Attitude Is Altitude: An Aviator’s Path To Stanford GSB

P&Q: You’ve been at the Harvard Kennedy School doing an MPA for the past two years. What drives you to complete yet another graduate degree?

FARAZ: My commander in the U-2 Program, said this succinctly and it’s still stuck in my head, he said, “You have a public service heart with a private sector mind.” He wrote that in my recommendation letter too. When he said that to me, it was like a light bulb going off because it really kind of captures who I am and how I work/think.

With that in mind, it was a dream come true to attend the two best schools in the world in their fields–public leadership at the Kennedy School and business leadership at the GSB. Especially when they’re generous with their funding. Particularly because I’m from a public sector background and don’t have a giant bank account behind me.

Plus, after being in service for eight years and doing a ton of deployments, my wife and I decided to start a family, and believe it or not, grad school is a better time to be a new father than when you’re in the Air Force.

Faraz & Katie in front of the SR-71 Blackbird.

P&Q: Yes, indeed! Don’t we have your wife, Katie, to thank for you applying to Stanford in the first place? You said it wasn’t even a thought in your mind but with her encouragement, you went for it. Still, with all the aforementioned achievements, we’re back to feeling like Stanford couldn’t possibly reject your candidacy. You mentioned you scored only in the 61st percentile on your GRE quant score, with a total GRE of 325. Was that a concern when you applied?

FARAZ: Katie is amazing–all my grad school programs (HKS, GSB, Tillman, Zuckerman) happened because she basically forced me to apply! Thank God she did!

And on my first cold try at the GMAT, I only scored a 550!  The quant and the less-than-stellar resume (employment gaps during the recession) were a major concern. I’m also 36, which is way over the average age for a full-time MBA student. Which is why I applied to 11 schools!

P&Q: As an active duty member when you applied, were there other obstacles that you faced during the application process which could have impacted your ability to meet the deadlines and hit the SUBMIT button?

FARAZ: For active duty members, the first challenge is realizing that top grad schools are an option. When I started thinking about grad school, I literally didn’t know a single person who went to a top b-school. So I began to make connections with veterans who were at these schools.

After that first mental hurdle and making connections, then there were the time constraints. Whether you’re enlisted or an officer, you’re either deployed overseas or you’re training to deploy overseas. It was a challenge to carve out the time to do the substantial work it takes to study for the tests and then to work on the applications. I had to work on all my apps in a 6-week window between deployments.

P&Q: What did you fear most when applying to the programs you selected as target schools?

FARAZ: If you don’t mind that I slip into a little military speak, I had no idea what the battlefield looked like. There was no way for me to do any intel prep. I didn’t know my allies or my competition. You’re surrounded by the fog of war. If you’re at a PE firm, you’re surrounded by top MBAs who coach you. I had no such access to those people. So I didn’t know what I was getting into, which is why I applied to a wide range of schools. I thought that my candidacy wasn’t as strong.

Also, five years into my service a medical condition ended my flying career which meant my Air Force career couldn’t continue much longer. It was like staring down the barrel of a gun: my military career was over and if I didn’t get into a grad school to find another career, then how could I provide for my family? That scared the hell out of me.

Attitude Is Altitude

Tahoe, God’s Eye View, by Syed Faraz

P&Q: Can you share one major takeaway from that time in the Air Force that you carry into your life now?

FARAZ: The medical incident, now that I look back on it, was actually a stroke of fortune that forced me to pivot from doing tactical aviation missions to something more impactful, which was bringing innovation to the DOD’s grassroots. The medical incident also led to Katie and I getting married and having kids. So again, it was a stroke of fortune.

I learned in the Air Force that “Attitude is altitude.” In aviation, attitude is the orientation of your aircraft. If you have a positive attitude, you are nose up and you’re climbing. If you have a negative attitude, you’re diving and you’ll hit the ground soon. I think that applies in real life as well.

P&Q: I agree. And I’m going to make that t-shirt! Now, thinking specifically about men and women who are serving in the armed forces, give me a sort-of preflight checklist for the journey to an MBA. What should they be thinking about, double checking, and aware of before starting the process. And, why should military personnel aim high in their school choices during and after service?

FARAZ: First, they should consider top grad schools because the financial barrier is lowered. Most schools waive the application fees, then the GI Bill covers a good deal of tuition and even housing. A few schools like GSB cover everything for eligible vets.

Think about what you can offer to schools/classmates and what they can offer you. Keep an open mind. Grad schools want people with military experience because it’s something unique in life nowadays. There’s a chance that when you’re 25 years old, you’re commanding people in battle or you’re trained to fly a multimillion-dollar aircraft in high-risk situations. Or maybe you’re at the bottom of the ocean leading a hundred people as one of the first female submariners in the Navy. Veterans have unique lived experiences on leadership, on management; they’re comfortable navigating uncertainty and risk.

Second, make sure to reach out veterans who are at top grad schools. That is so key.

Third, a tactical piece of advice.  Write a 20-page autobiography with all the highs and lows of your life. From junior high, high school, your time in whatever branch you served–if you’re lucky it was the Air Force.  This exercise will make you reflect and find your narrative (which is infinitely helpful with apps).

We know this didn’t hurt your application! (Photo by Syed Faraz)

P&Q: Alright, bring us back. We could easily write a book here.  I don’t know how you whittled your highs and lows into a 1,050 word limit for your GSB essays! You’ve talked a little about the idea of “serving after service.” It’s as if you feel that higher education comes with a responsibility to not only follow one’s passion but to do some good with it. I think this applies to all candidates as well and it’s almost a call to action. Tell us a little more about both, finding what fills your cup and then using that to fill others’.

FARAZ:  I think our purpose on earth is to serve others. Whether you do it as a teacher, like a lot of my family did. Whether you do it in a uniform, like a lot of my brothers and sisters are doing now. Or whether you’re doing it in a startup trying to serve a human need. We’re on the planet to serve each other. I’m sensing a tear in the fabric of society nowadays. We’re siloed behind our phones as social media polarizes us. We’re siloed in our communities, in our offices, in our politics. And of course, because of the pandemic, nobody’s interacting in restaurants, at the grocery store, at ball games. Those interactions, if you think about it, are really what builds a community. People from all sorts of backgrounds (race, religion, education, etc) interacting with each other, it makes us realize our shared humanity. 

And that’s what makes a democracy–recognizing each other’s humanity and dignity. The more we lose that sense of humanity, the more the bonds of our democracy fray. And that’s really dangerous. So that is our job now. This is for everybody–but especially for people who have access to the resources that people at top schools do–is to figure out how to rebuild the fabric of society? What will you do to serve?


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