It has been a wild couple of months, but I have been trying to make the most of quarantine life! I spent the first several weeks after spring break hunkering down with my wife, Ji Won, in Rittenhouse trying to adapt to the new normal. After realizing how impossible it was to be socially distant running along the Schuylkill River, I started stepping up my stay-at-home workout game (while baking lots of banana bread to counterbalance these workouts, of course). I (unsuccessfully) tried to foster a puppy, did a million Zoom happy hours (including one Zoom bachelor party) and even gave myself a quarantine haircut (yikes)!
Once I got a bit stir crazy, I fled to the mountains of Western Pennsylvania with a few fellow Whartonites. We enjoyed the great outdoors, procrastinated studying for finals, and went hiking in the beauty of the Allegheny National Forest.
After enjoying our cabin in the woods for a while, I embarked on the 10 hours down to be with my family in North Carolina. My two brothers, our significant others, and my parents are all hunkering down until further notice as I start my virtual internship.
Did you ever dare to keep going even when you needed a break? Did you ever step out of your comfort zone to try something new? Did you ever dare to tell your ‘authentic’ story to a stranger without the fear of being judged?
Not many of the readers could answer ‘yes’ to all the questions above; but I know someone who would. In an MBA program, in which the ‘community’ is so important, one obviously gets familiar with the names of the active members and contributors, and that’s how I got to know Sheyda Bautista-Saeyan. A Student Life Fellow, an Admissions Fellow, and a proactive member of different clubs and affinity groups, Sheyda’s story will not fail to inspire you. I had the opportunity to hear about the thrilling Wharton journey of this ‘Class of 2020 Graduation Ceremony Student Speaker’, over a short interview, an interview which reinstated my faith in the culture of the Wharton community in which we trust each other with our personal stories and expose our vulnerable side, only to emerge stronger.
“We took a huge leap … but it was absolutely a risk worth taking”- Sheyda Bautista-Saeyan.
Being in the top Business School is a great achievement and opportunity, but it is an impeccable challenge, nonetheless. There are risks at every step, and you cannot avoid these. The risk-taking game begins right when you decide upon pursuing an MBA, and it continues through post-MBA goal(s) selection, relocation, curriculum designing, recruiting, connecting with the community, leveraging leadership opportunities, and every single class and group discussion. It is daunting, exhilarating, and even tiring; but most importantly, it is rewarding at the end of the day.
“I used to think that risks were scary and overwhelming, but at Wharton, risks became exciting, and I found myself over the two years looking for ways to stretch myself”, said Sheyda, and we believe that this is the very attitude that made her what she is today … one of the most well-rounded Whartonites and truly one of the ‘MBA Best & Brightest’.
Sheyda mentioned that a lot of her inspiration is derived from her mother, a native citizen of Iran, who had to flee from her homeland during the 1979 revolution, at the tender age of eighteen … a huge risk to ensure that she herself, and her family, had a better life and future in the United States.
“She (Sheyda’s mother) could no longer dress how she wanted to, or study what she wanted to in school, and once she and her family realized that they will never return back to a state of normalcy or back to a place that they once called “home”, they packed up their things and started a new life in America”, Sheyda mentioned. Sheyda’s mother had to learn new skills and raise her family in an unfamiliar place, but looking at Sheyda today, we know that it was a risk worth taking.
Sadly, Sheyda’s mum passed away, unexpectedly, two days before she was scheduled to start college. Now, Sheyda was eighteen and had to take her own risks and make her own decisions without the greatest support system in the world – her mother. She had to choose between deferring college for a year, to seek comfort around her other relatives, and starting a new chapter in her life, risking breaking down into tears amidst strangers. A courageous daughter of a brave woman, Sheyda obviously chose the latter option, destined to become a great source of inspiration for a much broader community.
“I learned from my mom that these challenges are worth overcoming, and because of her I pushed forward and started school not knowing where I would land”, said Sheyda.
After being a Biology Major during her undergrad, and completing an internship in Hospital Management, Sheyda recognized her interest in the intersection of Healthcare and Management. Managing operations and facilitating strategic growth in the Healthcare industry intrigued her. To understand the thought process of executives, Sheyda went into Consulting, post undergrad. She worked for four years at a research and advisory firm at Washington DC. At this firm, she got exposure to executive decision-making, and she wanted to crystallize her management acumen at a business school. So, Sheyda decided to pursue an MBA and risked leaving the workforce. At Wharton, Sheyda is a Healthcare Management Major. After Graduation, she will be working at DaVita in Los Angeles. Sheyda will help increase access and quality of at-home dialysis.
