Leaving Germany and taking off my digitally camouflaged uniform was tough. I experienced some of the best times, trips, and experiences of my life in Europe and the Middle East while in military service. But it was time for a new chapter.
Arriving in New York three weeks before B-school orientation at Columbia was a great decision. Although I was somewhat familiar with the city from my final two years of West Point (when I could actually leave the post!), I was looking forward to getting reacquainted with the area. However, it was rude awakening. The hunt for an apartment was a daunting task and completely exhausted the patience I thought I possessed. Luckily, the pre-orientation summer socials helped me to get to know some of the people I would be spending the next two years with.
When orientation began, it quickly became a highlight of the B-school experience. Having traveled to 37 countries, I was used to meeting people from all over the world, but meeting my "cluster" of 60 classmates from more than 30 countries was impressive. I knew I was going to be able to learn a lot from my new classmates.
After a dizzying week of alumni networking events, team-building exercises, cluster elections, and a large dose of city nightlife, the seamless transition into courses took my cluster by surprise. Luckily, at Columbia, the majority of first semester course assignments are completed by learning teams or groups of five within a cluster. My group members came from China, India, Nigeria, and Turkey. While I was the only member of the group from the U.S., I resisted the urge to talk about cultural norms, given that as an African-American soldier from the South, I might have views that represented a minority viewpoint.
I have to admit that initially I didn't fully understand the need for so much group work, but around mid-November it began to make sense. Business school is similar to West Point: 24 hours in a day is never enough. To maximize the little time I had, the group had to rely on each other. I needed the tutoring of our Nigerian finance whiz Mobolaji in corporate finance, and in return, I lent him my softer problem-solving skills for the strategy course. Coming up with a direction on a project often required not only teamwork, but also learning how to find a consensus within the group.
Of the required MBA courses, accounting proved the most difficult for our group. It figures that accounting is probably the most important function for a finance newbie like me to understand. But what's unique at Columbia is the way that courses mesh the perspectives of historical case studies, student industry-specific viewpoints, and forward-looking instructor-practitioners. So although I'm far from boasting of my accounting prowess, I'm getting relatively comfortable with the basics of analyzing financial statements. And despite my initially steep learning curve, I took away something fascinating in each class, ranging from how Whole Foods developed its queuing efficiencies in operations to how various industries price their products in marketing.
But for me, while these takeaways are useful, they had virtually no impact on my summer internship. Finance was my real draw to Columbia. Going into the summer knowing my goal was to work in sales and trading at an investment bank, I promptly signed up for two finance electives.
Harrell is an MBA student at Columbia Business School, Class of 2009.