The most achieved Harvard alumni have one feature in common: the humbling experience.
__ Nice T-Shirt, is that really from Harvard?
__ Thank you! It indeed is, - I responded to a young lady finishing her coffee at the table next to me.
__ Have you studied there?
__ I have.
__Wow, that is royal. Which department?
__Harvard Business School.
__That is even more royal, - said the young lady with a very kind admiration I am almost certain was channeled toward the School and not me.
However, I was really uncomfortable with her labeling Harvard Business School "royal," which to me sounded like "people studying there are better than others." So, I immediately, almost without giving a thought to it, said:
__ It is not really royal: one thing I can say about Harvard education for sure is the immense humbleness that one takes away.
This lovely chat on a cold but sunny Saturday morning in January 2021 took me exactly one year back when I just learned that I had been admitted to the General Management Program of Harvard Business School. Studying in this program is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I am delighted to share my story with you.
Knowing why you want what you want.
The Harvard experience is different for each individual, starting with application to graduation. The university is utterly committed to the highest quality and standards, and you witness it at every step of the way. One statement is certain: you do not get to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for leisure or waste your most scarce resource, i.e., time. If I could generalize on the iterations I had with the students and alumni, the Harvard experience requires full commitment and complete acknowledgment of the reasons of what you have set your mind on.
For years I had a faint thought that maybe one day I will study there, and after a short experience in Harvard Kennedy School back in 2016 as part of my professional development, I was trying to convince myself that the mission was accomplished. Like many potential applicants, I was scared to be rejected and was rightfully concerned about finding a scholarship. So, I created a justification that the time was not right for Harvard. In retrospect, I understand back then; I wanted to study there for the wrong reasons: I was attracted by name and rankings vs. determination to upskill my knowledge and competencies in a field that would enrich my performance.
When I applied for the Harvard Business School (HBS), I served as Deputy Minister of Education, Science, Culture, and Sports. My key responsibilities were
- coordination of budget planning and the Midterm Expenditure Framework,
- strategy development, and
- several long-term and comprehensive reforms.
As a true believer in lifelong education and despite my professional experience in the field, and undoubtedly with the full acknowledgment of my responsibilities, I started to revisit the various strategizing models for public policies, strategic communication, and models for aligning public and development financing for human capital development. That search took me to the HBS and its select Executive Programmes with the full alumni status.
About Harvard General Management Program
Before sharing my experience towards and in HBS, a brief introduction to the program would be essential to give the full context.
At Harvard Business School, there are several Executive Programs designed for individuals. One can choose a weeklong topic-based program to touch up some skills or opt for virtual courses, which are also very informative. However, if one wants to fast-track leadership growth and career through a transformative learning experience, Comprehensive leadership programs should be the choice.
The School has only four such programs, and only three lead up to the Alumni status, an outcome which, I believe, is very desirable. All of the programs require extensive work experience and a good track record in leadership: the one I am studying is for senior executives with 15-20 years of experience. I will certainly come back to the fantastic advantages of studying with extraordinarily knowledgeable and well-achieved peers, but for now, here are several further details about the program.
The General Management Programme, the one I am studying for now, usually takes 4 to 5 months of commitment, depending on how early one starts the 1st online module. It is composed of 4 modules, two online and the other two are on the campus. The program provides a transformational experience with the combination of full-time and self-paced learning with practical tasks one would need to complete at the job for class purposes. The curriculum is made of 4 wide-ranging modules with an integrated and multidisciplinary study of strategy, leadership, finance (both corporate and public), an organization that is so inclusive that you are in conjunction with operational nitty-gritties also learn to negotiate any topic, even the most unpleasant ones. The case study method used at HBS is phenomenal since you learn about theories, disciplines, and practices by learning a theory in action for the most successful or failed companies, leaders, countries, and initiatives. In other words, there is an endless source of excitement throughout the learning at HBS.
Application and scholarship
If you have 15 years of experience, you have been committed enough to get to a leadership position, be it your small entrepreneurial initiative or public office with immense responsibilities, if you know the world around you will benefit from your knowledge on leadership, strategy, understanding of the overcomplicated world of finance. You can get away with disconnecting from your work for full-time studies; then, you are ready to apply. Having said this, yet I would like to remind you that the only thing which truly matters for application is your determination and commitment; the rest is manageable.
When I was putting together my application, I was sincere and genuine in telling the goals and objectives I had and was even more candid in putting my challenges out there. I should say, the application is not a very complicated one: it has a few questions on your professional profile and about four essay questions. If English is not the applicant's native language, then there is also a requirement to submit a statement document on the language proficiency. Hence, to prepare a proper application, I would recommend allocating about a week, with time to go back and forth to your essays.
