Skipping to school, dramatic dismay and a bucket list

I almost skipped on my way to school today, I was so excited to see everyone on the first day of Spring Semester. After a break full of travel here/there/everywhere with a January Term short course thrown in for good measure, it feels good to be back in Charlottesville. The J-Term course is an intensive, week-long class that counts for as much credit as a normal, quarter-long course. This one was “Leadership & Theater” and based on the premise that successful CEOs and successful stage directors share many of the same responsibilities to guide and direct their cast of characters/employees to perform together at extraordinary levels.

Lots of people really liked this course (see Miss MBA’s take on it). I’ve always been encouraged to “be less dramatic” in life, and so thought I’d be perfectly suited for theater.

I WAS SO WRONG.

I’m NOT good at theater, at least not immediately. Maybe not ever. My mind blanks and I forget my lines and stand blinking in the stage lights like a bewildered rabbit, even if i spent hours the previous evening memorizing lines.  Just completing this course was really tough for me. I wanted to quit every day. I kept telling myself if I could get through First Year at Darden, if I could conquer Excel, I could at least get through this. It pushed my boundaries and made me cry and yell and humbled me and taught me scads about leading, communicating, eliciting the best in others, and working together.

I’m also really excited about my classes this quarter – Creative Capitalism; Faith, Religion & Responsible Management Behavior; Financial Institutions & Markets; and finally, Innovation. Already the readings for Creative Capitalism about Social Entrepreneurship (Banker to the Poor, about Grameen Bank and How To Change The World) are turning my perspective on end.

The other thing that looms is the fact that graduation is in exactly 4 months and 4 days. All of the sudden, my Charlottesville bucket list is looming large – or at least, I know I need one. My roommate and I have decided to put up a dry-erase board to make sure to remember all the bucket-list-worthy items we come up with to do before leaving Darden and Charlottesville. It may sound premature – but I know the next little while will fly by, and I’m both grateful and delighting in each day already. Bucket list suggestions, anyone?

Any good bucket list includes champagne...

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Alum love, packing light and happy 2011!

After Seattle, I was seized by another fit of spontaneous action and booked a last minute flight to San Diego. I packed my only bright orange Virginia t-shirt, and something strange happened.

Orange power.

The West Coast UVA and Darden alums found me! Granted, it’s pretty hard to hide while wearing bright orange, and maybe since I’m a double Hoo (UVA undergrad and graduate school) it’s somehow more obvious to those in the know. At a coffeeshop a gentleman inquired about the shirt – turns out he’s a Darden alum with a superfabulous marketing gig at Active.com. We had a pleasant chat and exchanged cards. Later on, browsing in a store, another conversation began with “Hey, did you go to Virginia?”

Why yes, yes I did. This UVA alum (who was rocking a cool Budweiser hat, no less!) has an equally awesome job running the Startup Garage and helping new entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground. It’s only a sample size of two, but I was struck by how friendly, nice and open both were. Random coincidence,  or the power of UVA orange in action? Either way, I’m loving the alum love. And I’m planning to be one of those enthusiastic alums with a sharp eye for UVA gear, ready to chat it up.  

After San Diego, I bopped up to Connecticut for a terrific Christmas, where I discovered I’m hilariously terrible at Wii dance (but really, why should lack of rhythm prevent anyone from Wii dancing?) and there’s nothing as good as a big funny friendly family. It’s been snowing like crazy here, and my flight back to Virginia was cancelled last night. I’m slightly worried about getting home to Charlottesville in time to make my next set of flights to the British Virgin Islands. It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime, stretch-every-penny-of-student-loans opportunities I couldn’t say no to. In BVI, I’ll join 10 other Darden friends for a week-long sailing trip on a 46’ chartered catamaran! Had I been thinking (and packing) ahead, I would have made sure to include everything essential for the Caribbean already with me in Connecticut – in this case, my passport, a bikini and flippy floppies. And, of course, my orange t-shirt, just in case. Packing light, indeed. Happy New Year!

Just add bikini and buddies. Happy New Year!

