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Bamboozled by Harvard Business School: My Journey Towards Self-Awareness

An MBA program offers advantages that extend beyond financial and career gains. Understanding your "why" and reading others' experiences can aid in shaping your decision. Here's Amaka's captivating story, highlighting how her MBA journey unfolded in a completely unexpected manner. Prepare yourself for an intriguing tale. 😊

L-R: Amaka Anyanwu, Monica Rex

The Unforeseen Path

Contrary to popular opinion, Harvard Business School (HBS) was not my initial choice. However, after receiving persistent recommendations from two friends who independently suggested I consider applying to Harvard, I began to wonder if fate was nudging me towards Boston and HBS. With some reluctance, I decided to submit my application. While I held no personal grudges against HBS, I carried preconceived notions influenced by the dual nature of the renowned Harvard brand, which held significant prestige as the strongest global university brand in Africa.

For instance, during high school, after spending around four hours studying at home, my mom would jestingly ask, "Are you studying in Harvard or Cambridge? Why spend so much time studying?, Go and complete your house chores this instant!” Unknowingly, this notion became ingrained in my mind, associating Harvard Business School with overwhelming stress—a burden I didn't desire in my life at that point. Transitioning from a demanding job that sometimes demanded fourteen-hour workdays, my primary aspiration was to take a two-year break, indulge in personal pursuits, and ensure my grades remained satisfactory without striving for exceptional performance. Thus, the hype surrounding Harvard overwhelmed me, and I thought, "I don't have the capacity for anything intense right now."

A "Type A with a Twist"

During that period, I never considered myself a Type A personality, and I was content with that. Even if I were, I would describe myself as a "Type A with a twist." This meant that while I possessed a strong drive to achieve my goals, I also understood the importance of other aspects of life, such as happiness, contentment, and acknowledging failure as a part of the journey. Throughout the HBS application process, I had conversations with alumni who didn't fit the stereotypical Type A mold. Their perspectives sparked a glimmer of excitement within me. Then came the essay prompt, "As we review your application, what more should we know about you?"

It took me three months to write my response because I had never been skilled at fabricating stories. Therefore, the only way forward was to be authentic and hope that it would suffice. Ultimately, it did. Following that, my African parents expressed their thoughts, saying things like, "Well, you do have other schools to consider, but we like Harvard. However, the decision is ultimately up to you." It was their way of subtly influencing my decision. In the end, I chose to attend HBS because if I could gain admission while authentically being my "Type A self with a twist," perhaps my preconceived notions were misguided. I yearned for the opportunity to broaden my perspectives and expand my horizons.

An Unexpected Journey

As we embarked on our academic journey, I found myself questioning whether I had enrolled in business school or group therapy sessions. Courses like Interpersonal Skills Development Lab (ISDL), Leadership and Organizational Behavior (LEAD), and the transformative experience of Authentic Leadership Development (ALD) felt more like therapeutic support groups than traditional academic classes. The prevalence of self-reflection in these courses seemed endless, and I realized that the post-interview reflection served as a soft landing for the ongoing introspection required throughout the program.

While these examples highlight just a few instances, there were several other optional courses that followed a similar pattern. Within my family, conversations about emotions were scarce. Therefore, when discussions centered around vulnerability and connection in ALD, my mind struggled to comprehend the concepts, even though the conversations were in English, my brain interpreted it in a foreign language! Witnessing classmates openly sharing their personal experiences, taught me a valuable lesson—expressing emotions in public is acceptable, contrary to what I had been taught as a weakness.

Building a New Family

At the beginning of the school year, our section or cohort was assigned a professor we called the "section chair." In our inaugural class, the section chair proclaimed that we would become like a family by the end of the school year. I recall a sarcastic thought crossing my mind, "Well, my family is back in Nigeria, so thanks for the kind wishes, sir." I really didn't anticipate forming deep connections.

However, as time went on, I discovered the truth in the section chair's words. I formed friendships that I know will endure for a lifetime, regardless of the paths we individually choose. Additionally, when the pandemic struck during the latter half of our second semester on campus, those of us unable to leave as a result of border closures, especially international students, grew closer. We provided support to one another, delivering care packages when COVID knocked on anyone's door, picking up prescriptions, and lending a helping hand whenever needed. It was during this challenging time that I realized the true value of community. Life is undeniably better when shared with others.

The Surprising Silver Lining

Amidst the whirlwind of experiences, there was a surprising silver lining to my bamboozling HBS journey. During weeks when I chose to prioritize introspection and temporarily set aside club activities, I discovered an abundance of free time on my hands. This revelation aligned with one of the main reasons I pursued business school—to pause, reflect, and recharge. I had feared that HBS would consume all my time, leaving little room for introspection and rest. However, to my pleasant surprise, I learned how to effectively structure my time. My second year provided even more opportunities to accommodate these essential moments.

A Crack in the Hard Shell

As all these experiences unfolded, and as I delved deeper into my emotions, a little bird whispered to me about the availability of free therapy sessions at school. Intrigued, I decided to give it a try. During my initial session, the therapist listened attentively before asking a seemingly simple question, "So, what do you do for fun?" Although it caught me off guard, the question held profound significance. No one had ever posed it to me before, as my upbringing had placed a greater emphasis on hard work rather than leisure. After a momentary pause, I responded with a question of my own, "Well, why don't you tell me?”, not trying to be rude but rather lost for words. Subsequent therapy sessions focused on developing a strategy for incorporating joy and leisure into my life. At the time, I considered it a frivolous use of my precious time, but in hindsight, I recognized the immense value it brought to my soul.

A humorous anecdote: During a phone conversation with my mom while on campus, I mentioned attending therapy sessions to enhance self-awareness and establish a deeper connection with myself. Her response evoked deep laughter. She asked, "Does that happen at the gym?" It highlighted just how unfamiliar my family was with the concept of therapy. After explaining what I meant, my mom initially expressed reluctance, suggesting that I could confide in her instead of wasting money on talking to a stranger. I reassured her that the sessions were free, and although somewhat reluctantly, she eventually supported my decision.

The Journey Continues

HBS marked the beginning of a profound exploration into my "unknown unknown"—the realm of self-awareness. By the end of my time at HBS, I hadn't reached the destination, but a crack had formed in the tough exterior I once wore. I have continued to work on deepening my self-awareness and forging more meaningful connections with others. One of my greatest fears in life was waking up at the age of fifty and realizing that I had neglected to pause, reflect, and rediscover my true north along the way, as frequently as I needed. Choosing to attend an MBA program at Harvard Business School provided the necessary pause for me at that moment. While other MBA programs may offer similar structures, I am grateful that HBS provided this foundation for my transformative journey.

So What?

If you find yourself overwhelmed, feeling off track, or simply in need of a chance to re-center, pursuing an MBA can serve as your personal pause. While it may not necessarily introduce you to new concepts in finance, accounting, or entrepreneurship, especially if you already possess a traditional business background, it holds the potential for an incredible voyage of self-discovery. You may just learn about YOU! I believe that you are worth every bit of that time, so take it.

Remember, YouGotThis!

By Amaka Anyanwu

Executive Director

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