By The Glass At INSEAD: An American In Paris

Basque Country: In January, I traveled to El País Vasco for the San Sebastian holiday La Tamborrada and the start of cider season – known locally as Txotx. We explored the French town of Biarritz before crossing the Spanish border, swam in the Bay of Biscay (very cold!), and toured a sagardotegia (cider facility). Joining me were some of my American classmates – David, Sam, Ashley, and Augusto. Photo Credit: Sam Kiefer

My first week at INSEAD, I was sitting in one of our BORs (break-out rooms) and contributing to a meeting on Zoom. These BORs are open-air spaces – no ceilings and squat walls. Halfway through the zoom, a student walked in. “You’re being incredibly loud,” she said. “I’m two BORs down and can’t concentrate because of how loud your voice is.” When I apologized, she offered a muddled acceptance: “You’re American. You’ll learn how to speak more softly.”

Aside from the volume of one’s voice, what does it mean to be an American? Is it a love for fast-food burgers, reality television, and concussive sports? Are we defined by our sartorial choices in cargo shorts and bucket hats? Or maybe it’s our political leanings: a rugged individualism that shuns collective support and a fierce patriotism that borders on nationalism?

One of my favorite activities since arriving at INSEAD has been traveling around Europe to run road races. In the fall of 2021, I did the Paris Half Marathon as well as the Barcelona Marathon and Champagne Marathon. Photo Credit: Chris Poldoian


As I think about my national identity, I’m reminded of David Foster Wallace’s seminal commencement speech at Kenyon College, which began with a fishy fable. In DFW’s words, “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”

Until studying abroad, I was as perceptive to American culture as those young fish were to water. My time here in France has helped me understand how my decades of living, learning, and working in the USA shaped my personal beliefs. More importantly, INSEAD has helped me transcend cultural awareness; over the past eight months, I’ve gained confidence in knowing what parts of the inherited American identity I want to keep and what parts I want to shed in the decades to come.

Why get an MBA in Europe? After all, the MBA is an American concept; we literally invented the thing (well, Harvard did in 1908). While a Master of Business Administration plays into the American fetishization of capitalism, the MBA – much like burgers and bucket hats – has spread to all corners of the world. Still, when you look at most business school rankings, they tend to focus on US programs. So why would an American like me go to an international business school? To answer this question, I’ve enlisted the help of a couple of my classmates. Of the 400+ students in my 22J cohort, there are 32 other Americans. While we all have different backgrounds, there are certain unifying characteristics that led us here.


For all of us, one driving factor was the opportunity to engage in lively classroom discussions with a diverse student body. I’ve already written about the dimensions of diversity at INSEAD, so I’ll let one of my classmates describe it in a slightly different way. Matt spent four years of his childhood in Spain and manned submarines for the US Navy before coming to INSEAD. It’s funny, but he’s often described as the most “American” student in our cohort. Maybe that’s because of his military background or his intense sarcasm or his love for Thanksgiving. Matt was on assignment in Panama when he came across INSEAD’s online brochure. Instantly, Matt fell in love with the school’s multicultural tapestry. Within six weeks, his application was submitted.

INSEAD has exceeded Matt’s expectations. To him, the source of INSEAD’s value is bottom-up. “The true value of an MBA program comes from its student body. There is no better environment that will challenge you to deal with leading complex teams and force you to have some tough conversations across cultures, countries, and languages. INSEAD not only promotes its diversity, but actively challenges its students to explore the value of leading and managing diverse teams. Regardless of your target country post-MBA you will learn how to lead with empathy and integrity.”

Chris Paldoian in Basque country. Photo Credit: Sam Kiefer

For Matt, INSEAD also served a very specific career purpose.  After years in the Navy, he wants to work as a consultant here in Europe and has been recruiting in places like Madrid, Amsterdam, Brussels, and London. Applying to those MBB offices from a US school would’ve been an uphill battle, but now Matt has the full force of the INSEAD alumni network and career services department to help him find the perfect European placement.


Career-wise, INSEAD’s sterling reputation in Western Europe also made sense for me. As a sommelier specializing in the wines of France, Italy, and Spain, I wanted an MBA that could bridge the gap between my academic and professional pursuits; a world-class French program seemed like a no-brainer.

And as a polyglot, I loved INSEAD’s three-language requirement. Think of all the marketing material hawked by every MBA admissions department. When you get down to the nitty-gritty of these programs… they tend to be fairly similar. Not INSEAD, which draws a line in the sand and demands a global perspective of its students in a way that American schools do not. Could you imagine a top US program demanding its graduates speak three languages, or capping each nationality to ten percent? Find me that school, and the next round of drinks will be on me. The language requirement and nationality quota filter out some parochial mindsets and preserve the school’s diverse culture. As a white man, I’m used to being in the majority in most spaces, and had I attended any of the top programs back in America, this would’ve been the case. Every time I am the sole native English speaker in a study group or get soundly defeated in a debate on foreign policy, I’m reminded how valuable this year has been.

The other big reason Americans value a foreign MBA is the chance to temporarily escape the USA. To explain why, let’s hear from Kristen, a proud Floridian and UNC grad. Unlike Matt, she had a slightly more traditional pre-MBA background, having spent years with a big consulting firm in New York City. However, her love of travel influenced what projects she worked on. Rather than spring for domestic clients, Kristen petitioned for assignments in the Netherlands, India, and China; rather than fly home, she used her weekends to explore the neighboring countries in Europe and Asia.

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