At Wharton, Sheyda always tried to find way to develop, professionally and personally. She was immensely impressed by the offerings of the McNulty Leadership Program Office. She participated in the Executive Coaching program and the P3 program, and recalls them to be the best formal ways of self-reflection, a skill she did not expect would be such a big part of the business school experience. She also mentioned travelling to ten countries in first year itself, including Cuba, Mexico, Ghana, Nigeria, Egypt, Turkey, Cyprus, Israel, Chile, and Philippines, to augment her international understanding.
“The Wharton community reinforces risk taking by always being there for one another and pushing each other to grow”, Sheyda recollected, “I think about this time when I let my friends convince me (that) I should jump off these ten feet cliffs to these huge bodies of water in the Philippines; I am terrified of swimming, but they were always in front of me, cheering me on when I had the courage to jump”, Sheyda recalled, “I am only one story, and I am consistently impressed and inspired by the risks our classmates take”.
Sheyda’s story encourages us to take risks, to leap forward head-on, and to lead in unprecedented uncertainty. Today, more than ever before, we need people like Sheyda, people who show us that it is okay to suddenly find yourself in an unfamiliar environment, it is okay to feel scared, it is okay to be unsure, and it is okay to take risks, not knowing what the future will be like. Today, we do not know what the world will look like tomorrow, the entire equilibrium is shaken, and in these unpredictable times, the only thing that we can do with certainty is take risks. Today, the risks we take, for a better future and the good of the entire human race, are the risks worth taking.
Note: I am writing this article to share my journey to belonging and reflect on the evolution of my Wharton experience. I hope that it will resonate with 1Ys, who might feel alone in their experience.
“Business school was the best time of my life!” Almost every MBA alumnus is notorious for uttering these words about their experience. To be honest, I will probably be one of them after I graduate. However, during this time last year, I had officially given up all hopes for having “the best time of my life” at Wharton.
When I started at Wharton last year, it had been over half a decade since I was a student. And boy was it obvious when Pre-term began. I remember walking into the welcome reception on the first day, seeing thousands of new faces, and making an immediate U-turn out. I figured it was just the first day jitters and I would bounce back quickly. The next week, I was so excited to be invited to my first Wharton party. But when I got there, I felt so out of place amidst the hundreds of strangers, beer pong tables, and the small talk. I spent less than ten minutes before quietly Irish exiting.
I just did not get it. Everyone seemed to be having an amazing time making new friends at these big events. I, on the other hand, could not move past the tiring trifecta of questions (if you must know, I’m from San Francisco, I worked at Lyft, and I plan to get into nutritional wellness/food). For the first couple weeks, I left every social event feeling overwhelmed by the number of conversations I had and underwhelmed by the depth of these conversations. To add a cherry on top, I do not particularly enjoy drinking or going out, which seemed blasphemous at that time.
“Let classes begin, I’m sure things will settle down,” I convinced myself. But things did not get better when classes started. My cohort mates would bond over White Party stories and hockey practice while I awkwardly tried to contribute something to the conversation. I would quietly sit by myself at MBA cafe after class, pretending to read for my next class while I watched my classmates greet and catch up with each other with so much joy and kinship. It had been less than a month since classes started, but they all seemed to have found their crew and felt immediately at home.
My anxiety reached its peak when everyone started making Thanksgiving vacation plans. Everyone around me was planning epic adventures around the world, while I was still struggling to make friends. One day, I mustered up the courage to ask a friendly cohort mate what he was planning on doing for Thanksgiving. “Oh, me and my best friends are going to South America. I can’t wait!” he said casually. My heart immediately sank. BEST FRIENDS?! How did he manage to make best friends within a few months?! He and I started on the same path, and yet our experiences had diverged so quickly. Was my disdain for parties and large social events a death sentence?