Airplane bottles, funny hats and winging in the rain

It’s almost 8pm on a cross-country flight to my hometown of Seattle, where the forecast is rain, rain and more rain. I’m thrilled to be done with exams and especially excited that I’ve left behind that looming procrastination station that is self-scheduled, personal-discipline-required SY exams. I haven’t been home to Seattle since I started Darden – my family is in for a grand surprise when I arrive exhausted and ready to sleep for 12-14 hours. I told them all I want to do is snooze, read fluffy fiction and do laundry without having to scrounge for quarters, but I don’t think they took me seriously.  And, I’ll assure them, it was WORSE at this time last year during FY.

Delightfully, I was upgraded to first class on this flight, a welcome vestige of my last job when I flew enough miles bouncing back and forth across the U.S. to rank the occasional upgrade. As the plane boarded, the seat next to me stayed open forever and piqued me with its inherent mystery – who would claim it? Would the man of my dreams plop beside me (no, the man of my dreams does not do such a thing as un-suavely “plop” anywhere, but reality’s different than dreams – or so I hear), travel-weary but bright-eyed when he noticed a charming and pleasantly -scented seatmate? Or would it be a lady, a successful executive/CMO-type perhaps who had pearls of career wisdom to cast and secretly wished for a mini-me protégé? Truly, this is why I love travel – the possibilities are intriguing, especially when your imagination is predisposed to fantastical whimsy…as depressing as “Up In The Air” was, I totally get the feeling of possibility and freedom that airports provide. I could be anyone! Going anywhere! Etc.

But it was neither man-of-dreams nor future career-catapulting mentor. (For the record, before business school I never fantasized about career-catapulting mentors as airplane companions.)

Instead, my seatmate for the next 6 hours was a freshly certified Army drill sergeant, going from Ft. Jackson, South Carolina to his home in Seattle. Despite the full camouflage ensemble (which I now know is called ACU, or Army Combat Uniform), I was sure he was a secret military/parks department operative because of his distinct Montana ranger-style hat. I struck up a conversation after he ordered a Bud Light, only half afraid that he’d yell at me with his new drill sergeant skills. Really, I convinced him, Budweiser is a far better choice. I tell you, I’m a shameless one-woman Budweiser advocate any and everywhere I go.  Turns out he’s NOT a park ranger, rather an Army weapons specialist who doesn’t really like to read, but if he did read (and I’m not sure if this was a line) he would read love stories. We chatted, and he was quite willing to open my tiny airplane bottles of vodka when my laughably weak hand strength couldn’t seem to crack them. (Princess Problem – free bottles of vodka that I can’t open. Ironically, I am qualified and eligible to sit in an exit row). And I read a book that had nothing to do with school, a delicious dose of fiction mystery from Stieg Larsson and winged westward towards the rain. Winter break = already wonderful!

This is not a park ranger hat.

Festiveness, cold drafts and spontaneous smooches

It’s Monday of the last week of classes in Q2, and I’m home after a great Thanksgiving break. Charlottesville is cold, 24 degrees this morning, and at my apartment we’re now using an airplane blanket as a draft-stopper by the front door, which sadly lacks weather-stripping. My roommate and I just conducted an experiment on how to redistribute the most heat in the apartment by systematically shutting and re-opening each air vent while gauging relative air flow levels. (Oh, how I love engineers!). We’re listening to Christmas music to concoct a short list of favorites to give to the DJ at the upcoming Holiday Ball, since I insist on at least 1-2 slow-dancing/holiday songs every so often throughout the night. I’m actively scheming about how to incorporate crafty “Mistletoe Stations” to inspire spontaneous smooches at the Holiday Ball instead of doing my International Corporate Finance homework. The Budweiser Clydesdales power through the snow in the gorgeous, gigantic framed Holiday 2010 portrait hanging in my living room (courtesy of my Future Employer) and it just feels festive.

All that festive-feelingness can’t disguise the fact that it’s a busy, busy week, with lots of papers and projects and studying and group work before exams next week. I made a list of every deliverable I have due between now and the end of next week and it’s not a short list! To get work done (and because it makes me feel virtuous, let’s be honest), I parked myself in the library this morning and this evening to try to tackle some of it. Between Finance, Global Leadership, Developing New Products & Services, Hot Topics in Marketing and my research elective, I feel like it’ll all come together in true Darden down-to-the-wire fashion.

