Early Impressions of HBS from a New Ivy

The Place
The business school is unique in that it is a separate and distinct campus from Harvard University, with its own buildings, library, and on-campus living. The grounds are beautiful and well kept. There is indeed ivy growing on the walls of many buildings. Most of the buildings are brick with classic designs. Many of the buildings are old, but they have aged well, and seem to have developed more character over time. Almost everything about the campus fits the stereotype or mental image of what an Ivy League school looks like. The Spangler building is a classic expression of how old meets new at this school. Of course it is made of brick, and it has big beautiful rooms full of leather sofas and fine chairs surrounding large dark wood coffee tables, fitted with beautiful lamps. Much of the interior looks like a castle or aristocratic mansion, yet the rooms are setup with wireless ethernet, computer terminals, and other fancy communications equipment.

The River
The campus is nestled in a large bend of the Charles River. Perhaps its because of my upbringing in the deserts of the western United States, but there is something enchanting about this broad river that calmly winds its way through this city. Although I wouldn’t want to drink the water, I can spend a lot of time gazing at the river and feeling a sense of satisfaction. Down river a mile or so, it becomes so broad that almost every afternoon it fills with sailboats slicing back and forth through the water, enjoying the breeze and the sunshine. (Sailing club here I come!)

The People
Coming to Harvard Business School, I was semi-expecting to be amidst lots of preppy rich kids that thought they were God’s gift to the world. I must say that this expectation has fortunately been wholly disappointed. Although I have occasionally run into what I would have considered the stereotypical student, they are definitely in the extreme minority. Instead I have found a group of people that are down-to-earth, approachable, warm, and sincere. They are also extremely smart, motivated, confident, and focused.

Regardless of people’s attitudes when they come here, virtually everyone I have encountered has developed what I describe as awe or reverence for their classmates as a whole. I know for me it started in my first day of class. I thought that I could be a major contributor to the class discussions with a Masters degree in engineering, 5 years of work experience at a large company, and a fair amount of leadership experience leading groups of 5 to 10 engineers.

In my first class I found that the guy sitting on my right was a lung surgeon from China. The guy sitting on my left had a Masters degree in engineering and was a plant manager for a clothing plant. On his left was a successful doctor who got her MD at Harvard Medical School. Further down the row was a guy with a PhD in some field of microbiology who had started his own consulting company. Behind me was a woman who was a vice president of mergers and acquisitions at a New York company. Anyway, you get the picture.

Everyone is very educated or very experienced or both. Once the realization of who all these people are starts to sink in, the awe factor kicks in. My response has been a feeling of gratitude for being here, because I realize that I could have been replaced by another person and this group would not have missed me. It also helps one feel grateful to know that there was a record number of applications to the school this year 8 or 9 for every available slot.
The Classroom

The classroom experience is something I never gave much thought to before arriving at the School. However, after two weeks of it, the best way I could describe the classroom experience here is “transformational.” The classroom learning experience is not anything like I experienced in graduate school, college, or anywhere else. I knew that HBS taught using the case method, but I think the classroom experience here transcends the case method. It is a mixture of discussion, debate, reflection, brainstorm, and some magic. It totally engages your mind. It is active, not passive. It is why attendance is 50% of the grade. If you miss class you can’t get a copy of notes from someone else because there was no lecture. What you missed was the experience- what people felt were the main issues in the case, what position people in the class took on those issues, what personal experiences or background information they had to support their positions, and what principles and concepts distilled in your own mind. That’s why I call it transformational-because it is an emotional experience. It is not the most efficient way to disseminate information, which every other school I have attended equates with teaching. But it is the most effective way I have seen to help people learn at a deep emotional level such that they never forget.

he Legacy
One of the most impressive things about my experience here has been the sense of history and destiny that pervades. The Faculty refer to us as the future leaders of the world – not in a boastful sense, but quite the opposite – and impart a sense of deep responsibility towards societal improvement. The focus at the school seems more on leadership than learning business subjects. And every subject is lined with emphasis on building integrity and moral responsibility. It is truly a unique, wonderful environment to be immersed in.