Why I Left Wharton

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Duong (left corner) on the Southeast Asia GIP trip 2016, where she was student coordinator

Let’s start by answering the question posed by the article title: I left Wharton because of financial reasons. One less year of Wharton tuition and costs helped reduce the psychological pressures of debt, which in turned opened for me the necessary doors of lifestyle and career flexibility and creativity.  Right now, I am dually growing a small business helping high net worth Vietnamese invest in Boston real estate and looking for opportunities in corporate real estate acquisition and development.

I came to Wharton to pursue my passion for global urban development and to further build a career in real estate. I had taken a summer executive education module on International Housing Finance and loved the faculty and quality of the real estate program. I went through undergrad in architecture at MIT with no debt, so when faced with the prospect of financing my two year MBA out of pocket, I did the typical thing of building a spreadsheet to run my financials. Wharton was my number one choice, and I was dead set on an MBA, so it didn’t take me long to intellectually get on board with the amount of debt I was about to shoulder. Note how I said “intellectually.”

Now, as many of you know, thinking about debt as a financial construct and being in debt feel very different. Throughout my first year at Wharton, I constantly thought about the career choices I would need to accept and make happen in order to repay the debt in the least time possible. This struggle ended up driving my ultimate decision to take a pause. I want to regain control of a life lived with decisions that followed my curiosity and heart, not bank account.

Before I get any further, let me paint a couple more strokes about me as a person so you can begin to get my thinking process and motivations. I was born in 1990 into a Vietnam that has just reopened to global trade. I caught dragonflies, climbed mango trees, and drew stuff in the dirt as childhood fun and games. Rapidly, I saw my neighborhood’s dirt lanes get concrete upgrades and my extended family’s homes get additional floors. I guess I caught the real estate bug then. At 10, I moved to the US and grew up in post-industrial blue collar Allentown, Pennsylvania. My parents labor for a living, and my schooling teemed with inner city diversity and its joys and challenges. Then college and a career in international economic development brought me to Wharton’s door steps. I feel joy in life as long as I have: work that keeps me curious, cooking adventures and good food, and a supportive fun community of loved ones. My husband and I don’t spend much beyond gourmet groceries, rent, and occasional travel.  

Now that we got that out of the way, we go back to the debt and the career choices. I decided to take a break in July 2016. Leading up to that point, I could literally feel the ball of dread build up in my subconscious psyche: dread of what life would feel like if I began to make my life choices with money as a leading pressure (note: not a leading driver). I feared this decision-making pattern would permanently change, and potentially break, the way I live. However, the act of taking a break, or “dropping out” as my brain called it, never occurred to me as an option. After all, I don’t quit. I’ve never quit nor made U turns in my entire life. Or so my mentality went.

The change in thinking came because I am married to a rule breaker. My husband, Vinh, is an urban designer who has on his resume the roles of tour guide, delivery boy, architect, cook, and a host of other adventures. Seeing me curled up with my ball of dread every day, he posed the question: what if you hit pause? Immediately, my mind countered by barfing out a million risk-based questions: Can there continue to be desirable options and success after? What will be the setbacks? Etc etc etc. You know what, I still don’t know the answer to many of those questions, and I am still trying to figure out my life (I am afraid this activity won’t change no matter how old or successful I might get). Yet, every day, I relish in the freedom of mind that my decision has afforded me.

Many of us high achievers who self-select into Wharton and top business schools are exactly that: achievers. Traditionally, achieving has equated to credentials and results. Like many of you, I spent my last 26 years getting from one escalator to the next – the escalators of grade school performance, top colleges, rapidly promoting jobs, and a pie in the sky of eternal professional success. After all, isn’t this why we have academic and career “tracks?” I never thought of what lied beyond the escalators, because my brain is wired to move from one programmed performance to another.

The hard decision to walk from Wharton taught me the ability to embrace alternative routes in life. With only half the debt, I can now be back in my beloved Boston instead of glitzy chaotic higher-paying NYC, I can pursue a small business idea to its success or failure, and I can feel that I have not made any compromises on my decision making principles. It’s not rainbows and butterflies, and I struggled with the decision for a good few months after I made it. Yet thanks to it, I feel wholly completely me.

I elected to leave out many other topics linked to my decision, namely the curiosity-stoking few of: my Wharton experience, thoughts on Wharton financial aid funding, future plans to come back, or sage advice for those who might be pondering the same option. I wanted to keep this message anecdotal and personal, and to write more would be too much complexity in one go. I am happy to be a listener and sharer to fellow students or faculty who have more questions: you can just ping me.

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