Last week was orientation week for first year MBA students at the Robert H. Smith School of Business. No one wants to make a bad first impression, so students were on their best behavior. I kept waiting (and secretly hoping) for someone to start a fist fight or chew with their mouth open, but no one did. I am now completely convinced that all my classmates are practiced professionals and well-balanced individuals.
Everyone asks the same three questions at orientation: 1) “What’s your name?” 2) “Where have you been?” 3) “Where are you going?” If you plan to attend any orientations in the near future, take detailed notes on the following, and make sure to prepare your own concise answers to all three questions.
“What’s your name?” is a relatively simple question if your name is Joe Smith. Most of the students I met during orientation were not able to give such simple answers. Thirty seven percent of the full-time Smith MBA class is from abroad, and that means many have names difficult for Americans to learn and pronounce. Most international students were kind enough to introduce themselves by their given names and then simplify them. For example, a Chinese student might say, “Hi, my name is Chuntao, but you can call me Peach.” Peach is a great name and so much easier to remember than Chuntao; I picture a big peach in place of this woman’s head and am able to remember her name.
Other foreign students introduced themselves by an American name that they had adopted, whether independently or in English class in their home country. For example, one foreign student introduced himself as Nicholas, which had no relation to his given name. He said that his Chinese English teacher had given him this name. His story reminded me of my high school Spanish class, and my “Spanish name” Irma. If I were to study in Mexico, would my name be Irma? As Shakespeare wrote: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.” Nicholas must agree with Shakespeare.
The second question, “Where have you been?” consists of two parts. People ask this question to find out what geographical location you came from and what you did before business school. At first I told people that I was from Texas, but then they assumed that I was new to the area. Then I told people I was from Washington, D.C., but then they assumed that I had been spending my Easters rolling eggs down the White House lawn. So I finally settled on a two part response: I grew up in Houston, Texas, but have spent the last eight years living in Washington, D.C. I wasn’t the only one having problems with this question. One student told me that his passport said that he was from Switzerland. This was a mysterious answer that I did not question.
The second half of the “Where have you been?” question has as many pitfalls as the first half. When I answered this question with a short description of my work with asylum seekers at an immigration law firm, most students stared blankly at me. Other students’ jobs were more familiar than mine. I met a pilot, a factory manager, a market researcher, and an electrical engineer at orientation. The factory manager told me that he had supervised manufacturing for several types of products, from the silicone packets in new shoes to small metal pieces in storm windows. I had never thought about the silicone packets in shoe boxes before, but talking with him forced me to consider the construction of every manmade object surrounding me. Even the flimsy paper folder I held at that moment was a livelihood and daily occupation to someone. This thought was too deep for me at eight o’clock in the morning, so I didn’t ponder it for too long, but it did make me appreciate life’s many layers.
The third question people always ask at business school orientation is, “Where are you going?” In other words, what do you plan on doing with your MBA? People never ask this question during undergraduate orientation because they assume that most students have no idea what they will do after graduation. Even though many MBA students have no plan for after school, few will admit it. As I repeatedly told people about my plans to work in commercial banking or corporate finance, I kept thinking, what happens if my plans change? What if I don’t get an internship? What if I don’t get a job? Uncertainty is a huge part of life and business school, and career uncertainties often become career anxieties during orientation. One honest student made me laugh when I asked him what he planned to do with his MBA: “I want to make big money,” he said. That’s one thing we can all say we want to do with our degrees.