I came home that night and thought to myself, “I made a major mistake. The people in business school are too superficial for me. I cannot have fun in business school with all the parties and socialization. I add no value to Wharton and Wharton adds no value to me.” I called up my mentor and proclaimed that I had made a mistake and I seriously considered quitting. After patiently listening to me rant, my mentor asked me a simple question: “When was the last time you were in a completely new environment, Anisha?” It had been almost a decade when I last moved to a new city to start my undergraduate degree. “How did you feel in those first few months?” “Horrible!,” I exclaimed. I didn’t know anyone, I missed my family terribly, and I wanted to go back to the comfort of familiar surroundings. “And how did you feel when you graduated after 4 years?” It was one of the best experiences of my life where I made lifelong friends and memories, I recollected.
So what had changed in those years? It was patience, trial and error, and intentionality behind relationships. Somehow, I had forgotten my difficult path to belonging and friendships in the past. I only remembered the end result, which is often beautiful and meaningful, and was frustrated that I was not able to immediately replicate it at Wharton. Of course, the constant positive dialogue among Wharton students didn’t help. Although well-intentioned, I kept hearing how amazing and fun everything was at Wharton. Not many talked about the hard parts of adjusting to Wharton. It made me feel self-conscious and doubt my own ability to belong.
After this realization, I accepted that it is perfectly normal to not hit the ground running when you make a cross-country move and change almost everything in your life. I also realized that I needed to carve my own path to belonging at Wharton, even if it meant doing things in a nontraditional, Anisha way. So, I doubled down on forming meaningful relationships the way that I felt most comfortable: one-on-one’s. Every day, I made it a point to have at least one coffee chat or lunch or walk with a classmate. Whether it is someone I had just met once at an event or a learning teammate that I wanted to know outside of MGEC problem sets, it was all about moving past the small talk. I initiated every chat and followed up. I began to uncover an unexpected, refreshing depth of complexity among people that I had cast off as shallow a few weeks ago. Soon enough, these one-on-ones eventually turned into group hangouts, such as game nights or dinner at my place. As an amateur cook, I love to experiment with cooking and these friends served as excellent guinea pigs. To this date, I bring together 5-6 people at my apartment every weekend for a meal or casual hangout.
These hangouts gave me the confidence to put myself out there and meet more people. So when it came to Thanksgiving, I boldly invited myself to that same South American trek that my cohort mate mentioned. In fact, I invited myself to a smaller follow-on trek to Atacama with three strangers that I had not met. I was committed to being uncomfortable. I was ok with not having a wonderful time immediately. That Thanksgiving trip turned out to be one of the most fun experiences I’ve had at Wharton. I never expected to have such an authentic and adventure-filled Thanksgiving in the middle of the Chilean salt flats with strangers who quickly became dear friends.
Did I return from Thanksgiving with best friends and a crew? Not at all. Am I now the most “popular” person that greets everyone at MBA cafe? Not even close. But, I did return with a strong appreciation for what Wharton can offer. As I began to invest more into the community, I got twice as much back. It was a gradual process to feel comfortable at Wharton, meet other like-minded people who enjoy small group settings, and are committed to authentic conversations. In fact, I would say that I only began feeling at home in January because meaningful relationships take time to build. And it is acceptable to have a bumpy road to this end state!
Now, as I am swiftly wrapping up my last year, I can’t help but be proud of my Wharton experience. The beauty of Wharton, from its size and community, is that there is something for everyone; you just have to make it happen and find your own path. We all worked so incredibly hard to get here, so let’s take full advantage of this opportunity. It might be difficult and awkward to forge your own Wharton experience, but that is perfectly normal.
To this date, I don’t have one single crew of best friends I always hang out with, I have not been to 99% of the big parties, and I took over 4 months to really feel like I belonged. But if anyone asks me about Wharton now, I proudly say,“I am having the best time of my life and I earned it!”
In March, I traveled to Addis Ababa for Wharton’s Spring GMC to Ethiopia. I looked forward to my first trip to Africa. As an African-American, it was a trip to the “Motherland”. The class truly started when I stepped off the plane at Bole International Airport. No matter how much I read before I reached Addis, nothing prepared for me how life-changing that GMC would be.
We traveled to villages outside of Addis that were supported by USAID-funded health-care initiatives. Ethiopian girls as young as 16-years old were empowered to conduct routine and basic healthcare tasks that dramatically improved child and maternal health care outcomes. We also visited a local government-funded hospital with limited resources to treat even basic health-care needs. I was overcome when I saw a young woman in distressed labor. The labored breathing of premature infants weighed on me as I traversed the halls. As far as Ethiopian government healthcare has come, there is still so much more work to do.
