Many MBA students this year have started their MBA journey under unique and challenging circumstances — much different from the MBA experience they likely imagined when they decided to start applying to business schools. Although the experience may be different, their dedication and desire to make the most of the experience hasn’t faltered. While we all watch as countries and governments race toward safely inoculating their populations and slowly opening back up as conditions become safe, many students are doing their best not to just “wind down the clock” until it runs out; rather, they want to make the most of the experience they have.
The good news is that what you have in front of you, while not ideal, and still a far cry from what you may have imagined, is still a great opportunity. The MBA Experience is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and the value and ROI of a degree over the course of your career is still very high.
In January of 2020, I wrote and published MBA Insider to help MBA students understand how they can use their time in business school to achieve their goals. I did my best to research and produce as holistic a book as possible; but unfortunately, dealing with a global pandemic never made it onto my list! In a quest to understand what I may have missed, over the past year I’ve spoken to hundreds of current MBA students and recent alum about how they are navigating the Covid-19 MBA experience, and I have learned about their challenges and opportunities. I’ve summarized what I learned from them below.
CONTINUE TO INVEST IN RELATIONSHIPS
Most MBA students go to school for the networking and relationship building opportunities available. Not only is it a chance to meet lifelong friends, but these will be the people you end up relying on down the road when you need guidance in your career. Unfortunately, some of the traditional opportunities are obviously a no-go during Covid-19. But that doesn’t mean you can’t look for opportunities to build relationships.
As a self proclaimed extrovert, Brad Vonick (UT McCombs, ‘20) knew online learning was going to be a challenge, especially for what relationships mean to the MBA experience. “One of the best parts of the McCombs MBA experience is the ability to be in a community of great peers. It was difficult to take in at first the fact that this would be a challenge as a result of Covid-19.” Despite the challenge, Vonick still found safe and creative ways to connect with his peers and classmates. Whether it was finding time to play golf, or taking one-on-one walks with friends, Vonick focused his efforts on spending time with a few people in small settings. “I enjoy being social, but I don’t need to be around big crowds. This gave me the chance to really talk with and engage some of my classmates, and to get to know them on a much deeper level outside of just surface level conversations,” Vonick said.
Furthermore, like many other MBA programs, McCombs students put on various virtual and Zoom events, such as book clubs, happy hours, and other types of community events. Some other examples of ways students told me they enjoyed building relationships include:
- Virtual tours of the school & town for international students who could not make it to campus;
- Small outdoor socially distanced get togethers (e.g., BBQs);
- Virtual (and in-person outdoor) workout classes taught or hosted by classmates;
- Virtual (and in-person) small group volunteering events for local charities;
- Voting drives for the November Elections
EMBRACE CONSTRAINTS TO FIND NEW WAYS OF WORKING
Covid-19 has put a lot of restrictions and constraints on students. Fortunately, research shows that when options are limited, people generate more, rather than less, varied solutions. According to research from Stanford University Organizational Behavior professor Bob Sutton, research shows these challenges can fortunately streamline our attention, and we can become more resourceful in the process. Sutton said, “When options are limited, people generate more, rather than less, varied solutions.” The recent classes of MBA students are perfect examples of this. Here are a few examples.
Marilyn Caton (Kellogg, ‘21) noticed that Covid-19 was coming and she and her classmates were probably not going to be able to collaborate in person. She remembered saying, We’re going to have to rely on virtual ways to engage.” Thinking quickly, she decided to start a Slack channel called “DIY Kellogg.”
Caton said, “DIY Kellogg started out as a few game nights, a gratitude workshop, and a speaker series to provide social events for the community, but our mission later evolved into focusing on helping students build relationships virtually across the more traditionally separate full-time, part-time, and EMBA programs.” During the spring, Caton and her classmates organized random coffee chats, 10 weeks’ worth of Networking Pods, a weeklong virtual mafia marathon game, group fitness classes, MBA Battle Royale, and much more.
Another great example comes from the Texas McCombs’ MBA program. Traditionally, many programs and student organizations would go on their “Career Treks” to various cities across the world during the fall and spring breaks. Due to the limited travel opportunities, many programs were forced to do their career treks virtually. However, instead of having each club do their own trek for each specific city, a number of clubs collaborated together and combined treks. As a result, they got far greater attendance and engagement.
