February 3, 2010

Diversity in Learning

[Post by Will Peterman, 2010 MBA Candidate]

I came to BU’s MBA program during the waning months of summer in 2008 filled with anticipation of what was to come over the next two years. As has often been the case in my life, what I had imagined the program to be like was in most instances nothing like what I would experience. I actually had the foolish notion that the MBA program would be somewhat like undergraduate classes and that I would be able to live laid back collegiate lifestyle that would allow for leisurely hours in the gym, intramural broomball championships, trips down Fitrec’s lazy river and trivia night at the Whitehorse in Brighton. What I quickly came to understand was that little of these goals would actually be realized. What I learned during my first semester was that the level of work that I would need to put into school and job search would be one that I had never experienced before. Our organizational behavior professor Jack McCarthy likened processing the amount of information we were receiving to “Getting a drink of water from a fire hose.” He couldn’t have been more right.

Another preconceived notion that I had about business school was that it would be filled with white men wearing pressed white spread collar shirts in navy blue pin-striped suits, who would all be brilliant accounting experts, proficient in all areas of excel modeling. I came to business school with a degree in neuroscience and experience in surgical operating rooms and couldn’t tell you the difference between LIFO and FIFO if they brought me the newspaper and my slippers on Sunday morning. (If you don’t get that joke now, you will by December.) What I was surprised to find was that there was an incredible amount of diversity in each and every one of my classrooms in the graduate school of management. Growing up on the north shore of Boston, I attended a private middle school and then the second oldest prep school in the United States, neither of which was replete with students of diverse backgrounds. In many cases the greatest diversity came in the form of which color Volvo you drove to school. College in Boston and hospital experience provided little additional exposure to diverse backgrounds. However, my first semester at BU would allow for a very different experience.

During your first semester at BU’s graduate school of management you will be assigned to a team of 6 or 7 students that you will work closely with throughout the duration of the semester on an integrated project. The project will incorporate each subject you study and will occupy the majority of your time. My team consisted of three women and three men. One woman with non-profit experience from West Virginia, a new father from Utah, a newly married man from California, and two non-native English speaking women, one from Shanghai, China and one from Athens, Greece. It was quite a diverse group. I will admit that at first I was apprehensive of how we would be able to work together. I was concerned that we would not be able to communicate well, that we would have different driving forces and motivations and that I would work better with a homogenous team that I had been used to working with prior to my experience at BU. I can’t imagine how difficult the process was for my teammates whose first language was not English. Even with a working-level knowledge of the language, there are so many colloquialisms and inside jokes that are a common part of our vernacular that I imagine seeing classmates laugh and joke together must have been like watching an episode of the British version of “The Office.” You understand the words they are saying, but the jokes just aren’t translating.

Despite all of these apparent obstacles to fusing as a successful team we found that not only were we able to work well together to complete what I thought was an excellent final project, but we all became good friends. Instead of being held back by the different backgrounds and views that we all had, our work was enhanced by the breadth of experience that we were able to share. I learned that groups of homogenous thinkers often fail to consider all possible options and solutions and thereby inherently produce suboptimal decisions. In his book “Authentic Leadership” legendary business leader and former Medtronic CEO Bill George points out that “Having people on the team who represent a broad range of life’s experiences is critical to success. It is diversity, and the intense debates it generates, that leads to the best decisions. By calling upon the broad experiences of team members, you can avoid pitfalls and make better decisions.”

I find that the diversity at BU’s school of management is one of its biggest assets. It provides real life experience keeping in mind that managers of the future will need to work well with all persons of different cultural backgrounds within the global marketplace. It also provides a richer learning experience in the classroom as views and opinions born from different backgrounds provide a fuller understanding of business topics that are essential to success. I have friends and colleagues in many business programs in the Boston area and elsewhere and I can say that rarely have I heard of a university that does a better job incorporating diversity into its student body than does BU.

While disappointed that I have yet to put together a broomball team, take a trip down the lazy river, make it to more than one trivia night at the Whitehorse, and rarely go to the gym without some reading in hand, I have been pleasantly surprised in my experience of diversity at BU. Having had little experience with diverse backgrounds and cultures, I learned that not only is diversity not something to avoid, it is an aspect of team work that I will be sure to seek out, so that it might enhance the quality of my work life in the future as it has here at BU.

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