Another requirement is the reference letter, which has to be submitted either by a senior executive/a board member or by a Harvard Business School alumni member. Picking a referee is also a key aspect: I wanted that person to know me well enough to recognize my professional character, role, and responsibilities. You perhaps do not want to select a person praising you, but you definitely should refrain from nominating a referee who could fail, acknowledging the depth and richness of knowledge and network you will bring to the company, people, and even the country. One more tip on this, make sure your referee has at least two weeks to prepare the letter: because of an emergency, I failed to approach my referee with this two-week notice, and though the person was gracious to provide the letter, I felt extremely non-professional.
After my application, I went through an interview or two, and the evening I got the letter congratulating me on my admission was somewhat surreal. At my friends' place and together with extreme excitement and joy, I was concerned about finding a scholarship to fund my education.
Long story short, I quickly put a list of all the possible scholarship opportunities, consulted with friends and family, and finally applied to a few places, including the Tuition Assistance unit of HBS. I was in London at the Education World Forum when I received an email informing me that the School will cover 60% of my tuition. Two other foundations supported me by covering the other 30-35% of the tuition fee. Hence, I have immense gratitude towards AGBU and AGBU US Graduate Scholarship program and JHM Charitable Foundation to support my journey. At the HBS campus, I figured out that most of my peers were self-funded, and their companies funded others.
Harvard wants to be the best for their students and not for the rankings, and that is the secret ingredient which makes the university so unique. I started my education back in January 2020 and was supposed to graduate by summer 2020 (the classes are very intensive, to note), but the year of 2020 had different plans for the planet. Hence, the campus was closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we could not go back there for the final module. The studies got stretched, and the School has been very thoughtful to provide us with various opportunities for real-time online iterations, the recent one of which was on their newly built LOC platform. The class on this platform gave me the feeling as if I was back on campus interacting with the faculty and peers on a whole new level in this online world. Nevertheless, this is only the tip of my experience; therefore, let me conclude this story by sharing with you three highlights I will carry on with me.
When on campus, I had a so-called living group composed of 8 accomplished professionals, and we were sharing the study area with all the necessary equipment, a small kitchenette which we did not even use as meals are provided, and, finally, an elegant lounge with a gorgeous view on the river Charles. So, the living group is the building block of the General Management Program since most of my understanding would be polished during the case discussions and analyses we would have amongst ourselves towards class preparation. These iterations were so multidisciplinary and rich that at the classroom, the faculty would start the discussions with the assumption that we have already figured out the case details. It is one thing when you live on campus while doing BA or MA, but getting back to the collective learning experience with people having over 15 years of work experience is a very different phenomenon, to say the least. My learning was enriched by my living group members' experiences, their stories of success and hardship, emotional intelligence, and understanding. I believe the friendship we have established has become very genuine.
My second highlight goes to the faculty. Needless to say, how brilliant all the faculty members were, how accomplished and hardworking they were, but above all, they were the most humble individuals I had the privilege to meet. In an academic setting, faculty members are addressed by titles, yet not in this program. It could be due to the participants' background and the nature of the academic program, but we were expected to address our professors by name. They would carefully listen to any argument we would bring to support our opinion and skillfully guide us towards better thinking showing gratitude and thankfulness that we have trusted our time with them. Their humbleness would shine even more during the dinners we had with them, and that was the experience reiterating to myself that genuine success and accomplishment comes with thankfulness to the people around you, acknowledging your hard work.
Finally, let me get back to my cohort peers who were leaders and CEOs of corporations, private trust funds, hedge funds, and institutions across the board. Every comment made in and outside of the classroom entailed the depth of experience of that individual. All of the interactions I had with peers of my cohort were touchpoints of learning and admiration. After the second module, I got to the airport with a very successful private fund manager who was admirably acknowledging that we had a humbling experience. I thought that this had been the person who hit the correct answers on the corporate finance class, yet he talked about the experience being humbling. Being a renowned anchor in a different part of the world, another peer of mine would shy away when people would recognize him and constantly gave credits to others for their work. I could list the cohort and characterize every one with great admiration, but the bottom line is that peer learning experience has been equally enriching throughout the studies.
Instead of conclusion
My story with Harvard is not complete as I am continuing my studies and will soon become their alumna, and this transformation I have been through has pulled out the better parts of me. I am confident anyone can enjoy this experience as long as they commit, perhaps, the courage to face up to their wrongs and wisdom along with them. Harvard education is not out there on the unreachable top challenging to get to: the only obstacle towards your commitment you need to address is in your mind and has the tag' fear.' Mine is a story of a regular Armenian woman who wanted to be better at what she is doing. What is your story?
Harvard Business School, 2021
Published on Feb 01, 2021