Back to the Classrooms

With the onset of the Spring Semester, 2021, long drawn-out months of waiting to return to the classrooms finally came to an end; the MBA students could now set foot in the Jon M. Huntsman Hall to attend in-person classes in the Wharton’s limited in-person / hybrid model. I had particularly chosen courses that had in-person options and have been a regular in-person student since the first day of the semester.

On the first day of the semester, I took a SEPTA Route 21 bus that dropped me opposite to the Walnut Street entrance of the Huntsman. I looked at the building, a building so striking and poised, and my first day at Wharton flashed before my eyes. I took a moment to reflect … So much has changed in the world since that day … So much of me has changed, and it is not just the pandemic that stirred the globe, it is the reminder that ‘we are not in control’ that sent out a wave of frenzy forcing us to rethink our outlook of life.

But … we survived. Now, it was time to slowly resume normalcy. While the University had meticulously planned our safe return to campus for in-person classes; we had our responsibilities too. Not only was it important to comply with the Student Campus Compact (SCC) laid out by the University, but it was also crucial that we did our part in inspiring those around us to recommence life as we knew it in the pre-pandemic world, but now conscientiously following COVID-19 prevention guidelines outlined by Penn.

“I will be a hypocrite if I do not attend the in-person classes,” said Mike Sorrentino, a fellow MBA student, who, just like me, regularly attends in-person classes. I must mention here that it takes an additional layer of dedication to the ‘spirit of Wharton’ to shake off the morning / afternoon sloth to commute to school every day of the week in the presence of an alternative; but witness to the arduous rebellions of the raging student body when Fall 2020 was announced to be virtual, a lot of us expected MBA students to be fighting over the limited number of in-person seats. With such conjecture, the Wharton Seat Management Application came to exist. 

In this article, I am sharing my experience, thus far, with the limited in-person / hybrid model; particularly, I will talk about some of the mandates, the infrastructure, and what’s going well.

I have been the model in-person student, and on the first day of every course, I felt like a man on the moon, sharing his experience with those on the lonely planet. Each Professor asked me how I was feeling being back to the classroom. Soon, I started receiving emails and WhatsApp queries from other students who were preparing to get back on campus. The SCC is long and crammed with terms and conditions; it makes getting back to campus seem more grueling than it really is. So, let me start with some of the mandatory requirements for entry to the Huntsman. 

Some of the mandates:

Three levels of security, daily symptoms check and weekly COVID test … yes, that’s the firewall for COVID-19 prevention at Wharton. All UPenn buildings (or at least the ones commonly known) have access control system, but we never needed our PennCard to access the Huntsman before. Now, this is the first line of defense to curtail unauthorized entry. Also, the Walnut Street egress is now ‘exit only’, so center city people (almost all MBA students) have to walk some extra length to get to the entrance on the Locust Walk. Once you’ve used your PennCard to swing the door open, you will encounter a security personnel who will ask for your PennCard (again) and PennOpen Pass; there is no swiping or tapping at this level, it’s just a visual inspection. Then you enter the lobby, adorned with booths (pandemic-prevention additions), you are required to walk up to a booth, tap your PennCard to record your attendance, show your PennOpen Pass (again), and the person at the booth will check her list to confirm if indeed you have a seat assigned to you. So, if you are thinking of attending an in-person session, the first step is to book your seat through the Wharton Seat Management App that I alluded to before. The building having limited carrying capacity will deny you a seat if the maximum capacity is reached and you were unable to secure your seat in the daily seat allocation lottery. If you were allotted a seat and just decided to not show up, without releasing your seat, this will affect the lottery algorithm and will work against you the next time you request a seat in a high demand scenario.

So, what’s this PennOpen Pass that I mentioned so many times? It is basically the report of your daily symptoms check and weekly test. You need to be devoid of any symptoms of the disease and tested COVID-19 negative (in the weekly Saliva test) for this Pass to remain ‘green’. If the pass is ‘red’ due to non-compliance to mandates or any alarming symptom, you will not be allowed inside the building. 

Phew. That seems a lot, but you get into the habit and it becomes a second nature within a few days.

The infrastructure:

The classrooms look so different: huge screens to project virtual students to in-person students and Professors, additional microphones to make classroom discussions of in-person students audible to virtual students, and bold signs on seats to distinguish the seats that are up for grabs, maintaining physical distance indoors. Classrooms that have about 70-person capacity can now house only 24. Antibacterial wipes dispenser at every door is really convenient, a reminder to clean up when we transition between spaces. A necessary inconvenience is the ban on eating and drinking inside the classroom; even the drinking water fountains are shut down. Guards frequently patrol the corridors to strew inessential gatherings (if any).

