Reflections on the HBS Experience

So here we are – two years older, close to 1,000 cases wiser, and at least $50,000 poorer. And yet somehow, there is something about being here that has made us richer. It goes beyond the diplomas we’ll receive to display our newly minted, hard-earned MBAs. It goes back to that first day of Foundations where hundreds of strangers from across the world piled into Shad gym with questions and apprehensions and enthusiasm, and found themselves instantly linked by common experience. It was an experience we had not yet begun but that we knew we were going to go through together.

When people think about what being at HBS has given us, the first instinct is to think of the MBA – the stepping stone, the connections, the coveted access to the Harvard Club of New York. But those of us who have been here know better. When we think of HBS, we will most likely think of our friends first – the investment banking gurus that helped us through our first Finance exam, the closely knit group we traveled with over Spring Break, the sectionmates we partied with ’til dawn. We’ll think of the connections we’ve made, connections that benefit us both professionally and personally. And we’ll marvel at that first day when we were all strangers to one another, because now we are all marked by the same unparalleled experience.

It is an experience typified by that bead of sweat from our first nerve-racking cold call, and that knowing smirk from our last. It is an experience filled with a multitude of formals, Skydeck awards, team projects and the HBS Show. It is an experience characterized by our study groups, our teammates, our friends and our loved ones. And it is an experience that has shaped us all, but in different ways.

There are those of us who have now traveled the world. While HBS itself is the one great adventure, we’ve dotted the landscape with our own exotic adventures thanks to the efforts of our international classmates. There has been Japan Trek, EuroTrek and Hollywood Trek (an exotic location in itself). Section D has ridden snowmobiles in Iceland, elephants in Thailand and jeeps on safari in South Africa.

There are those of us who found the greatest life change in starting new families. Dating couples have become engaged, fianc‚es have become married and married couples have become new parents. Someone who has easily inhabited the role of consultant, entrepreneur and student suddenly finds himself playing the role of father and realizes it’s the greatest challenge of all.

There are those of us who have changed from new experiences. The HBS Business Plan Competition gives hopefuls a taste of being an entrepreneur pitching to VCs. The HBS Show affords business types a venue through which they can explore their creative side. The Priscilla Ball is apparently an experience in itself.

And then there are those of us who haven’t changed. We may know about more companies, more countries and more opportunities than we did before. We may know more about investment banking and consulting than we asked to before. But we don’t feel any different. And perhaps with that, our greatest discovery is that the core of our being is something that can remain constant and strong.

Finally, there are those of us who will hold onto our lifelong friendships. After all, that is probably the most precious thing we will take away from HBS. It’s the 82 section-mates you can turn to at any time, the close group of friends you traveled with to Jamaica, the dedicated teammates that stayed up with you ’til 2 AM on a project, and the people with whom you are going to share mutual congratulations when you graduate. This is the experience that has united a plethora of strangers by giving us a way to survive – together.

So here we are – poised and ready for our next stage of life. Or so we’d like to think. We’re looking ahead to a funky economy (to put it mildly), multiple shifts in our career and the possibility of becoming the focus of the next HBS case study. One might say we’re as uncertain stepping out of HBS as we were stepping in. We don’t really know where that next path in life is going to lead us. But maybe our experience these past two years can help us say that we can meet whatever comes our way head on, with confidence and gusto and friends to catch us when we fall.

So comes the perennial question – was it all worthwhile? Well, let’s see. Starting salary for an MBA in 1999? Six figures, with options. Starting salary for an MBA in 2002? Five figures, with luck. But the experience at HBS in any year – with the close friends and connections and a common bond for life? Priceless.