Spurts and Starts
On November 8, 2016 I touched down at LAX after a 10-hour flight from Cartagena, Colombia to news that Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States. Although this news shocked many of us, I just completed two years of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer and was returning to the US with a strong appreciation for the social and cultural progress that felt so tangible throughout the Obama presidency. In the months leading up to my return, listening to episode after episode of NPR’s Code Switch made me feel as if I was returning to a country that was rapidly changing. In my romanticized version of woke America, bigotry and hatred were fading away and the embrace of multiculturalism was opening doors for black and brown people across every level of society. Progress, both for myself and for society-at-large, seemed imminent.
The professional growth that I experienced during those two years in Colombia inspired me to apply to some of the top business schools in the country. After two years of setting ambitious goals and overcoming numerous challenges towards their completion, I emerged with a sense of confidence that was unlike any I had previously experienced. I was eager to place myself in an environment that would build upon this progress while also forcing me to think in new and uncomfortable ways. This was the mindset that led me to pursue an MBA at the USC Marshall School of Business, and two years later, with my graduation date quickly approaching, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on this experience and how it aligns with our progress as a country.
Much like my time in the Peace Corps, the highs and lows that come along with business school have both inspired me beyond imagination and occasionally caused me to question my decision to enroll in the first place. I’ve met and built deep relationships with classmates whose plans to build businesses, disrupt outdated industries and continually challenge the status quo amazes me and pushes me to set equally ambitious goals for myself. Being surrounded by such confident and capable peers who are genuinely interested in my story and professional growth has significantly eased my transition into the private sector. These experiences have made me realize that being profit-driven doesn’t necessarily require one to abandon their notions of fairness, morality, or collective social progress.
Having said that, it’d be dishonest to cast my experience in business school as a complete exoneration of the systems and mindsets that enable the economic inequality that is so prevalent in 21st century America. I’ve heard classmates suggest that black and brown students in the program have an unfair advantage throughout the admissions process, despite the fact that we make up a disproportionately small percentage of the entire student body. The expansion of shareholder value is praised above all else, while policies that encourage a living wage, affordable access to housing and equitable taxation are cast as “socialist” and dismissed without consideration. Being “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” makes it easy for many of my classmates to bump Childish Gambino while supporting Trump policies that prioritize the preservation of their family wealth and justify the construction of a border wall alongside the southern border.
Trying to understand how such ambitious and accomplished peers can simultaneously hold such regressive views has been an ongoing feat of mental gymnastics that I’m still grappling with. Over the past two years, I’ve had moments of incredible inspiration be immediately followed by the realization that I’m the only person of color in the classroom. Despite the efforts of organizations like The Consortium for Graduate Study in Management or the school’s MBA Admission Office to increase diversity and promote cultural inclusion, it’s clear that much more needs to be done. While business school has exposed me to new ways of conceptualizing solutions to some of our most pressing issues, it’s also allowed me to pull back the curtain in order to get a full view of the elite circles that I was locked out of before enrolling at USC.
This experience has reminded me that personal and professional development, much like broader societal progress, is rarely linear.
Although our growth as individuals or as a nation takes place in spurts and starts, I’m confident that things will continue to trend in the right direction. Whether it’s withstanding two more years of a Trump presidency, or disproving suggestions that my admission to business school depended on the need to satisfy diversity quotas, resilience will always prove to be the most invaluable resource.