I am so humbled to honor them by pursuing a graduate degree. I am equally humbled when I return to San Fernando High School, a high school of predominantly low-income and underrepresented students, to speak to students about my educational and professional experiences. It is incredibly rewarding to provide a spark of hope for students attending the same high school I once attended because we can relate to each other’s socio-economic struggles. Attending Columbia Business School provides that much-needed inspiration and validation for high school students with a similar upbringing as mine who often lack role models.

What was your biggest worry before starting your MBA? Attending Columbia Business School only became a reality because of the financial support from CBS. Receiving fellowships from CBS made it possible for me to pursue an MBA. My biggest worry before starting my MBA was the burden of increased debt that would accumulate on top of my undergraduate loans.

How were you able to finance your MBA as a first generation student? I was able to finance my MBA through a combination of fellowships from CBS and private loans. As a beneficiary of the CBS’ Bernice Coester Scholarship and Columbia Fellows Scholarships, my MBA debt burden was significantly reduced. The Bernice Coester Scholarship is awarded to qualified students with significant financial need and the Columbia Fellows Scholarship is awarded to select entering students who have demonstrated great potential to lead the world’s enterprises and have proven themselves to be innovators, leaders, and creative thinkers in their professional, academic, and extracurricular activities.

The scholarships awarded by CBS made pursuing an MBA more accessible and allowed me to focus on professional exploration and leadership opportunities.

What advice would you have for other first-generation college students? I’d advise other first-generation college students to seek diverse mentors – especially mentors that come from a different socioeconomic background and that identify as a different gender, race, and/or nationality than you do. Mentorship has propelled me into spaces and experiences that I never dreamed were possible. Deepening your understanding of the world via diverse mentors not only broadens your perspective but also expands the depths of opportunities available to you.

What do you plan to pursue after graduation? Long term, I want to lead a Global Content Acquisition & Strategy team for a streaming company. I aspire to partner with diverse producers, directors, and casts to finance films and series that share cultures, perspectives, and stories that are historically not present in mainstream media content. I want to make the world a better place by sharing culture through content.


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