But back to the festiveness – this Thursday is the last Cold Call of the year, complete with delicious holiday cookies, and then TDNC (that’s Thursday Night Drinking Club) featuring the drama-filled, shenanigan-laced Darden Mustache Competition (yes, I’m a judge again). Friday night has two parties – one that we’re throwing for my roommate’s birthday (hello, menu planning!), and another one later that evening. Saturday is the Holiday Ball, the fanciest dress-up event of the year benefitting Building Goodness in April. I’ve spent a long time planning for and worrying about and fussing over it to make it as captivating, gorgeous, glamorous and successful as humanly possible. It’s a great end to the semester, and all the more poignant for Second Years to know we’re – gasp – 75% done with our time at Darden. If that’s not inspiration to spontaneously smooch (on the cheek is fine) or at least heartily hug the extraordinary friends we’ve made here, i don’t know what is.

Mistletoe, anyone?

Keep it coming….

Princess problem! It’s the second Sunday in a row that my feet still hurt from dancing so much on Saturday night. Last weekend, it was a fabulous pre-birthday party in Charlotte, NC (thanks, M & K!) and then this weekend, a Roaring 20s-themed post-birthday party (thanks, Miss MBA!). Not only is it a gas to dress up like flappers and dappers, but it was a fitting end to a week-long celebration bidding farewell to my own roaring 20s and welcoming in age 30. And, if that wasn’t enough to celebrate, on Wednesday I accepted a job! My Summer Employer will now be my Full-Time Employer come July 2011, and I’m thrilled to be working in marketing for the biggest and best beer company in the world. And, I’m not alone – last I heard, approximately 42% of my SY classmates have job offers or know what venture they’ll pursue after Darden. It’s a strong economic indicator and bodes well for the overall economy, thank goodness.

I have a feeling that the upcoming year will be the best one yet for me – before my next birthday, I’ll go to Egypt, graduate with an MBA, start a dream job, and make a new life in a new place. And that’s just the good stuff i know about already! It’s exciting and scary to think that there’s life after Darden (of course there is, but life here is so good that it’s hard to want to leave). Isn’t that the best feeling, when the good stuff is both now and in the future? Keep it coming…

Frozen Tundra and Fits of Spontaneous Action

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“Hey, Nitschke, are you having a good time?” I nodded vigorously, looking down to see myself in an extra-large football jersey, number 66, rum & diet in one hand and a cloth bag of corn kernels in the other. I didn’t know exactly where I was or what time it was, and I was having an absolute ball.

It began earlier that day, how at least half of all weekend mornings/adventures should start – with brunch at the ever-inspiring Iron Horse Hotel. Not sure why, but fabulous things always happen to me here…

Bloody Marys supervised our brunch table like decorated officials dispatched efficiently from the rolling cocktail cart. In their Sunday best, they marched out in stout glasses accessorized with olives, shrimp, celery, onions and salt. Mimosas floated swiftly behind them, sweet silhouettes gliding to the table. My friends surrounded me – the Elegant Entrepreneur emphatically eating a veggie omelette and making a point to the Dynamic Developer, while the Future Phenom lobbed commentary in between robust bites of breakfast burger. He waited for a pause in conversation before announcing he had an extra ticket to tonight’s game. And my flight out later that day, classes at school tomorrow and anything else I could think up was unacceptable, unreasonable and downright silly compared to once-in-a-lifetime 25 yard line seats to see a team with an 83,000 person season ticket waiting list. How’d i get so lucky? I’m still not sure, but i’ll take it!