Chinese investment in a major highway just outside of Addis allows for smooth travel from the traffic-prone streets of Addis to nearby villages and towns. Our class visited a private equity flower farm, Afriflora, about 3-hours from Addis. The farm has created jobs, built a hospital and a school. I question how devastating it would be to the community if that firm ever leaves.
We learned about incredible progress in entrepreneurship and innovation because of hubs like blueMoon. Ethiopian college graduates are equipped with access to WIFI and industry experts in their field of innovation. We were privileged to hear some of the student’s pitches, one of which won an international award.
We dined at some of the finest restaurants in and on the outskirts of the major city. We got stuck in traffic jams and made friendly conversation with each other on the buses. We enjoyed the warm weather that was a welcome contrast to the cooler Philadelphia weather that we left back home.
The GMC changed my short and long-term plans. I formed friendships that I’m sure will last a lifetime. I shared my desire to do more to empower the educated youth of Ethiopia with my classmates. They agreed to help me with whatever my final plan is. In May, I am attending the Ethiopia Partnerships Forum in D.C. to explore ways to teach entrepreneurship and innovation in Addis. Hopefully, I’ll be back in Addis before I know it.
Editor’s Note: Wharton students embark on ventures across the globe. Isaiah Berg WG’20 designed his own international journey after graduating from college. Here he details some of his experiences cycling across the American continent.
If you ride hard north out of Anchorage, you will see Denali in a couple of days. An ominous, endless tree-line flanks Highway #3 all the way until Trapper Creek, where a wildly successful RV park will rent you some dirt for your tent, an internet connection, a warm seating area, and a juicy burger for around $20. They are the last game in town for a hundred miles and they know it. The alternative is wild-camping and stringing your food and belongings up i
n a bear bag in a tree to keep the bears away from your tent while you sleep. A great deal of satisfaction comes from appreciating the little things in life: like warm seating areas, and not having to think about dying from a bear attack while you sleep.
We happily ended our second day at the campground in Trapper Creek. Our ride began in Alaska and would end in the city of Ushuaia, at the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego in Argentina. We were three brothers, farm kids from northern North Dakota. We had a few thousand dollars in savings, some tough bicycles, and a big dream. It was an awkward stage for us. The infrequent passerby would ask us where we were going and where we started from. Argentina, huh? Anchorage, hmm. They would glance down at our bags, covered with gear and bungee cords, perched on top of our over-burdened mountain bikes. At the beginning, we had a lot of stuff that we didn’t need. We really didn’t know what we were doing. We were hungry that second night because we had overeaten the available rations of our grim delicacy: rotini noodles, canned white chicken, and Mrs. Dash seasoning. We had ridden all day, and after staring at a small portion of our bland protein-carbohydrate medley, we knew that we needed something more to stay sane. Burgers it was.
I recall those early days of our bicycle travels with surprising difficulty. Smells and sounds and other senses trigger memories most often from our last months in South America. We flew through the Andes when we weren’t dying of food poisoning or going uphill. We were professionals. We had shed weight from our bodies and bicycles, tossing the nonessentials as we rolled into Latin America with half the stuff and twice the legs we started with. We rode fast and enjoyed living slow, taking long lunch breaks out of the sun with a 3L of Coca-Cola and as much peanut butter and tortillas and vegetables as we could eat. Most evenings we’d find a home restaurant that would mystically conjure a bowl of beef stew and a gigantic arroz con pollo with unlimited fruit juice for $2. If we shared conversation and bought a couple big bottles of Coca-Cola, the mother of the house might even offer us a place for our tent out back. We would share stories and sit in the dim light of the kitchenuntil long after closing time, playing with the kids and learning a little bit more about their family. The next day we would leave to hammer the Andean climbs, propelled by our sibling rivalry. We knew ourselves and how to live well together as brothers. Nathan had music, I had books, and David had his camera. We prayed for a sense of peace with the wild uncertainty around us every day. We were one, together against the enormity and occasional danger of it all. It was a peace that we had paid for over many long months. Of all the gifts of the journey, an enduring sense of gratitude might be the greatest.