Finally, at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, Fuqua MBA Association Co-President Mike Treiser recognized a potential concern among onboarding the incoming Class of 2022 MBA students due to the constraints of Covid-19. Working alongside admissions personnel and numerous other Fuqua administrators, they set up weekly virtual onboarding events for their incoming MBA students on topics ranging from life in Durham, how the Administration was handling changing safety regulations, and how incoming students could prepare for business school. The responses of these sessions were overwhelmingly positive from both students and administrators. Even after things return to normal, Fuqua still hopes to utilize this approach.
A few other examples of embracing constraints:
- Darden hosted their Darden Cup virtually. Among the activities, students, partners, and faculty downloaded a fitness app and tracked their workouts. Each week, the Darden Student Association sent out an email highlighting virtual events occurring throughout the week, such as a virtual jeopardy contest, and a series called “Professor and a Playlist.”
- Fuqua turned their Fuqua Friday’s into a virtual Fuqua Friday’s event. Since then, they have hosted cooking competitions, virtual book clubs, and trivia events, among other activities. They took it one step further by creating virtual programming well into the summer to help students stay connected and engaged.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE MBA COMMUNITY
One of the things that we’ve learned during Covid is the importance of connection to others. Many of us have struggled with adjusting to the lack of face-to-face interaction that we are accustomed to in normal times. This is especially true for full-time MBA students, where face-to-face engagement is a hallmark of the program.
While this is difficult, business school is truly one of the best places you can be at this time. You cannot always be physically present with people, but the community of those people is still very much present. When things are going well, you have people to celebrate with and cheer you on. But when things are challenging or times are tough, you have access to a whole community of people to consult for guidance or advice. In challenge and uncertain times, this is exactly the type of community you want. Whether it’s in the classroom, during a career search, or simply as you navigate the ups and downs of your everyday life, you can always find support. A few examples of this include:
- The Yale SOM student government planned it’s very own Virtual Spirit Week. Just like in high school, each day had a theme where students could either dress up or use a fun virtual background and compete with their cohort for prizes.
- At UCLA Anderson, even though some students could not make it to campus in Brentwood, administrators and classmates adjusted schedules to ensure international students felt supported and welcomed even if they couldn’t be there in person.
IDENTIFY HOW YOU CAN SERVE OTHERS
In these difficult times, there is no shortage of local challenges and problems that are right in front of us. These are great opportunities for MBA students to jump in and to use their abilities to help others.
An example of people contributing beyond themselves are the MBA students who founded MBA Response. They started a community of MBAs who could assist local businesses and nonprofits by connecting them to other nonprofits in need. According to Founder Sarika Mendu, “A graduate degree is an incredible investment in one’s own career, but it should also be about giving back to the broader community.”
While not everyone needs to start an organization, there are ordinary actions that individuals can take to make an impact within their own communities. Oftentimes this means looking within and understanding the privilege and resources you have, which can be used to help others.
One example of this approach comes from Duke University’s Fuqua MBA program. After the killings last year of Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and George Floyd in Minneapolis Fuqua MBA Association Co-President Sarah Izzo (Fuqua, 21) felt compelled to lead by example, and spearheaded an initiative to encourage other Fuqua students to create “Action Plans,” or individual plans of specific actions they could take to hold themselves accountable to taking action and a stance on social justice. One example of how Izzo’s idea inspired her classmates came from her Fuqua MBAA Co-President Mike Trieser (Fuqua, ‘21) “It represented an opportunity to seek out more diverse sources of information and to take better stock of how I can improve my active allyship of others,” Treiser said.
LEAN INTO LEADERSHIP OPPORTUNITIES
Throughout the pandemic, the world has benefited from strong leadership, and it has struggled with weak leadership. One area of opportunity for MBA students is to use their leadership skills and talents and to put them to work: first, to help, but second, to gain a crash course in leadership skills, especially through student clubs and organizations.