What’s going well:

Just the privilege of being able to walk through the Huntsman Hall doors again is exhilarating. In-person students get a lot of time to engage in random, but intense, discourses, while the Professors juggle the break-out rooms for the online counterparts. In some classes, the Professors participate in student-led small group discussions; these are such great opportunities for gaining deeper insights into topics that we learn. Finally, no virtual setting can replace face-to-face interactions when a student has a plethora of questions that can quickly be addressed by rough sketches on physical whiteboards, without the crippling crutches of the Zoom fatigue.

While the current setting is different from what we envisioned it to be when we started the program, I am a firm believer in silver linings. I think that this model is giving us more opportunity for one-on-one interactions with Professors and other students. I personally feel that I get more time and attention to get my doubts / queries addressed and have more meaningful conversations. 

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”I think that we are a little more antifragile now than we used to be. We take things a little less for granted now than we used to. We have learned to expect the unexpected. We have survived through extremely difficult times. The sparsely populated hallways of the Huntsman, to me, symbolize hope, hope of resiliency, hope of persistence, and hope of a better tomorrow.

A Sense of Place

When I was promoted to Associate at the investment bank I worked at, for the first time in years, I had leisure time. During these new reprieves I found myself cooking. I urgently wanted a taste of home. So, I attempted to cook my grandmother’s chicken curry for the first time. Much to my surprise, it came out almost perfect!  As I was relishing this taste of home, I reflected on what this modest accomplishment meant for me personally, and what such a feeling might mean to my peers, many of whom, like myself, were miles away from any place they might call home.

“I’m moving.” Words I often spoke to friends, family, and colleagues. Seattle, Vancouver, London, Mumbai, San Francisco, and New York: I have made many moves, because, like most young people, I was pursuing education, jobs and promotions to build a career. With every move I make and with every conversation I have with someone moving, I’m reminded of environmentalist Alan Durning’s book, This Place on Earth, in which he recounts traveling to the Philippines to interview members of a remote tribe about their land and livelihood. The matriarch of the tribe asks the author what his homeland is like. After a long pause, he answers, “In America, we have careers, not places.”

In coming to Wharton, I have found even more time to cook. In keeping with the spirit of trying to make Philly a place, I do my best to invite my fellow Wharton peers over to share these home cooked meals. As I revel in these dinners with friends and think through the beautiful relationships that food inspires, I think about how fleeting these nights are. After we all graduate, we will move to cities across the earth in pursuit of our careers. In undertaking these moves, we will almost never ask our friends how they will feel if we move far away. Perhaps we should. Not only do we damage any sense of place we had for ourselves when we move, but we also damage it for everyone in that place who loves us. While you don’t need to live close by to someone in order to be close to them, a meaningful place – a home – is built in the company of people.

This might be naive of me, but sometimes I think that many of the world’s problems, because they are global in scale, are the result of a lack of connection to one another. Corporate malfeasance, corruption, climate change, and innumerable other woes can be traced not to an inherent turpitude of the people who do these things, but rather, to a malfunction in their understanding of how their actions have downstream effects on their communities; a consequence, I believe, of people having an assortment of frayed connections, in lieu of a sense of place. Alan Durning continues in his book that a sense of “place was not only the anchor missing from my life but an anchor missing from others’ lives … an anchor that might turn the voracious efficiency of our industrial society to the ends of enduring longer rather than producing and consuming more.”

The night I cooked my Grandmother’s chicken, I packed some of it up and took it to work the next day. As I was walking to my desk, I noticed an exhausted MBA intern. I didn’t know her very well and didn’t want to disturb her as she feverishly pounded at her keyboard for our Managing Director’s inane request, but lunchtime was soon approaching, and I felt she might like a break, and one that wouldn’t involve yet another Seamless order. I approached her desk and invited her to share in this meal I had cooked the night before. Over the course of that summer and over a few more meals, she and many of the interns, slowly turned from transient peers to some my closest friends. Suddenly, their being there – being alive in the same place as me – helped to make something of a place, out of the grey, anonymous cubicles of the bullpen.

Looking Back at the Difficult Times; Remote Socializing in 2020

Now that in-person events have started (with precautions) in the Wharton campus and beyond, it is hard to believe what we survived the dreadful year of 2020. This article is about the year 2020’s most difficult challenge: socializing in times of social distancing …

How do you actively engage with the community in times of social distancing? How do you build those connections, which are meant to have lasting impacts, when you are trapped in a tiny box in a 19-inch screen of several boxes? Even if you feel engaged in a remote setting, how do you ensure that the others in the meeting room are also fully present (and not just doing some other work sitting in front of the camera)?

In 2020, the Zoom / BlueJeans world emerged from its not-so-eminent pre-existence and took charge of our lives when the real world was paralyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic. This change in medium of communication, communication being the primary mode of self-expression and thus, a supreme human right, was no less than a step in the evolution of mankind. We were learning about possibilities we never thought of exploring before, and we were learning about the challenges that these opportunities entailed. One notable challenge was socializing in the times of social distancing. 