In Trapper Creek, we had not yet earned our gratitude or sense of peace. As darkness fell near midnight in the extreme northern latitudes, we crawled into a tent that still smelled like the REI where it was born. We were alive, which was a good enough metric for success. We were untested. Our knees had the dull ache of tendonitis, a concern that would only grow as we pressed on towards the Yukon Territory. We were exhausted and already a little behind our goal pace; we had figured that a restful night with some amenities would be better than bear-proofing a wild campsite closer to Denali. The next day would take us to Cantwell, 104 miles away through the mountains. We overslept and a late departure added to our sense of collective foreboding. I could tell that my brothers were already tired, and the forecast called for rain and temperatures below 45 degrees all day. Welcome to Day Three.
I counted the grim green mile markers from Trapper Creek to Cantwell. By the end of the ride, we were fully internal, oblivious to the wonders of Alaskan wilderness shrouded by rain clouds. But even on the worst days on a bicycle, there are always moments that elevate the suffering and make the moment holy. We met a retired Spanish couple who gave us a warm tour of their RV and drinking water. The clouds parted briefly to give us a vision of Mount McKinley and awe-inspiring gorges. After grinding for many miles, we found ourselves near an ostentatious example of igloo-inspired architecture atop the last mountain pass before Cantwell. Locals reported that it was designed to be the most gregarious liquor store in the state, but the builder’s exuberance got the best of him. It ran afoul of every building code and zoning regulation in the book, and after a failed attempt at renovation and reinvention as a quirky lodge for travelers, it lay barren and fell into disrepair. Locals consider it to be an eyesore. We thought it was pretty rad. Not all things turn out as they are originally envisioned. We still build.
Darkness had already fallen before we arrived. We were at our physical limits. This small town of 200 was fast asleep, save for Longhorn Bar on Cantwell’s western outskirts. We rolled up, soaked and chilled to the bone, and walked inside to find ourselves in an Alaskan honky-tonk, replete with big game animals mounted on the walls and lots of plaid lumberjack and Carhartt couture. We were desperate for food and warmth. The bartender and his wife owned the place. They gave us triple-decker cheeseburgers that weren’t even on the menu. They had a hot shower in the back. Heaven is a room with a heater and a floor to sleep on.
The next morning was Sunday. We went to the only church in town and met the only Iron Bob in town, a Nebraska cowboy and an Army-man-turned-electrical-engineer working on the North Slope. His wife Janie is a veterinarian. They welcomed us into their home for some much-needed rest. Bob and Janie have a marriage, unlike anything I have ever seen. Their courtship was comprised of backcountry hunting expeditions. A large bighorn sheep stands vigil on the wall of their lodge, a romantic reminder for Iron Bob of the time when Janie shot it and he “knew that she was a keeper.” In his spare time, Bob climbs mountains. He has climbed the Seven Summits of every continent, and newspaper clippings show him performing cowboy rope tricks on the summit of Everest, jumping through lasso loops on the roof of the world where mere mortals typically lay exhausted. Janie cares for animals and specializes in the legendary sled dogs of the Iditarod. Their family is made of fourteen Siberian Huskies, brimming with spirit, who carry them across the mountain valleys during long Alaskan winters. Iron Bob once had a friend of his, a bush pilot, drop him in the middle of Denali National Park to give him the opportunity to walk home in the middle of winter. Wearing a giant parka and snowshoeing with a sled pulled behind him, this was Iron Bob’s idea of a vacation and a good time. Bob was delayed by a fall through some river ice that forced him to erect his tent to warm up and dry out and avoid hypothermia. After a day or so, Janie grew concerned at the delay, and so she mushed her sled dogs from their lodge across the Denali wilderness to find Bob. Upon finding his tent, she found him warming up and drying out after his dangerous mishap. Seeing that he had the situation firmly under control, she tossed him some snacks and hopped back on the sled to head home. “See you soon, honey!” The right dose of adversity is a leaven for love.
We annihilated moose stew, moose chili, salmon, and biscuits and gravy in epic proportions. Rested and restocked with supplies, we steered our bicycles onto the lonely dirt of the Denali Highway with the assurances of a friendly host connection somewhere down the road. Overnight, we had crossed a threshold where the idea of a bicycle journey of this scale became real. The accumulation of simple, daily disciplines on a bicycle would accrue into three happy hearts and a 16,000-mile ribbon of the road leading to Ushuaia.