2020 First Generation MBAs: Duckenson Joseph, Washington University (Olin)

Duckenson Joseph

Washington University’s Olin Business School in St. Louis

Class: 2021

Hometown: Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Fun Fact About Yourself:  I am a Latin and ballroom dancer.

Undergraduate School and Major: University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, BS Physics

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: Dell Technologies, Graduate Intern–Product Marketing

What did your parents do for a living? My father, in his prime years, was a coffee farmer in the southeastern mountains of Haiti, near the border with the Dominican Republic. My mother was a street vendor selling fabrics at the local outdoor markets. It used to be the two of them working their respective jobs in the countryside while my siblings and I lived with family members in the city where there were better schools. However, tragedy hit when I was still a boy. My mother became ill and my father broke his leg badly in an accident around the same time. The farm lost its productivity after some time. Both my parents ended moving to the city permanently. There, my father spent his last years like too many men in that part of the world, with no formal occupation and relying on one-off gigs and remittances from family abroad to make ends meet. My mother, on the other hand, continued to sell fabric. Her inventory was small, just enough to fill one cafeteria table, but that is how she paid for our schooling and put food on the table.

What was the highest level of education achieved by your mother and your father? We never talked about their education explicitly, but putting stories together, my mother must have only completed elementary school while my father achieved the same or up to middle school.

Which family member or mentor is your biggest inspiration or role model? Why? My father remains my biggest inspiration and role model. He is a great example for dreaming big and making the most out of one’s situation. He was a man with a vision, despite enduring his more-than-modest upbringing, having little formal education, and living in a merciless place, He used to say his father had a horse, he had a used car, then his children should have what comes next. He invested heavily in our education—he was a father, a coach, a leader always pushing us to be our best.

On top of that, the man was quite confident, charming and a sharp dresser even in the worse days. He commended respect and earned affection wherever he went. I still have mental images from watching him as boy, in circles of people paying deep attention while he tells stories, talks about morality and ethics, while wearing his signature aviator sunglasses, classic blue jeans and shiny brown shoes in remote Haiti.

What was the moment that led you to decide to pursue higher education? Pursuing higher education never seemed like a debatable decision. My family brought us up to believe education was the only way to a better life. Also, because I was naturally intellectually curious and the scholarly type, I always knew I would pursue higher education at some point. I never questioned this until my late undergrad years as a physics major when I started to realize that education was just the first step in realizing my potential.

What was your biggest worry before going for your undergraduate degree? My biggest worry before going for my undergraduate degree was not being able to perform. I was the first one in my family to go out of state in the United States for college and the recipient of a prestigious scholarship. I felt that many people were counting on me and I could not let them down.

What was the most challenging part of getting your undergraduate degree? The most challenging part about my undergraduate degree was to manage the demands of a rigorous academic program, adapting to my new environment in the Midwest surrounded by mostly white upper-middle-class peers from the Chicago suburbs, and navigating young-adulthood pretty much by myself all at the same time. I realized that I needed to catch up on many dimensions of academic and personal life, most of it because I came from a disadvantaged background compared to the people around me.

What didn’t your family understand about the higher experience that you wish they would understand better? I do wish that my family better understood and better communicated the reality of education and careers. I had to learn the hard way that it will not be a straight path from graduating to getting a great job in my field of study right out of school and living happily ever after.

What led you to pursue an MBA degree? I decided to pursue an MBA degree to switch from a very specialized IT consulting career track to a broader business management one. This decision was really the culmination of 10 years of thought about “what would be the perfect career for me?” This career would need to be one that I enjoy and excel at – and one that allows me to make the largest impact. I became convinced that this perfect career was business management from learning about the great business leaders who led the organizations that have shaped the way we live and work. I went for the MBA degree to get the education, training and the opportunities necessary to make that switch.

How did you choose your MBA program? I was looking for an MBA program with a collaborative culture and a small class size so I could get the support needed as a first-generation MBA student, a minority, and a career switcher. Those factors mattered more than a few ranking points difference. WashU Olin won because it met all those criteria—plus, I received early admission and my wife and I were already living in St. Louis. Also, I was charmed by faculty and staff, and I definitely could not pass on an opportunity to travel the world my first semester.

What was your biggest worry before starting your MBA? My biggest worry before starting my MBA was being able to afford it. An MBA is already an expensive degree, and I would forgo two-years of salary; it was easily a quarter-million-dollar decision. Now, these are big numbers for most Americans and especially for me considering my background. It felt like business school would just be a dream unless I could secure strong financial assistance.

How were you able to finance your MBA as a first generation student? I was fortunate to receive a graduate scholarship from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and a very generous award from WashU. These funds combined made attending business school possible.

What advice would you have for other first-generation college students? To first generation college students, I would say this: Accept that you are first generation; understand that you may face a unique set of challenges because of that.  Be kind to yourself and do not try to compete with anyone but yourself. Ask for help often, you will likely find that people are more eager to help then you would expect. Finally, be grateful because this is a privilege that many people cannot afford, yet be proud of the hard work and the courage it took you to get there.

What do you plan to pursue after graduation? I have intentionally left plans for after graduation very vague. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a lot of uncertainty across the board. My strategy is to keep an open mind regarding career opportunities and to stay focused on my ultimate goal to become a great manager and business leader one day.  When my options become clear, then I will choose the one that makes more sense considering my goals, the experience and the people who take the journey with me.


Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.