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Coping With Covid: How This Year’s Graduating MBAs Overcame The Ultimate Disruption

Olivia Mell, Columbia Business School

‘LOGISTICAL NIGHTMARE’ TURNED TO ‘OPPORTUNITY TO INNOVATE & EVOLVE’

If you could boil down to one sentence the essence of graduate business education in the 21st century, it would look something like this: Where there is disruption, there is opportunity. That kernel of wisdom also captures the view of many MBA students in examining the events of the last 14 months of pandemic.

“At first, it was a logistical nightmare,” says 2021 Best & Brightest MBA Olivia Mell of Columbia Business School. “Eventually, we got our groove with Zoom and the HyFlex model, and I feel extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to see some of my classmates safely in person a few times throughout this rollercoaster of a year. From a personal standpoint, making all of the shifts required after Covid-19 hit was disruptive for all of us, emotionally, psychologically, and for some, physically. As a community, we have found ways to keep the ties that bind us from loosening or breaking, and we’ve soldiered on with renewed tenacity and resilience that will stay with us as we all move on to the next phase of our journey, post-CBS.”

Nominee Roderick Milligan of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College had more than B-school concerns to contend with when coronavirus hit. He’s a father whose spouse works full-time. But like many MBA students, eventually he adapted and grew from the experience.

“Very disruptive!” is how Milligan describes the initial Covid-19 experience. “I had a son that I had to watch during class and a wife that was working full-time. Like others in a similar situation as mine, I had to balance paying attention to my son while being attentive during class. Eventually, my wife started working part-time, which allowed me to focus more during class.

“However, where there is disruption, there are opportunities to innovate and evolve. I spent more time with my family and found new friendships within my community. I learned how to smoke meat and cut my hair.”

While nothing can replace in-person classes, Milligan says, the virtual format had one clear benefit: It allowed case protagonists to be present during class discussions. “I enjoyed hearing the protagonist’s perspective after analyzing the case,” he says.

Nominee Santiago Vazquez of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business also had additional cares beyond the usual B-school burdens. When Covid-19 shut down his school’s campus, he was a newly elected member of student government.

“Covid was especially disruptive for me because when I decided to run, never in my wildest dreams would I have foreseen that life as we knew it before March of last year would essentially come to a halt,” Vazquez says. “We would be faced with the unprecedented challenge of reimagining the entire MBA experience, while helping our peers navigate the uncertainty of the new reality. In a sense, serving in student government was a crash course in crisis management and empathy far beyond anything I had ever experienced.”

A CHANCE TO EXPLORE NEW PROFESSIONAL AVENUES

Neha Tadichetty, Michigan Ross

Disruption, per se, is not bad, says 2021 Best & Brightest MBA Neha Tadichetty of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, repeating an oft-uttered B-school apothegm. While the initial shift to the virtual environment was “rough and unwelcoming,” eventually the experience improved most of those who endured it.

“We were eagerly looking forward to experiencing our term-long MAP (action-based learning program) journeys, but our travel plans got canceled, meetings shifted entirely to Zoom calls, and our extremely busy business school lives came to an unexpected standstill,” Tadichetty says. “However, thanks to the continued support and involvement of the Ross community, including the management, the professors, and the students, we were able to bounce back and regain some of the initial drive that kept us going. Over time, my productivity increased due to fewer distractions and I was eventually able to get over the mental obstacles of online communication.

“Having said that,” she adds, “I still miss going to class and engaging in deep discussion on various topics.”

Nominee Leena Jube of Georgetown McDonough agrees that much was lost when coronavirus struck. She also agrees that for those who worked harder, much was gained. She was able to attend events virtually she never would have had the time or gotten the opportunity to attend, and her summer consisted of more than the customary single internship.

