Find a mentor—someone who has already been through what you are now experiencing and can offer honest feedback, advice, and guidance. That is something I have been told throughout my professional career, as well as during my two years at Darden. This person can be a friend, colleague, or even former boss. For me though, it was my dad. Throughout my life, he was the person I would turn to when I came to a crossroads or when things weren't going quite as I planned. I remember e-mailing him when I was debating whether to get my MBA. I wasn't quite sure if it made sense, given that I was older than a typical student and there were large costs associated with tuition. He wrote me back immediately and told me it was absolutely something I should do. He wrote that education is the best investment a person can make and that it is a waste of energy to get hung up on something arbitrary like age. As usual, he was absolutely right.
Over the past two years, I would speak to him often about my experience at Darden, my thoughts for the future, and how I was going to go about getting there. In those conversations, he always knew when to nudge me in a particular direction and when I would be better off figuring things out for myself. I can't imagine the past two years, or for that matter, the past 34, without his insight, guidance, and love. As I entered the final stretch of my time at Darden, I looked forward to my graduation as not only the culmination of all of my efforts, but his as well. Then life took a turn. A week before I graduated, my dad passed away.
He had been diagnosed with cancer 10 months earlier and, unfortunately, it wasn't the kind of cancer that can be cured or operated on. But my dad was tough. Despite an ungodly amount of chemotherapy and high-intensity doses of radiation, he hung in there. And he was always around to talk to me even though I knew it caused him a lot of physical pain to do so.
Funeral and Graduation The funeral was on Friday and our graduation was two days later on Sunday. I wasn't sure that I wanted to go but my mom and family encouraged me to attend. My mom said she would be coming, too. It was what my dad would have wanted. She was absolutely right.
Looking back, I'm glad I went for two reasons. First, it was what my dad would have wanted. He encouraged me throughout my life to always improve myself, to challenge myself, and never stop learning. Darden, it turned out, was an opportunity to do all those things.
It improved who I was as a person by giving me a broader perspective on life. My interactions with my classmates from different nations, backgrounds, and cultures gave me insight into things of which I would otherwise be unaware. Darden was also a challenge for me. The workload was intense, especially during the first year and there was a lot to balance. But having successfully gotten through it, I am confident that I can do just about anything. Lastly, and perhaps most obviously, it was an opportunity to keep learning. Classes that covered topics such as sustainability, operations, and management of small enterprises were opportunities to learn about subjects that I might not otherwise come across in my career.
Jobs Disappeared The second reason I'm glad I attended graduation was because it crystallized for me in a very powerful way the caliber of the people who were my classmates at Darden. At graduation, I was taken aback by the outpouring of support. Before the ceremony, classmates were offering me their allocated tickets to the graduation in case I had extended family who wanted to attend. People not only sought me out to extend their thoughts and condolences, but they found my mom as well to shake her hand or simply place their hand on her shoulder. In the weeks after I received cards and e-mails from classmates offering additional support. A number even made contributions to the American Cancer Society in honor of my father.
If you are in the process of applying to business school, you have probably already been told that the network you develop will become as important to you as the skills you acquire in class. This is certainly true but using the term "network" misses the point. My fellow alums, complete strangers two years ago, have not only become some of the best friends that I will ever have but a huge support system as well. They are not just people who I can call for an introduction or business opportunity down the line. They are people who have been instrumental in helping me get through what has been the toughest time of my life. They have been here for me now and will without question be there for me five, 10, and 30 years from now. Likewise, I will be there for them.
I came to Darden in the middle of a bull market for jobs for MBAs, an expanding economy, and good prospects. All that disappeared as the country fell into a recession. In situations like these, you can spend tons of time lamenting that things didn't go the way you wanted or you can readjust your expectations and look for the opportunity that is always there. This is something my dad taught me. While some people try to turn negatives into positives, my dad saw everything as a positive and an opportunity. I have seen this in my Darden classmates.
Changing the World Undeterred by the worst economy since the Great Depression, my classmates are taking what they have learned at Darden and going out and creating their future. They have started companies like Husk Power Systems, Clean India, and TeleMed Africa that could quite literally one day change the world. I think looking back 10 years from now our class as a whole may be grateful for the current economic environment into which we graduated. It forced us all to think hard about what we wanted to do and then work hard to do it. That, coupled with the tools our professors at Darden imparted to us, will lead to some impressive things.
To those of you out there who are currently considering a few different schools, I would offer this advice: Pay close attention to the students at the school and those who will be your future classmates. I can't speak for any other schools but at Darden, the intelligence, drive, and character of my entire class has been unparalleled. This group of people became such a large part of my business-school experience and will be a large part of any successes I achieve later in life. Given that, I would urge you to pick a school where you feel you fit in with the students.
As I leave Darden, I am entering a world that is so much different than the one I envisioned when I enrolled two years ago. But I know I will be O.K., for while I can no longer call my dad on the phone, or send him an e-mail, he will always be a part of my life. I've realized that I still talk to him everyday and although the responses are no longer verbal, somehow he is still helping me figure out things. And while I would have loved to have him around for another 30 years, I am grateful for the years I did get with him. He was quite simply the greatest mentor, friend, and dad a kid could ever have.
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