From Sleeping on a Bench to Attending the Top Business School in Asia

During my undergrad, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. In the US, there are a few variables that go into attending a good law school, but it basically comes down to two things:  GPA and LSAT score. So, I chose the path of most students who want to become a lawyer, which is to pick a relatively easy major, make a lot of questionable decisions outside of school, and then spend a few months studying for the LSAT before graduation. But one morning I woke up and knew very clearly that I didn’t want to pursue a career as a lawyer anymore. I will never forget this because that night I slept on the wooden bench outside of my fraternity house. I don’t know why I suddenly made this decision and perhaps I should have made this decision after a night of not sleeping on a bench. But regardless, this is where my China journey ultimately started.

At this point my dad, who is full of wisdom, said to me that I should get my life together and start looking for a job. I didn’t realise that this was the natural progression for people who choose not to continue spending absurd amounts of money for “higher education.” The job hunting was, in short, difficult. I have never been known for having good timing but my sudden epiphany of not wanting to become a lawyer couldn’t have come at a worse time. It was May. There are no companies looking for undergrads in May. People have been recruiting for seven months at this point. It was basically like trying to sell Christmas items on December 26. No one is interested. My dad, probably because he really wanted to avoid having to tell people that his first-born child wasn’t very bright, contacted an old acquaintance and asked him if he had a job available. This is how I started working in agriculture and I was sent on my first trip to China a few months later.

That first trip to China is a trip that I’ll never forget and a trip with many parts that I will never be able to remember. I visited Hong Kong and Guangzhou for the first time and probably felt the same mix of emotions as other foreigners who visit China for the first time – an equal mix of amazement and confusion sprinkled with some joy and sadness. The sadness was definitely from paying for the outrageously overpriced Starbucks in Guangzhou.  I came away from that first trip thinking that China was indeed a cool place and that I wanted to explore more. 

I was fortunate that I was able to go to China regularly on business and on vacation a few times over the next few years. After a few years, I knew that I wanted to go to business school and I also wanted to learn more about business in China. CEIBS placed high in the FT rankings, so I thought, “Hey, this might be a great place to learn about business in China and take an 18-month hiatus from work life.” I was originally accepted for the class of 2020, but a strange ailment forced me to defer for a year. After I recovered, I moved to Taipei in January 2019 and entered an intensive Mandarin course until I moved to Shanghai in August.

Looking back, I feel like the first two weeks moved so quickly that I have a difficult time remembering what happened on what day. I do, however, remember very clearly the feeling of sadness I had when I checked into my dorm room for the first time and realised that I was going to sleep in a twin-size mattress with the firmness of granite for the next 18 months. But it still beats sleeping on a wooden bench outside!

One of the unique things about CEIBS is that the batch sizes are much smaller than those of other business schools. This combined with the fact that there are a ton of group activities ensures that you will have plenty of opportunities to have a conversation with almost everyone in the batch. This is the part that has been the best learning experience for me because I realised very quickly that in order to avoid conflict, you have to learn to listen to people. I think all business schools try to teach this, but I think in an international business school setting like CEIBS you also need to be more dynamic in your communication skills. There are cultural differences between East and West and that is a good thing. It just requires a different and creative style of communication at times to bridge those differences. CEIBS has been a great place to develop this critical skill – one that I know I will use for the rest of my life.

The learning that takes place at a business school is different for everyone. There are some students that actually buy the textbooks and diligently read all of the materials assigned from the textbooks. Then there are students that learn from the overall experience and the non-class related things that professors say during lectures. I fall into the latter (sorry, professors!). One thing that a professor said that I remember very clearly is that we aren’t in business school because we are already successful people. I immediately had two thoughts. First, I thought it was hilarious because I always enjoy when people destroy the delicate self-confidence of millennials like myself (rightly so). Second, I thought that what he said was absolutely correct. I need to keep working hard if I want to be successful.

In all seriousness, I have spent a lot time the last few months thinking hard about my future. I, along with the rest of my classmates, are probably going to go down in history as the group of people that literally could not have chosen a worse time to enter the job market. That is the unfortunate reality. We do not know what the ultimate outcome will be from the present situation, but what is certain is that the global economy will continue to be in a dire state for the foreseeable future. I realised that this difficult situation is a stark reminder of the message that our business school professors have been telling us since Day 1, which is that you have to take charge of your own future. No one else can do it for you.

In concluding, I want to share what I think are the two best benefits of attending business school. First, is that it will make you grow up (if you haven’t already), and I consider this my long overdue official retirement from acting like a child on most days. Second, is that it is fun. This is your last chance of living in the academic bubble while disconnected from reality. There is plenty of stuff to take your mind off of the significant investment you made for “higher education.”