The Cornell Connection: Why I’m Thankful To Get An MBA During The Pandemic

Dean Mark Nelson and his wife Cathy Nelson at our Sage Social on Halloween.


The Johnson experience would not be possible without the thorough COVID-19 screening and testing system that Cornell operated to keep our community safe. While some schools have been forced to go remote, Cornell has implemented a system that enables us to maintain a semblance of normalcy in our academic and social experiences.

At Johnson, we complete a “The Daily Check”, where we complete a brief online survey about how we’re feeling. If we report we feel fine, we’re cleared to proceed to campus. We are also required to be tested once a week and have a patient portal where we can access our results. Testing is actually pretty convenient; the process takes about five minutes and there are several locations across campus to complete it. I actually don’t mind this weekly test because it forces me to come out of my apartment and get some fresh air and take in the natural beauty of Ithaca.

Because of our robust COVID-19 testing resources and protocols, Johnson MBAs have been fortunate enough to maintain in-person classes and access to our facilities. While the classroom is obviously not what it used to be last year (we all sit adequately distanced from each other and our teachers are the last ones in and the first ones out of the classroom), there is something to be said about being able to walk into Sage Hall, sit next to your peers, and have a face-to-face discussion with your professor. Additionally, breakout rooms in Sage Hall and the Breazzano Center are also open for use. This enables us to find quality study areas with reliable internet connection. It also allows us to access professional locations to interview, rather than using our bedrooms or common rooms.

We also are permitted to have small socially distant gatherings and one-on-one meetings. This helped us put events like Diwali together. It also helped during our career work group (CWG) commitments with first years. Johnson CWGs pair two second-year students with 6 first-years who plan to work in their same field.

Standard COVID testing station at Cornell’s Willard Straight Hall

I am a CWG leader for first-years who are recruiting for consulting internships; I help them construct their resume, build out their list of companies to apply to, and prepare for interviews. The ability to interact with my group in person has been a huge help and honestly has been a great luxury. In person, I could physically SHOW my group how to structure thoughts on paper for a case interview, and I could take someone out to coffee who was having a tough time with recruiting or just life in general. The rapport and trust that is developed through in-person interactions is something I found especially valuable. Recently, one of the first-years in my CWG got into a serious car accident and we spent a while talking about how he was doing and how to best approach his recruiting process moving forward. This conversation would not have occurred had we not built up our relationship throughout the semester: a relationship that I think only strengthened through our in-person interactions.


Conversations have dramatically changed during the pandemic. However, I think that has resulted in something positive as they have become more intentional in nature. We can no longer assume that we will inevitably run into each other during morning coffee at Sage Hall or during the half hour break that everyone has between morning and afternoon classes. We also cannot assume our digital Zoom hands, which are intended to signal we have a question, will be noticed in a large lecture. As a result, we have had to step out of our comfort zones to have those same levels of interaction that we previously had.

I have experienced this intentionality while getting to know first-year students. There was one particular student who approached me about my summer internship experience at the beginning of the semester. If it were any other year, we would hold off on informational chats until October so that second-years could finish their own re-recruiting processes. This year, I thought it necessary to start having a few of these conversations earlier because we didn’t get the chance to meet first-year students at Sage Socials or at Ezra Games (an Olympic-style competition where MBAs face off in a slew of academic and physical challenges).

At first, we started chatting about his career path and my internship experience, but our conversation soon became deeper about what drove him and how his life outside of school influenced his MBA experience. I was amazed to find that this individual had been adopted at a very young age and had just recently found his biological parents. That experience shaped a large part of who he is today and why he is at school. I don’t think that conversation would have happened in the Atrium or at a bar. Our conversations after that became a lot more personal and as a result; we now have a really strong friendship. These are the kinds of relationships I have formed with members of our first-year class, and it is largely in part because we understand that we cannot take social interactions for granted. Because of these types of conversations, I think there is more cohesion and transparency between the two classes despite being virtual most of the time.

Diwali at Johnson. Associate Dean Drew Pascarella is in the middle in yellow


The hybrid nature of our classes has made our schedules a little more flexible. For example, professors are more willing to let us attend various sections of a class they teach. That’s because there are no seat limits in a virtual classroom and this allows flexibility for student’s schedules.

For me, there were some disruptions at my apartment that were out of my control, and that affected when I could attend class. There were a series of fire alarms that would go off during the middle of the day and I had no idea when they would hit. When they did, I would have to go outside for 20 minutes, and that would completely disrupt my flow during class. Additionally, my internet often stalled or went out during class hours, so this was an unforeseen detriment to my academic experience. Fortunately, my professors were very accommodating and encouraged me to join different class sections. They also recorded lectures that we could view after the fact and scheduled multiple office hours to accommodate various time zones.

Another unforeseen benefit of class during pandemic times is that I had the flexibility to take class wherever I wanted. For example, I could go back home to Boston and spend more than just the weekend with my family and partner if I needed to do that. This would not have been the case last year, as I basically had to be in Ithaca to fulfill recruiting and core curriculum commitments.

In summary, I hope that you see that these experiences that I had over the last year reaffirmed that being at business school during a pandemic was the right move for me and not all was ruined by COVID-19. On the contrary, the pandemic provided unique and useful experiences that will help me grow both personally and professionally. While I am cautiously optimistic about what the spring semester holds, I think 2020 was extremely transformative and showed me that you are what you make out of a situation. For all of us at Johnson, this pandemic showed us that we are resilient, united, responsible, and empathetic. That makes me extremely proud and thankful to be a part of this community.

Happy holidays everyone from all of us here at Johnson, good luck with those round 2 applications, and go Big Red!

Varun Ramadurai is a MBA candidate at Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, where he serves as one of Johnson’s Student Council Co-Presidents and an admissions ambassador. Prior to Johnson, Varun graduated from Davidson College with degrees in History and Spanish, and subsequently worked at HubSpot as a Technical Consultant in Cambridge, MA. Varun is pivoting into strategy consulting and interned at Altman Solon, a tech/media/telecom strategy firm based in Boston. Outside of school, Varun enjoys playing and watching sports (he is a HUGE Boston sports fan), hiking, skiing, and wine-tasting at the local vineyards around Cornell.


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