And so in a remarkable fit of uncharacteristically spontaneous action I changed my flight (you can do anything with a credit card and a phone call), promised myself I could always catch up on schoolwork, borrowed a hall-of-famer Ray Nitschke jersey and was swiftly folded into a sleek black truck as 5th wheel/comic relief to a crew of four die-hard Green Bay Packers fans. The Wisconsin countryside whizzed by while AM radio crackled with football commentary. Turns out the Cheese Castle on I-94 is not made of cheese and these fellows know how to tailgate. Got grill? We did, a propane beaut boasting beer-boiled brats, triple marinated filet mignon, shiitake mushrooms and twice-baked potatoes. Music and fierce tournament-style games of bags (we call it “cornhole” here in the South) ushered in twilight in the Northern latitudes. Thousands of us shivered in the shadow of mighty Lambeau Field and added a layer even though it was unseasonably warm for the area known as the “Frozen Tundra” (50 degrees above zero?! Thanks, global warming).  

The game itself was terrific, a Sunday Night Football special, though not a nailbiter. The anemic Dallas Cowboys quailed in the face of the burly Packers. They meekly allowed a 30-point lead, then fired their coach. (Some people say it was the morning after the game, but I bet it was directly after or even during. He may have even had to walk back to Texas). I discovered bleacher seating is brilliant for cold weather venues (forcible snuggling with neighbors = warm insulation on each side and new friends), Wisconsin women are nicer/chattier than any others while in line for the bathroom, and “Budweiser” is a bad word in Miller beer land. Oh, and I learned the essential and unladylike skill of how to shell and spit sunflower seeds (seems like a lot of work for such a little reward, doesn’t it? Hershey’s Kisses have way better payoff in my book).  

Three hours of sleep, a 5 am wakeup call, 10 hours of travel and a time zone away, I’m back at Darden, still smiling about my Green Bay adventure. GO, PACK, GO!

My new favorite mustache man.

Vegetables and perspective

For me, First Year was about technical skills and technique. Second Year has been all about perspective. In my Hot Topics in Marketing class, we’re treated each class with an alums who return to speak about their business challenges and successes. Most recently we’ve heard from the CEO of Sprinkles Cupcakes (swoonably yum!) and the President for Asian Operations of Eli Lilly Japan. Hearing them speak and having the chance to ask questions is amazing. Someone always asks the guest speakers what their most useful Darden courses were, and without fail, every one cites Ethics and Leadership. Even though I don’t think I’ll work in financial services again (never say never), I do often consider what it means to be an MBA in the post-TARP world. As the financial industry and markets re-form around new regulatory and economic conditions, and many of my classmates commit to jobs in banking, I’m grateful we’re in a program that takes Ethics so seriously. Two of my other classes focus on global perspectives – Global Leadership and International Corporate Finance. Learning about currency markets, culture-crossing and globe-spanning conglomerates makes me definitely want to work outside the U.S. at some point in my career, which was never on my radar pre-Darden. So exciting!

It’s not all serious, though. MBA-think/perspective is becoming surprisingly automatic in my personal life, too. I realized it while playing Scrabble and wondering about what my average value per letter was and how to increase it by playing the least amount of letters for the most points. I decided to eat more vegetables, and then became terrified at the thought of accrual vegetable accounting. Humans are supposed to get at least 4-5 servings of vegetables a day. What if your unmet servings accrued over into the next day? So if I skip 2 today, that means I have to get 7 tomorrow? That’s terrifying, since my lifetime of being under-quota on veggies would mean I’d have to get hundreds of daily servings. HUNDREDS! Clearly, MBA perspective can wreak havoc on one’s personal life, not to mention grocery bill.

Don't accrue these.

Sparkly happy

And…. Q1 SY is almost over! I’ve just turned in my hardest finance exam (bond pricing, anyone?) and have a huge sense of relief. Only one group project and one PowerPoint to go before officially done with the quarter. I doubled up on leadership classes, hoping the immersion/inundation approach might just do the trick and help me refine my inner (recovering) control freak into a savvy, enjoyable leader. As usual, my expectations are WAY too high, and while I think it’s sorta working, it’s also sorta making me want to write apology letters to everyone I’ve ever managed in the past.

