“Why Carlson?” Then, and Now

Monday, October 31, 2016

In interacting with prospective students, I’m often asked: “Why Carlson?” For a long time, I answered with three points: (1) Great career opportunities, (2) a world-class education, and (3) a strong alumni network.

Carlson grads land at top-tier consulting firms; our alumni are executives in Fortune 500s; and, we have people in tech startups, in government, in non-profits, and more. If you’re interested in building a great career, Carlson is a fantastic place to be.

In terms of education, we have two of the top fifty business professors in the world at Carlson. More importantly, because of our small class size, Carlson students have an incredible amount of access to our faculty. During my first semester, I sat in professors’ offices on numerous occasions to discuss material from and beyond class. That’s not an experience available everywhere, and it’s been a significant part of my own growth as a leader and thinker during my time here.

Professor Aks Zaheer looking very accessible

Professor Aks Zaheer looking very accessible

And, when it comes to our alumni network, we have more than 50,000 graduates spanning 95 countries, and I have yet to encounter one who isn’t more than happy to help. Just a few weeks ago, I was on the phone with a Carlson alum who’s working at a FinTech startup I’ve been following. We had a great conversation, and it was as simple as sending an email and picking up the phone.

If like every prospective MBA student, you care about great career opportunities, a world-class education, and a strong alumni network, the Carlson School of Management will not disappoint you, and those three points formed the foundation of my answer to the question “Why Carlson?” for a long time.

But, that’s now how I answer the question today.

During the admissions process, and even as students, we all tend to focus on what we will get at the end of our MBA. We say things like: “At the end of these two years, you’re going to have a great job.” “By the end of your time here, you’ll have a body of knowledge that will accelerate your career.” “At the end of your Carlson MBA, you’ll have access to an amazing network that will provide you career opportunities long into the future.”

And, all those things are true! But, they are all about the end. They’re about what you’ll get as a result of coming to Carlson. The lesson I’ve had to learn is that what you get is important, but who you surround yourself with is even more so.

The full-time MBA program is two years long. And, perhaps this is obvious, but two years is a really long time! A lot can, and will, happen during your time here.

Some of that you will be able to anticipate. For example, I have never met an MBA student who hasn’t experienced some career anxiety along the way. But, even when you can anticipate the challenge, you might not realize how important it is to surround yourself with the right people to get you through it.

When I experienced my own career anxiety last Fall, it was Maggie Tomas, the Director of our Graduate Business Career Center who made all the difference. With the ear of a therapist and the voice of a coach, Maggie gave me permission to remove the word “should” from my vocabulary and go after what I wanted. That process led to an amazing summer internship experience with a company I am proud to be associated with.

Stressed Student

Photo of me in Maggie Tomas’ office last Fall

Some challenges, like career anxiety, can be anticipated. But, some of the challenges you will encounter during your two years here cannot.

Coming in, I didn’t know that my father would be diagnosed with kidney cancer and require emergency surgery at exactly the moment when my responsibilities as a teaching assistant this semester were the heaviest. I didn’t know that I would be going through a divorce, or that I would experience three months of depression. I didn’t know I was going to get food poisoning during a case competition and redecorate a hotel bathroom with my bodily fluids.

Life often throws us curveballs when we least expect it, even during your MBA! And, when I was thinking about whether to go to Carlson, I focused so much attention on what I was going to get that I never thought about who I might need. Fortunately, even though it wasn’t part of my decision-making process, I ended up at Carlson. Because, when I faced these difficult and challenging times, who I needed was never far away.

When I was traveling to be with my dad for his surgery last month, the first-year MBA students I was TA-ing for could’ve sent me emails wondering when I was going to get around to grading their homework or when I would be available to help out again. Instead, every single day, I woke up to an email in my inbox from one or more of them checking in on my family and asking me how I was doing. When I was feeling irresponsible, they helped me realize that I could be exactly where I needed to be.

When I was dehydrated in a hotel bed, smelling like god-knows-what from food poisoning, and worried that I was going to need an ambulance to take me to the emergency room, my friend, Greg Videen, brought Gatorade and saltines up to the room and checked in on me regularly. And, when it turned out that our team had won in spite of my absence, my teammates didn’t just head off to the bar to celebrate. Even when they were told not to take the giant check off-site, they carried that thing up to my room, woke me up, and celebrated with me. I realize that seems like such a silly moment, but it meant the world to me. Because, when I was feeling embarrassed, they helped me realize that I truly belonged.

Students Holding Check of $10,000

Me celebrating a case competition victory in a drool-stained t-shirt

And, when I was going through the most challenging time in my life earlier this year; when there were times when I honestly wasn’t sure I was going to make it through the day, it was friends like Rebecca Blumenshine and others who sat with me, and listened, and listened some more. When I was feeling unbearably alone, they helped me realize that I was surrounded by love and support and that this hard process was helping me become more fully myself.

We talk a lot about the “MBA journey,” but I had no idea how much of a journey these two years would actually be. I have grown as a leader, and I am proud of the academic and professional accomplishments I have achieved these past two years. But, what I didn’t realize is how this experience would stretch me personally in every way imaginable. Even when things go the way you expect, the MBA journey is filled with self-reflection and growth. And, when things don’t go as anticipated, you will be challenged to overcome in ways you never have before.

Carlson is a great place to pursue amazing career opportunities, to get a world-class education, and to gain access to a strong alumni network. But, as important as those things are, they’re not what makes this place truly unique. My answer to “Why Carlson?” now is “our community.” We are people who have meaningful conversations with one another; we develop real friendships; we care about one another; we celebrate together; we cry together. And that’s true across the board: Students, faculty, and staff. “Be. Belong. Become.” isn’t just a motto here; it’s the honest truth.

If you’re a prospective student reading this and you’re wondering whether Carlson is the right fit for you, definitely think about what you’ll get at the end of this experience. But, also think about who you might need along the way. If you come to Carlson, I can promise you that you’ll get what you want out of your MBA. But, more importantly, I can promise you that you will be surrounded by great people who will be with you through all your ups and downs, all the successes and failures, the good days and the bad.

If that sounds like the kind of place you want to be a part of, then I can say with confidence that Carlson is very likely the right fit for you.

A Headshot of Adam Rao