“I’d be lying if I said that Covid and the shift to online wasn’t disruptive,” Jube says. “However, through disruption comes opportunities. I connected with people at Zoom events whom I rarely saw in person, continuing to build out my network, while also deepening my relationship with a smaller group of people who are my quaranteam and now friends for life. I gained access to many more events and talks, getting to sit in on conversations with Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton, Bill Gates, and more. I found time to delve deeper into my coursework.

“Finally, I was able to try out different professional avenues I otherwise would never have thought to try. Over the summer, I was effectively able to take on two additional internships working with private equity firms and DEI research.”

ADAPTING TO THE ‘NEW NORMAL’

And 2021 Best & Brightest MBA Joshua Young Yang of Stanford Graduate School of Business repeats the entrepreneur’s creed: “Not all disruption is bad.” And he has another hot take: “In many ways I prefer online classes (but not with regards to partying and socializing). No longer limited by having to be physically present on campus for classes, I’ve been able to take advantage of the silver linings that being able to have location freedom provides.”

What was the Covid-19 experience like in the B-schools of Europe? Three MBAs students from IESE in Barcelona, Spain, all nominated for P&Q‘s 100 Best & Brightest list, offer their takes on the last year-plus of learning in lockdown. Their unanimous opinion: IESE did a terrific job, reflected in the fact that it has been open for in-person classes for the last 11 months.

“I believe IESE made an impressive effort to make the experience as close to the usual one given the circumstances,” says María Carnal Fusté. “In just one day, professors had cameras and boards installed at their homes to provide students with a similar experience and as soon as the lockdown was relieved (in June 2020), IESE had taken all the necessary measures to be able to continue with on-campus classes.

“With that, I am not saying it was not challenging and also difficult for us students who are pursuing a master’s with a significant social component. However, I believe that the Covid-19 is a situation that has affected everyone’s life and there is no perfect timing for it. We just have to get the most out of it, whatever the situation.”

Marc-Olivier Granger points out that IESE had a plan in place even before the lockdown, which helped immeasurably in mitigating some of the challenges of the transition.

A SMOOTH IF UNWELCOME TRANSITION TO REMOTE INSTRUCTION

“Logistically and technically, everything was ready for us to go online, so the transition was pretty smooth,” Granger says. “I think the hardest part for everyone was not knowing how long we would be online for. The uncertainty weighed heavily on everyone’s shoulders. When we did realize that we would be online for a long time, I believe everybody, students and faculty, tried to make the best of the situation. As class representative, we gathered feedback and best practices that we share with the professors to try to improve the online teaching experience. I can say that all our professors were really dedicated to adapting their teaching for the online setting. IESE has also been very proactive in making sure we could return to in person classes as soon as possible. We returned to campus for the summer term in June and IESE has been able to remain open and deliver classes in person since.

“On the social side, it’s clear that the pandemic and lockdown were immensely disruptive. We have all chosen to do an MBA in part because of the networking and social aspect of it and that’s the part of the experience that was taken away by the pandemic.”

Another IESE student, Christian Bopp, says in the end, Covid-19 may be seen as strengthening graduate business education by putting everyone to the test.

“The first weeks of online classes were definitely weird,” Bopp says. “Not seeing your classmates every day and not having the chance to socialize was very hard. The professors and the school had to get used to the new way of teaching. But after a few weeks everything was working well and properly, and the professors had adapted to the new way of teaching.

“Thereafter, changing to a hybrid format for our second year was a relief. Everyone was very happy to be back in class and grateful that the school had invested in new tech to ensure that the experience would be as seamless and comprehensive as possible. The hybrid format we have now has almost become a ‘new normal’ and it’s a good way to meet the needs of students who both can and cannot attend class, while promising safety. I really have to give IESE credit for adapting so well and so quickly.”

DON’T MISS: THE FUTURE OF THE MBA IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW AT UC-BERKELEY or HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL SPENT ‘TENS OF MILLIONS’ OF DOLLARS TO CONVERT CLASSROOMS TO HYBRID FORMATS