Living On Locust: Surviving Year One Of Business School

I failed the mid-term and became the most-improved student in my statistics class. I co-led several of the Lauder Institutes’ diversity initiatives to increase Black U.S. Citizen applicants by 30%. Oh, and I nearly fell asleep during a couple of classes on Zoom.

The sum of these experiences enabled me to survive my first year of a dual degree MBA/MA program during the global pandemic. While I started as an imposter, I finished the year as an outspoken, positive, and tactically minded person focused on professionally rebranding herself.

I started taking classes last July and “intense” would be a kind word to describe taking 8 classes per semester, given the dual degree program. Now that I have completed my final exams, I wanted to reflect on how and what I did to make the most of the virtual experiences during my first year of an MBA/MA program. Taking a post-mortem of your first-year experience is always a great idea to recalibrate your priorities and continue building self-awareness as a leader.

THE IMPOSTER

I had moments of imposter syndrome and pretended to be something that I was not. I recall recruiting for consulting after being convinced by other classmates it was the right thing to do because I felt professionally underexposed. Post-undergrad, I only worked at one company in two departments. For millennials, that is very uncommon so I followed the herd. After counting the cost to attend every recruiting activity, I stopped recruiting for consulting. That didn’t ease my workload. Very quickly, I found myself overwhelmed and over-committed on homework, group projects, and my entrepreneurial goals to support Anima Iris, my startup. I had to reset and overcome my imposter syndrome – and I did this by reflecting on my priorities and strategic career moves.

Azline Shelby Nelson

THE FREEDOM

I knew I wanted to RUN a business and not advise someone else’s business. Recruiting forced me to stay true to my professional goals. I contemplated the impact I would have on everyday business projects and the larger society. I also wanted my global career to start somewhere in Africa, so I had to focus on location first before the industry or function. That is both niche and uncommon, but this is my professional goal to rebrand myself as a global leader in Africa. Recruiting in business school forced me to be true to myself and my personal goals.

Every year, Wharton students vote as a class on whether we share our grades with employers and recruiters. This grade non-disclosure policy is a special freedom for students during recruiting. The significance of this policy is that it protects students from sharing their transcript and grade point average (GPA) with future employers. This allows students to take harder classes without fear of academic penalty. As a result, they are able to explore new career industries where they don’t have direct experience without the burden of getting straight A’s.

Academic performance is important, but it is NOT everything when you are developing a new skill set to start a fresh professional journey. It is more important to explore new courses that bring you closer to your goals. Grade non-disclosure may feel like “my grades don’t matter”, but it provides a real freedom that lets you take risks.

I came to business school to change careers and rebrand myself. At times, I felt like I had to constantly be sharp, overly professional, and present the best version of myself and that can be exhausting. When I struggled to keep up, I started attending every office hours session for my statistics class. This is actually where I learned the most because it was a safer space to ask questions. Even with this extra time to learn the course content, I still received the lowest grade on the mid-term exam. Subsequently, I ended up getting a tutor and participating in study groups to complete homework and to prepare for the final exam.

Not only did I pass this class, but the professor sent me an email saying I was the most improved student from the mid-term to the final exam and that he was proud of me. Serendipity, I ran into this professor in May. We chatted briefly and he concluded the conversation with, “Whatever you need please reach out,”. This professor became an ally and advocate for me after what I thought was a disastrous academic performance. I believe he was impressed by my perseverance when I could have quit since my grades will never be revealed.

THE SUPPORT

I quickly learned that successful people adapt by executing on the little things; they achieve their goals through the sum of these actions. I leveraged tutors to ensure I understood my accounting and economics homework so that I would be better prepared for the final exams. Other classmates collaborated on case-study preparation groups to improve their strategic thinking when recruiting for Consulting internships. These supportive elements are pivotal to rebranding yourself professionally, and there are a variety of solutions to pursue. Wharton has a reputation as “the finance school.” This quant rigor is evident in the classroom and, as someone without a quantitative background, I am building my finance acumen one class at a time to acquire new quant skills.

I would be remiss if I don’t mention how “behind the curve” I feel like a 30-something taking my first corporate finance and statistics class full of 20-somethings. I quickly realized that 100+ classmates were also taking corporate finance and statistics classes for the first time. Furthermore, everyone around me is focused on self-improvement and the togetherness of our positive mentalities will move everyone along faster. After I expressed my virtual learning frustration, a group of students shared my concerns, so we started reviewing our homework together and sharing study materials. This was incredibly helpful and was the key to success in my finance class. Even with grade non-disclosure, I passed all my classes and built stronger friendships during this experience.

The Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia

Recently, a classmate approached me and said, “Azline you always ask the best clarifying questions in class. Thank you for speaking up because it helps me absorb the content better. You consistently probe and connect multiple concepts by integrating a live example related to a company or business space.” This comment made me smile. Removing yourself from mute in a class with 100+ people to reveal that you are confused by “XYZ” is tough and intimidating. In business school – and life – not everyone feels comfortable asking questions because it can impact their reputation.

To rebrand, asking clarifying questions is very important to executing on how you can improve in one area at a time. Furthermore, these questions helped me realize that I should not have imposter syndrome while taking small steps to become a better leader. This is why I am earning my MBA and reflecting on this anecdote reminded me to be true to myself: outspoken, and tactically-minded. I am confident that I can overcome imposter syndrome by centering my goals as I rebrand my professional skillset. This is how I survived my first year of business school.

The biggest dreams are accomplished in small bites through consistent execution. Even with a positive mindset, you will not succeed at everything in business school; it is NOT possible. I have received poor grades, been rejected when I applied to a club or internship opportunities, and asked dumb questions during virtual classes. Survival is reflected in HOW people respond to these moments; there is POWER in these next steps. Ask yourself, “How do I respond to failure, rejection, and poor decision-making?” This helps to ease the feeling that you may be an incompetent and an imposter syndrome as you rebrand yourself.

This past year, I overcame imposter syndrome. Now, I am halfway through my MBA/MA program. I have built an array of tools to take on my next challenge: a summer internship. This means new priorities and new relationships to build, keeping the focus on my professional rebranding. Preparation for my summer goals means I am reflecting on previous experiences, continuously working on my quant/data skills, and tapping into the MBA network.

I hope to see you “Living on Locust” with soul, purpose, and a spirit of collaboration!

Azline is from Waterloo, IA, and became a National Gates Millennium Scholar in 2009. She studied International Studies and French at Spelman College in Atlanta, GA, and graduated Cum Laude in 2013. During her undergraduate tenure, she studied abroad in Fort-de-France, Martinique, and Geneva, Switzerland, and also interned at Black Entertainment Network and Google, Inc. Azline worked for Delta Air Lines for seven years before starting a dual-degree MBA/MA program at the Wharton School and the Lauder Institute.