2020 First Generation MBAs: Olga Timirgalieva, MIT (Sloan)

Olga Timirgalieva

MIT, Sloan School of Management

Class: 2021

Hometown: Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Fun Fact About Yourself:  I was a volunteer firefighter and EMT and got to drive fire engines when responding to 911 calls.

Undergraduate School and Major: Florida Southern College, Economics/Financial Management

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: McNichols Company, Business Intelligence & Finance Manager. US Coast Guard (Reserve), Petty Officer First Class.

What did your parents do for a living? In the US, my father is an assembly worker and my mother worked as a cafeteria food service assistant.

What was the highest level of education achieved by your mother and your father? Both of my parents graduated from technical/vocational school.

Which family member or mentor is your biggest inspiration or role model? Why? My mother has been my biggest inspiration. Despite the challenges she has faced, my mother has maintained an optimistic and loving outlook, always teaching me to think about others and practice empathy. Her kindness and strong moral compass also meant staying true to herself as my mother stood up for others and spoke up against injustices she saw in the Soviet Union. I admire her courage and always remember hearing my mother’s words, “If the fear is what’s stopping you, you must do it.” Whenever I hesitate or feel anxious, I remind myself to live fearlessly and to always care for those around me, bringing them along on my journey.

What was the moment that led you to decide to pursue higher education? There was not one defining moment. As a child, I was curious and eager to learn. As I got older, education became a way to defy the norms thrust onto me. For example, I was told that as a girl, I could not understand IT or be good at technology. It propelled me to learn HTML and Photoshop. At 16, I taught web design to Uzbek entrepreneurs.

I also saw the inequities in the world around me – the struggle of my family and many others. My frustration and desire to help fueled my drive to bring change on a large scale. I knew education was key to enabling that.

What was your biggest worry before going for your undergraduate degree? I dreamed of going to college in the US, but I could not afford tuition nor was I eligible for most loans. Fortunately, during my last year of high school, I became a finalist in the highly-competitive US Department of State Future Leaders Exchange program. I was placed with a host-family in Central Florida who changed the course of my life and who I continue to love as my second family. Less than a year after meeting me, my host parents, a school cafeteria worker and a phosphate miner, agreed to co-sign my student loans so I could return to the US for college. It was an incredible act of generosity and trust that energized me to save on tuition by finishing college in three years and gave me the strength to keep fighting during my seven-year immigration proceedings.

What was the most challenging part of getting your undergraduate degree? I was new to the US and new to the world of higher education. In addition to language and cultural barriers, I did not know how to think through my education and career options. Living off-campus to minimize loans also made it difficult to fully immerse myself in the close-knit community of students and professors.

What didn’t your family understand about the higher education experience that you wish they would understand better? I wish my parents had understood the challenges and opportunities before me. This could’ve provided me with the invaluable advice and mentorship that many non-first-generation students take for granted, and it would have helped my family better relate to my decisions.

One example is my decision to pursue an MBA. To my parents, my decision to walk away from a well-paid and secure job to pay over a hundred thousand dollars in tuition was irrational. Buying a house would have been a more understandable choice. While I still have my family’s unwavering support, discussing my passions and strategizing my career path is not something I can do with my parents.

What led you to pursue an MBA degree? Ten years ago, I applied to an MBA program and did not get in. Following that experience, I pursued other opportunities and did not seriously consider re-applying to top MBA programs. One day, my now-fiancée and I, prompted by a New York Times article, were discussing our biggest regrets in life. After reflecting, I realized that one of my regrets was not pursuing a graduate degree. I wanted the full MBA experience and an opportunity to push myself to expand my worldview and grow as a leader. I wanted to meet others who are passionate about their interests and driven to make an impact. After our conversation, my fiancée, who is my biggest supporter, immediately encouraged me to apply. It’s been one of the best decisions I’ve made.

How did you choose your MBA program? Since most programs fit my professional goals, my focus was on the ability to create lasting relationships with my classmates. I looked for smaller class sizes and a core course structure that would allow me to bond with my cohort. I tend to get along with down-to-earth people who are passionate and quirky, so Sloan was perfect. Sloanies went out of their way to help me learn about the school and help me prepare for the admissions interview. I felt I was part of the community very quickly.

In addition, I loved MIT’s mens et manus (mind and hand) approach. As a very practical person, I always look to see how knowledge can be actionable and impactful. One of my passions is crisis management, and I was excited about the work MIT was doing across its labs to improve emergency management and humanitarian response.

What was your biggest worry before starting your MBA? My biggest worry was that I would not fit in or be able to relate to my classmates. When I was first exploring the idea of pursuing an MBA, I was asked if any of my friends from undergrad or work colleagues had attended a top MBA program. As I responded “No”, I was discouraged from applying to any of the schools I was targeting. This was reinforced by my online research that showed large percentages of admitted students coming from certain industries and well-known undergraduate schools.

Thankfully, not long after starting at Sloan I felt fully embraced by the Sloan community and was thriving as a Sloanie. I’ve been amazed by the diverse paths my classmates followed to Sloan and the variety of experiences they brought with them. I’ve also been proud to see how my past experiences contribute to the community.

How were you able to finance your MBA as a first-generation student? I financed my MBA through scholarships, reserves service in the USCG, Teaching Assistantships, loans, and savings.

What advice would you have for other first-generation college students? Don’t walk your path alone. Instead, reach out to seek and offer help. The first-generation student experience can be isolating and it can take a while to learn the ropes. I used to hesitate to cold-email someone asking for a chat because I didn’t think a stranger would want to spend time helping me. Now I know that most people were lent a helping hand at some point and are happy to pay it forward. Talk to as many people as you can to gather invaluable insights and learn what’s possible.

As you learn and grow, commit to making the journey easier for others. First-generation students can uplift each other by building a tight-knit community and bringing along allies. To help facilitate this at MIT Sloan, I and a few others are starting a first-generation/low income (FLI) club – FLI @ Sloan. We want to create a supportive community of FLI students and allies through events, mentorship programs, and professional opportunities to promote socioeconomic inclusion. I would love to see other business schools start similar initiatives. Together we can grow a network of students and alums across the world committed to helping each other succeed.

What do you plan to pursue after graduation? After graduation, I am excited to join the Boston Consulting Group at the Boston office. I would also love to continue my service in the US Coast Guard reserves and further explore my interests in crisis management, public health, and humanitarian action.


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