The past few weeks have been full of ups and downs. Lately I’ve been having delicious spontaneously moments where in the middle of nothing special, it occurs to me – I’m HAPPY! Truly happy. The best way i can describe it is that i feel sparkly on the inside. I love it. In contrast, I’ve been frustrated at having to take normal life more slowly and carefully than usual. I took a tumble off Ron the Wonder Horse (entirely my fault – operator error) and fractured one of those teensy vertebrae in the tailbone region. I’ve been grounded from the gym (grrrr!) and toting an airplane neck pillow around to sit on (yes, I’m too proud to sit on a true donut) and cursing every time I sneeze. Now that i’m on the mend, at least i’m able to laugh about it (comical situations arise almost daily due to my “broke-*ss”). Yes, i promise to take better care of myself.  

Meantime, Fall in Cville is when SYs’ thoughts turn to … jobs. We’re all in the enviable position of being able to really think about what we want to do post-business-school, and pursue jobs accordingly. It seems like a dauntingly large Life Decision looming. I don’t have any answers at the moment, but appreciate the luxury of time to consider things (preferably from a recline or while standing – this sitting thing is overrated, particularly when a special pillow is involved). And, it wouldn’t be Darden without a social whirl of events – this week we had the annual Pie-Eating and Apple-Bobbing competition, next week is a Social on a gorgeous Virginia farm with a bonfire next to a lake and s’mores galore, and then it’s a tailgate for UVA Homecoming and the Halloween party is right around the corner…

INSPIRE ME! Please?

First, an abject apology from delinquent blogger: it’s true, I’ve neglected blogging, and I’m so sorry! I’ve been waiting for SY to inspire me the same way FY did. Most certainly, FY worked me over. As Miss MBA puts it, we were fed into the machine and rode the conveyor belt of required classes through First Year. The comfortable complacency cultivated in my corporate life changed to a mode of constant discovery and challenge, sparks of comprehension illuminating copious clouds of confusion. It was ok, though, because I was with a cohort of companions who were in the same boat. LT-mates, Section-mates, we were all smooshed together most of the time, exposed to the same things, moving down the same path. I’d argue this is what the Darden FY curriculum is supposed to do – get your brain sparking on all cylinders, and importantly – provide a standardized foundation for all FYs to build on. Yes, the CPAs had to sit through accounting. The corporate financiers had to sit through Finance. No opting out, people.

It was dramatic and delightful and delicious and defining and difficult and lots of other good words that start with d.

And now, Second Year is… more like an amusement park as we explore classes at will. I am working on projects I care about deeply, but they are more outside the classroom than in at the moment. And as much as I love that freedom, I haven’t had much discovery euphoria or epiphany highs from learning something totally foreign, novel and outside my comfort zone (yes, I crave the rush that happened when I finally figured out accounting. Stop laughing, you smug CPAs). Am I not paying enough attention? Has the classroom environment changed? I’d argue yes on both counts. I’m paying less attention to certain things since LT doesn’t force my study schedule and I’m no longer directly accountable to six other people smarter than me. Sometimes that freedom works in my favor as I spend disproportionate amounts of time on inherently interesting stuff. Sometimes not so much as I neglect the tedious stuff. And if this is typical of SY, and the experience of my classmates, of course the classroom feel has changed also. I’m not technically signed up for a formal class in self-discipline here, but it may be one of the best refresher courses I take during SY….

Can o' inspiration. Yes please!

I'll take two.

Surprised, grateful and humbled

Two amazing things happened in the past two weeks! I was surprised and humbled to win the Sheppard Award for distinguished nonacademic service to Darden (!!!). And then my Summer Employer offered me a full-time job (!!!!).

How both of these things happened, I don’t know. I’m more grateful than I can say, as I’m not usually a winner of anything really, much less awards and jobs. I do know that after I figured out I’d never be even close to the smartest kid in any room here (which took about 2.5 minutes), I decided to try really hard outside the classroom.  Even so, there are incredible people here and I can name at least a dozen of my classmates who work tremendously hard to make Darden a better place and deserve this award instead of me.

I had lunch with a friend who congratulated me and reminded me about last year at this time. Oh yeah… then I was scared, overwhelmed, sleep-deprived and questioning why I was even at Darden. I didn’t believe I could make it through the curriculum and sure didn’t believe I’d get a summer internship, much less a full-time gig.  What a difference a year makes, she said, only half-teasing. And thank goodness, she’s right!