Sunday, January 18, 2009

What Makes a Student?

I've been thinking about what makes a student, or what makes an educational experience. Going into this program, I thought graduate school would be different from college in terms of how I felt about the experience or how I saw myself day-to-day. Lately, though, I find myself (and many of my classmates) reacting, acting, and behaving in much the same way I remember from college. This has come as a surprise to me, so I'm thinking about some of the circumstances that might have come together to create this situation.

Here's some of what I've come up with thus far:

  1. School (in terms of a long-term program in which you're enrolled) is really a solitary endeavor, whether it be grad school or college, because at the end of the day it's really you vs. the learning objective. Friends and family can support you (indeed, you couldn't "do" school without their support) but it all comes down to YOU: your performance on exams, your reading and retention, your commitment and participation.
  2. Whether grad school or college, it's still "you vs. the professor" and "you wrestling with the big ideas." It's been funny how my classmates in this program (in our 30s and 40s) still take on much of the same mannerisms and behavior as college students. We complain about workload, we commiserate about assignments, we debate the gritty details of each professor's approach to teaching, we complain about grades, we meet at the Corner Bar after class, and we're always really tired. Our clothes may be fancier than those we wore in college, and many of us may have since gotten married and have families of our own, but deep down we're still students.
  3. The material is challenging. Learning should push us beyond our comfort zones, and anyone who attended a decent college (or who's attending a decent grad program such as ours) will find their horizons expanded. I've found that this is much more difficult to achieve in "everyday life" when working in the corporate environment.
  4. The "cohort" structure of this program breeds much the same closeness and shared triumph over adversity as college did. Only recently have I realized that my MBA experience would be completely different (and much less memorable or cohesive) if I wasn't experiencing it in a cohort format. I fully expect to walk out of this program, as I walked out of college, with lifelong friends. I don't know if that would have happened in the full-time or part-time MBA program, and it has made this experience much more worthwhile.
  5. The diversity of our class forces each of to see things from the perspective of another. This just doesn't happen much in the business world-- too often we end up surrounded by people who are too much like us. In college, as in this MBA program, that hasn't been a problem. Who knew I'd end up debating (and loving the dialogue) with a stock trader who refused to wear shoes to MBA class? I never would have met that person in my "normal" life, and looking back, I've learned a lot from many of my classmates (beyond what's in the syllabus).

Hopefully I'll have more to add to this list as time goes on, but there you have it for now.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

And Through the Wire

We're getting rolling on our international project, and it's proving more interesting than expected, but not for the reasons I thought it would. On paper, our goal is simple: work with another person from the class, along with two people from sister programs in Europe and two people from affiliated programs in China, to develop a business plan for a new or expanded venture that you'd like to take to a new market. Work together with people you've never met face-to-face, refine your approach and content, and create a 20-30 page paper and a PowerPoint presentation to be delivered in front of the class in May (when everyone from the international programs will be traveling to the U.S. an graduating alongside us).

Although our assignment would seem easy, the implementation of it is hard. For example, how do you effectively collaborate with people in timezones 13 hours ahead of you? (our answer has been to have weekly conference calls at 6am U.S. central time, which is really starting to take a toll on me) Also, what technology to use to communicate? We tried international conference bridges and dial-in numbers, but apparently our colleagues in China don't use telephones, so in the end we settled on Skype (which works fine for the rest of us, as long as we're not trying to use it from work) Next, what technologies do you use to collaborate? Setting up a wiki seemed like a great idea to those of us outside the Communist world, but apparently China doesn't allow access to many of the websites the rest of us take for granted (,, etc.) So we are using e-mail for way more than it was intended to be used for.

We began having calls with Skype last month, and we have our first major deliverable coming up in six days: a summary of our topic, our team's approach, and our rationale for selecting the market, product, and strategy we did. Again there have been issues: our Spanish counterpart is on a plane, and our Chinese counterparts seem to always be missing calls due to the need to bring their children to the hospital. Apparently one of our China colleagues also must walk 10 miles from his home to access a computer (these people are in business school, right?)

This really isn't what I was expecting, but I suppose that's part of the genius of the design of the whole project: get us outside our comfort zones and force us to honestly examine ourselves in a cultural mirror.

There have also been the surprising cultural nuances, again largely with our Chinese colleagues. When discussing topics initially, one of them wanted to do a chain of Chinese medicine clinics, because as he said, "everyone knows that Western medicine is poison." (my wife is a doctor, so you can imagine the self-restraint I had to employ on that one)

When it came time to write up our market justification, the Chinese wrote about their country's complete adoption of capitalism and total abandonment of Communism ("Is that so?" I found myself asking in amazement) and about how there was no racism or political strife in China ("Repression of Buddhist monks, anyone?" I wondered). Then I realized that these were people who had likely never traveled outside of China, and who certainly had never enjoyed free access to the Internet or to uncensored news reports. So I've decided to focus instead on fact-based conversations; things like "Can you access from China?" that can be verified relatively easily to prove whether censorship is, in fact, in force.

Perhaps the most memorable comment from the Chinese came when one of them saw my Skype profile photo (with my very short hair) and remarked, "You know, you look a little like an American monk." That was how we ended it on our last team conference call-- how can you really hope to top that?

Back At It

Wow, has it really been over a month since I last posted on this blog? A lot has happened since then (the end of first semester, four blissful (though cold) weeks of vacation, the holidays, a roadtrip with my family to Chicago, and the resumption of classes) but blogging is such a habit-- you either do it regularly or you stop doing it completely. For me, there's never been a middle ground. Same thing with journaling (which I've been doing since 1990) and exercising (which I'm sorry to say has all bit stopped since starting this program): either I do it regularly, or I miss a day or two and the whole thing grinds to a halt.

We're back at it now, having begun the last of our four semesters of b-school, so I figure I need to just sit down and resume typing. Strange to say, but I also think the fact that my classmates started following the blog just this year put extra pressure on me-- last year I could operate in relative anonymity whereas now I write always wondering what people will read into what I write (and, of course, what I leave out). But I feel the need to resume, if for no other reason than the whole experience will be over before I know it, and without some sort of log like this to remember the details, it will all just seem like so much reading and so many assignments.

So, I'm back at it. Let's see what happens in our "Senior Year".