The Cornell Connection: Learnings From ‘Zoom School’ For A Real-Life MBA

Welcome back to campus, Cornell Johnson Women’s Welcome 2021

Second-year MBA students have just arrived in Ithaca for the start of the fall semester. For some of us, this is the first time we’ve been here since starting the MBA mid-pandemic last year. The first years seem to have already lapped us. They take us for tours around campus during coffee chats, pointing out their favorite campus lunch spot or a preferred park bench where they’ve found some solace during their busy four weeks acclimating to school.

Meanwhile, second years are still struggling with how to get out of our apartments in time for class. We’ve forgotten the complexities of navigating public transportation or the risks of hiking half a mile up the hill… in 80% humidity… in an outfit we now have to wear for 12 hours… in public. After a year of mostly “Zoom School” – and with many of us completing Zoom-based summer internships – I’m shocked at how long my computer battery lasts when it’s only used for email and course readings. First years keep kicking me out of study rooms I don’t know how to reserve on campus. I’m exhausted from trying to make myself look presentable in more than two dimensions.

Elyse (right) cooking with a classmate

Suffice it to say, we second years are a bit out of our element.

For many of us – myself included – this puts us in a weird spot. As second years, we’re supposed to be leaders in the program now. Still, we are haunted by a fundamental question: How can we realistically be helpful to the first years, when they seemingly know more than we do and are much cooler, calmer, and more collected and connected than we were? Even more, what wisdom can we offer to them or other MBA hopefuls as we try to get our bearings?

While we may not be experts on the tactical components of an in-person MBA, and I’m sure we would’ve loved to start the program in a “normal” year, all was not lost in “Zoom school”. I’m reluctantly grateful for our pandemic start to the MBA and how it taught me to make the most out of this ‘new normal’ in the MBA and in life beyond.


Our first year of the MBA program may have seemed like a snooze compared to years before. There were no homecoming games or winter formals. Johnson’s signature “Sage Social” was relegated to weekly online trivia games. Corporate recruiters only saw the top halves of our outfits. For our class, time between classes could be spent doing whatever we wanted in our own homes versus racing from building-to-building. All of this is to say, it seems like our first year should have been less challenging than years before us; we should’ve come out less tired and less taxed.

And yet…

This past year felt more reactive than intentional, whether it was the stress of COVID uncertainty, the fatigue from seeing my own Zoom square out of the corner of my eye for 14 hours a day, or the MBA core curriculum layered on top of the internship recruiting process. Despite the support that Johnson and my classmates offered me, I realize that l was just surviving. I was getting through each perceived obstacle, then feeling relief for just long enough before I would wind up my energy for the next challenge…or give in to exhaustion.

I know that the challenges don’t stop with the MBA and they don’t get easier. While I’m optimistic we won’t have quite so many “once in a generation” events over the next decade, I understand the MBA is a launch pad to greater responsibilities, tougher decisions, and more demands on our time and energy. The real challenges are, as we keep raising the bar, is this: how can we push beyond surviving? How can we stay engaged, growing, and connected with others? How can we prioritize our experience instead of going through the motions as we add more to our plates?

At Johnson’s Signature Sage Social Cocktail Hour back in person.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers here, but I’ll share a few of the learnings that I have gained in our pandemic MBA year. More than anything, I learned not to take these opportunities for granted – opportunities like meeting diverse, ambitious classmates and challenging myself to go outside my comfort zone. Plus, this is perhaps one of my last opportunities to be a full-time student and not be expected to deliver the MBA-salary-worthy results that we’ll face after graduation.

I know that this time is uniquely valuable.

This year, I’m trying to turn some of the overwhelm and heightened stimulation of the MBA into a laboratory where I can be intentional and learn through trial-and-error what I need to do to thrive going forward. Here, I’m sharing my roadmap to make the most out of my second year here at Johnson. Whether you’ve just come to campus or are considering applying for your MBA next year, I hope some of these pandemic MBA learnings will help you make the most out of your experience and thrive going forward.


Many enter the MBA with hopes of exiting with a new title or career path. I pivoted too, from talent management into management consulting. But beyond developing core business competencies and focusing on recruiting, the MBA can serve as a playground to tap into your goals for personal growth. Chances are, whatever challenges you’re craving or however you want to grow, you’ll have the opportunity to try your hand at that here.

Personally, I was motivated by a number of women I worked with pre-MBA. They were endlessly talented and funny, whip-smart and compelling, authentically confident and kind. They were leaders who made you want to work with them again and again and consistently made big things happen. I saw pursuing an MBA at Johnson as a way to grow into someone more like them. I hoped the technical aspects of the MBA would help build my credibility and increase opportunities to work with impressive people. I would also have an opportunity to develop and try on my own brand of approachable leadership.

Elyse exploring Cayuga Lake with friends

I spent the first year focused on soaking up the technical components, while pushing myself to run for leadership and mentorship positions…even when I wasn’t quite sure of my footing. This year, I’m focused on engaging with different pockets of the Johnson community through different roles – sometimes as a leader, sometimes as a coach, most often as a friend. The goal is to learn as much as I can from relationships with those around me. In my role with Johnson’s Consulting Club, I’ve been able to assist classmates with their post-graduation recruiting strategies. Throughout the process, I’ve found myself trying on different leadership and support styles from the mentors who inspired me to pursue an MBA, learning more each week about which styles feels true to me. Despite the growing pains, it feels motivating to do what I came here to do.


This was a big takeaway from conversations with practitioners during last year’s internship recruiting season. Most of the post-MBA career-paths can overwhelm your calendar and your energy if you let them. My internship was no exception. My summer gave me a taste of how time can become an extremely scarce resource. That’s why identifying what’s important and reducing the noise, both personally and professionally, can help us get what we need in the limited time we have. This fall, that might look like saying ‘No’ to things that don’t fit with my goals; developing more self-awareness of how I work best and most efficiently; or trying to define what “good enough” looks like before I dive into a new problem. These goals are definitely in development stages given my tendency to over-commit. Still, they reflect my shifting mindset where I give myself permission to cut things loose if they don’t lead to growth or connection fee

Elyse Cianfarano


Post-MBA, many of us will be expected to deliver results in our chosen fields (or at least come to the table with a well-formed perspective). While Johnson’s second year largely revolves around leadership positions and the chance to share what we’ve learned so far, we can still seek out experiences where we’re a true beginner. So, while I like wearing the leadership hat in student organizations, I’m also joining activities and events that I know nothing about to enjoy the freedom that comes with novelty. While I’m currently avoiding peer pressure to take Salsa dancing lessons (there are limits to my openness), I’m excited to help determine who makes the best Indian food in Ithaca or try my hand at horseback riding this fall or ice climbing this winter as I pretend to be a first year again.

The difference: I’ll have a few new perspectives to help me thrive as I jump back into the MBA and make the hike up the hill worthwhile.

Elyse Cianfarano is an MBA Candidate at Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, where she serves on the board of the Johnson Consulting Club and Women’s Management Council and is involved in the Park Fellows Leadership Program. Before Johnson, Elyse spent 5 years working in talent management and client service roles at Axiom, the category creator of alternative legal services, where she focused primarily on scoping workstreams and selling legal talent with General Counsel and legal departments at Fortune 500 financial services companies. Elyse is an Upstate New York native and completed her undergraduate degree in Sociology and Anthropology at nearby Colgate University. On the weekends, Elyse can be found spending time outside, cooking or baking with some success, or scoping out new restaurants, wineries, and breweries. This summer, Elyse completed an internship with Boston Consulting Group’s Washington, D.C. office, where she’ll be returning post-graduation.

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