When scouting for international business schools, one comes across diversity as a strong selling point from Universities. The reaction to this, in my experience, could be one of the three: Firstly – ‘So what?’ – if you have been lucky to work in a global, multicultural environment, or come from a sub-continent like India with many sub-cultures, languages and habits, you are unlikely to be phased by the unfamiliar. Secondly – Panic – from fear of committing some unpolitical faux pas, fear of not making friends, fear of not being able to communicate openly and wholeheartedly. Yes, panic. And the last, like I had, lies somewhere in the middle. I knew it will be a given when studying overseas but had little idea what to make of it.
Headline summary from having spent 6 months in a competitive environment with 26 other nationalities is, HOLY SH**! How I underestimated this facet. It is absolutely true that the learning is so much richer when you hear experiences from colleagues having worked in different economies and sectors. We have engineers, army veterans, a musician, a physiotherapist, finance dudes…the mix is eclectic. And it is impossible to imagine another phase of my life when I have spent or will spend as much time with such interesting people. Diversity here is not just geographic. It is of backgrounds and experiences- both professionally and in life due to personalities and by virtue of age.
But the bigger learning came in the form of learning about myself. Right at the start of the program, I remember huffing and puffing during group work at not being able to clearly understand a classmate who was not a native English speaker. Later that week, it got me wondering if he is more frustrated at not being able to communicate and express his ideas. It humbled me to stop being a bum and walk in someone else’s shoes for a minute. Another classmate confided in me that back home, she was always told she is a talkative parrot. But here, people think she is shy because she prefers to listen and think before speaking. It made me wonder if what I think are my strengths is only a strength in a familiar environment. Is personality a constant or as transient as the sun in the UK? Do I really know who I am in a complete way? In diversity, I have been able to see similarities among ‘my own kind’ and understood what makes us, us. Some of the stereotypes? Absolutely true. Fighting the stereotypes- it’s a process. And no matter how confident you are, you might just be humbled by the fact that you don’t know everything and that’s okay. Like yours truly didn’t know Cape Verde is a country. Shoot me.
The diversity of my class made me break out of my preconceived notions about myself and see me in a new light. From being asocial for most of my adult life, here I came out as a happily social soul. I realized my candor can be overwhelming. Noted. I discovered that I am much better at handling change than I ever gave myself credit for. And when my self-awareness goes out of tune, I can see myself through the eyes of others. What they see me as is 100% me without the pressure of a job, appraisal or the comfort of having a familiar ‘crew’. In just 6 months, some of these people have become my crew. They are the reason why it is easy to handle the pressures of an MBA and being away from all things familiar.
In short, diversity is the biggest resource in making an MBA program a holistic educational experience. There is much to be learned about ourselves and from fellow classmates and comfort to be drawn from the fact that no matter where you were born, our fears and anxieties and hopes and dreams are pretty much alike.
So, if one approaches this mindfully and knowingly, the best-case scenario is you will leave a richer person – in self-awareness, knowledge, experience, memories, and friends. And homes waiting to welcome you when you travel to far off lands. Worst case scenario, you will have someone local to give you travel tips when you plan a holiday pretty much anywhere in the world.