As the president of the Carolina Women in Business, Becca Jordan Wright (UNC Kenan-Flagler, ‘21) took over the organization right as she and her classmates found out they would be remote for the rest of the quarter in spring 2020. As a leader, Wright knew she had a duty to serve her members and fellow students, but instead of jumping in, it meant listening first. “As type-A go-getters, many of us have a bias for action. But my team had to step back and listen to our student club members, to identify what programming was most needed at the time. In many cases, it wasn’t the event we had planned,“ Wright said. For example, virtual yoga and trivia nights took the place of happy hours and in-person dinners. Using this empathetic and sensing approach, Wright and her executive board spoke with students to understand what their concerns and challenges were and the best ways to help.
“Once we had an understanding of the most pressing needs, we evaluated the schedule of events, figured out what to change, and worked quickly to make it happen,“ Wright said. Part of this meant working with the MBA Student Association to handle the financial logistics and budget reallocation. A pandemic was unchartered territory, but Wright and other student leaders worked together to make it happen.
While some students will turn to traditional leadership opportunities through clubs and student organizations, others have proactively identified new opportunities to demonstrate leadership, rally people, and work toward a common goal.
After the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, Willie Sullivan (Emory Goizueta, ‘21) wanted to do something to push racial equality and human rights to the forefront of business, which resulted in him creating The John R. Lewis Racial Justice Case Competition. With Willie leading the charge, he, his classmates and members of the Emory University Goizueta MBA program worked feverishly over the summer to build and scale the case competition, even getting the blessing of the Lewis family.
The case competition is the first of its kind to focus on the intersection of business and racial inequality, and it featured over 105 teams across many top business schools in the world. In the end, Coalition 4 Change, a team of 2nd Year MBA students from USC Marshall won first place. “One of the coolest moments was sharing with our classmates that we made it to the final round, and seeing them join and support us over Zoom in the finals. The outpouring of support for us and for this cause was phenomenal,” said Michelle Matsuba (USC Marshall, ‘21).
DON’T WAIT FOR THE ‘NEXT NORMAL’ — CREATE IT
By now, we’ve all heard this phrase: “new normal.” The point of it is to underscore that at some point while all this Covid gets figured out, life and the world as we know it will look different. I believe that to be true, but I want to urge you to not wait for the new normal. Go ahead and create it yourself.
Since you only get one MBA experience, you don’t want to wait around because of the fact that this is your 2nd year of a two-year experience. It’s an experience that you won’t ever get again.
With a year of business school under your belt, you know your way around, you know what’s available and out there, and you also are even more capable than you were even three months ago. These are all reasons why you are ripe to start creating the future for yourself, however you decide to do it.
Nobody better embodies this spirit than MBA student Austin Carroll (Fuqua, ‘21). During her first year at Fuqua, Austin’s first internship was rescinded due to Covid-19. Fortunately, she was able to find another one by using her network. But after finding the internship she realized that there was so much more to opportunities than just a summer internship. In addition to finding another internship, Austin took four online classes, brushed up on coding languages, launched a mobile app, took on a fall internship with a media and entertainment company, started a spring internship with a Startup Accelerator, and is participating in a Hospitality Investment Competition. Austin went on to add, “Strangely enough, I didn’t do these things to get a job. We spend so much time in business school thinking about recruitment outcomes that we rarely get time to feed our curiosity.” Carroll added,” I’m so thankful that I finally got the chance to see what I can accomplish and to build skills along the way. It’s the gift I never saw coming.”
CONTINUING TO MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR MBA EXPERIENCE
It would be naive to suggest that this time of Covid presents an ideal MBA experience, but MBA Programs, their students, faculty and administrators have proven resilient, adaptive, and laser focused on finding ways to make the most of the MBA experience. Kartik Gupta (Anderson, ’22) said, “I won’t lie by saying that a virtual experience was better than in-person. However, it still was way better than what I expected and at the end of the day. It was the best experience I could have hoped for given the current situation.” Students like Kartik and many of the ones featured proved that despite the circumstances you still can find unique ways to make the most of your MBA experience.
Al Dea is an industry analyst, author, and consultant covering business education and hiring and recruiting industries. As the founder of MBASchooled, author of MBA Insider: How to Make The Most of Your MBA Experience, and the host of the MBA Insider Podcast, Al produces writing, research and training to help prospective and current MBA students navigate business school to grow their career. Al received his MBA from the University of North Carolina, and his Bachelor’s Degree from Boston College.