Aristotle once said, “Man is by nature a social animal … Society is something that precedes the individual”, and his aphorism rings true as we gauge the extent of our emotional wellbeing that is affected by social interactions. Let’s face it, even an introvert needs some regular dose of human interactions to stay sane! We all need to be socially active (to varying levels) to avoid being consumed by the dark sorceries of a mind in isolation.

Wharton is famed for its strong community-focused culture. Engaging actively with this community during the MBA journey is as important as academics and recruiting; these connections will be leverage for life and guarantee the most reliable safety net throughout one’s career. If you have the bandwidth of engaging in the greater UPenn community, you are just making this safety net stronger! So, actively engaging with the Wharton / UPenn community is something you cannot afford to miss if you want a 360-degree experience of the ideal MBA life, and you got to find your way around obstacles to community engagement because embracing challenges is the mark of a true leader! Thankfully, the Wharton student body is composed of such leaders and we have the Office of Student Life to reinforce the values of community and affinity during the MBA program and beyond … 

As Student Life Fellows (SLFs), we were in the frontline of the crisis management team, among the student body, ideating ways to engage current and incoming students in the Wharton community culture during the unprecedented times of global lockdown of 2020. It was hard and frustrating, but there was no dearth of creativity. I remember our first major virtual social event. This event was meant to be a substitute for a retreat to Atlantic City (or so I’ve heard). Was it as fun? The answer is YES! Okay, maybe it was not Atlantic City kind of fun, but we engaged in activities that required days of planning and teamwork. A community acclaimed for its Cluster-Cohort structure and “the” Wharton Olympics, can never get enough of inter-Cluster competition … we are always pumped up for some ‘Battle Royale’ among Clusters, so we created an offseason virtual version that required targeted preparation and coordination! I remember frantically hunting for ‘Bee’ costume online as I was struck by major FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out: a B-school lingo); I was a ‘new bee’ in C3 (after being a C4 Tiger in my first year) and I didn’t want to miss out on an opportunity to dress up in costume. Behold those lockdown days, when deliveries were often delayed, I ended up improvising with face (and neck) painting … you see, we ooze creativity and on-spot decision making, and times of uncertainties are the best moments to harness these strengths! 

After rounds of group chats, trivia, and eating and drinking game, we acted out our favorite “Mean Girls” movie scenes; recreating the 4-way phone call, changing our real names to character names, seemed to be a perfect fit for the occasion.

Pre-term commenced for the newly admitted … The SLFs were assigned their SLFams and engaging with SLFams was a whole new level of challenge. SLFam is one of the building blocks of the Wharton community, it is meant to be a safe space to vent out and seek motivation. Thus, it is important to ‘get along’ with each other and ‘play well’. How to you use Zoom as a platform to facilitate exclusive team building (and leadership development) activities? Well, you need to watch the video in the link below:

Creating such videos, an activity almost everyone engaged in during the unsettling lockdown period, requires immense amount of coordination and cooperation. Even though it seems to be a super simple task, it is actually incredibly complex because of several reasons: one usually sees her / his mirror image during live Zoom sessions that makes it difficult to imagine the final outcome (well, we could change the setting, but we were not Zoom experts that time), one does not appear in the same spot on everyone’s Gallery view and so she / he must blindly follow the instructions (for action) and line up dictated by the person who is recording, and sometimes the music is added later (which was our case), so one needs to keep one’s eyes peeled for the person before her / him (in the dictated line up) to complete action, which is the cue to start (in the not-so-rhythmic background score of awkward silence). I realized that I’m a natural at the art of creating such videos, considering that the very first attempt took only twenty minutes from announcement to end of recording! We cannot deny that the lonely lockdown spell did provide us with some great opportunities to tryout things we would’ve never tried out under normal circumstances and discover strengths we never knew we had ….  

Lastly, the crux of all remote socializing activities was shooting an entire film (remotely) in December 2020. This was UPenn Theatre Arts Council’s production “Detention: A High School Mystery” by Stimulus Children’s Theatre. The filming equipment were delivered door-to-door by the technical team, with detailed setting up instruction videos. Who would’ve known that I would learn about professional filming during my MBA journey?

Even though I prefer the ‘normal’ way of life, the virtual setting of the grim 2020 was not that bad. It was not exactly what we wanted, but we did learn immensely from it. There were efficiencies too, considering zero commute time. Nonetheless, socializing remotely echoed the connotations of a paradox, and I believe that we are happier in a world where it is not the only medium of social interactions.

John’s Quarantine Life

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)!

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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.

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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.

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‘Risk Worth Taking’- Story of Sheyda Bautista-Saeyan, WG’20

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?

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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”.

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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.

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My Journey to Belonging at Wharton

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!”

 

Spring Break in Ethiopia: The GMC That Changed Everything

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.

Bound South

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.

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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 kitchen until 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.

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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.