Wednesday, May 9, 2012

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Start Living: The End of Darden

My Facebook news feed has been lit up the past week or so with posts from my classmates of images at final parties, posing with namecards, and messages such as these:

"So thankful to have had the privilege of becoming a part of this amazing community and excited for what lies ahead!"
"last class at Darden: done. 2 papers and an exam to go. I am going to miss this place!"
"Rigorous 2-year full time MBA.... was beginning to feel like it shouldn't end, but end it did. I'll sure miss Darden. Goodbye Charlottesville..."
"As my last class comes to an end, I more daily encounters with friends for life...bittersweet, truly bittersweet"

Compulsory photo from the final day of class with my Darden nametag

Admittedly, there has been a lot of anxiety from the class of 2012 about leaving this Camelot we call Darden to thrust ourselves back into the "real world", this time with bigger paychecks and more responsibility than we ever imagined having when we applied.  Business school is designed to prepare leaders to manage in the broader society, and ironically I think most of us at this moment are drawn to the magnetic appeal of living in the safety of a school environment for another year or two.

The clear message from all of my friends online posts, photos, text messages, dinner parties, handshakes, hugs, and occasional tears, is that Darden is a powerful experience.  She grips the hearts of all who walk past her colonnades and sit in her brick buildings.  All feel a comradeship with their classmates and the relentless energy from a group of young, talented students who are eager to make their mark.  Indeed, to anyone here it is obvious why these soon-to-be graduates are so hesitant to test their wings and fly away forever from the bird's nest.

One last dinner with my Learning Team, the "5-Star General Managers"

I'll admit to suffering from this feeling of separation anxiety – hard – after returning from spring break in April.  Suddenly, the obvious reality was striking me all of a sudden.  I was about to be moving 11,000 km (7,000 miles) from here, out of my native country and away from all of the friends that I've made over the past two years, some of the smartest, most fun, and most balanced people that I will ever know.  No longer would I be breathing the air of beautiful Charlottesville.  No longer would I be able to enjoy the steady rhythm of walking to school, dodging cold calls, talking to professors in the hallways, speakers, meetings, case prep, and weekend celebrations.  After 21 months you feel as if you finally have it all figured out, and then you're jarringly pulled away.

For old-times' sake: My FY Marketing Capstone team forms a human pyramid to demonstrate "collaborative leadership"
The days were disorientating.  I felt I was having an out-of-body experience.  I couldn't control the flashbacks or the relentless urge to enjoy old photos and email threads.  I knew the end wasn't supposed to be like this – everyone is supposed to be happy at the end of business school!! – and I was getting anxious from feeling anxious, a vicious second-order effect that reinforced all the bad feelings trapped inside and caused a downward spiral of sleepless nights.  I spoke to several of my friends outside of school about what I was feeling, but these conversations didn't help me overcome what felt like an overwhelmingly irrational emotional response to the situation.

Lighting of the UVA lawn in December 2011

I finally felt a breakthrough from this fog a couple Saturdays ago, out at a classmate's birthday party at Blue Light Grill, one of my favorite spots on the Charlottesville downtown pedestrian mall.  For a moment, I was standing in the bar, not talking to anyone, just looking around and watching groups in conversation around me.  Suddenly, as inexplicably as the feeling of anxiety had gripped me a few weeks earlier, I suddenly saw a different point of view.  I didn't know any of these people two years ago, and though it's great that I know them now, life was pretty good before business school too.  And now that I have all of these people I can call parts of my professional and personal networks, life is even better.  These relationships aren't ending, they are just changing.  And many exciting adventures await!  The longer I stay in school, the longer I postpone experiencing what could be another life-altering experience during my next two years in Korea.

I realize now why I love Darden and why I was so scared to leave: it's the community.  It's a feeling I was burning to find when I applied to MBA programs.  It's a feeling of warmth that was sorely missing from my undergraduate experience at M.I.T., which, bless it, is a wonderfully productive scientific institution, but which too often felt cold and harsh to me as I discovered myself during my college years.  This feeling of community seems so rare now in the modern world, with people moving around everywhere and civic associations crumbling, and I feared that I would never find this feeling again.

Another oldie-but-goodie: Last learning team meeting first year, wearing our orientation "Voyage of Discovery" medals

With this epiphany, I've finally been able to enjoy the end of my time here.  I've been living in the moment again and looking forward to the future, always a better place to be mentally than living in the past.  I've been able to savor the days and nights out with my classmates and cement what I hope will be lifelong friendships with the classmates that I've grown closest too here.

I completed my last ever final exam yesterday afternoon, so all that stands between me and graduation now is walking across a stage on May 20th to pick up a diploma and shake hands with Dean Bruner.  On that day, I'm sure I will feel a mixed bag of emotions, with some nostalgia mixed in, but overall I expect to feel very happy.  Happy that I experienced this wonderful journey with a great cast of characters.  Happy that I got off the sofa three years ago and decided to apply to business school.  Happy that I sent that deposit check into Darden.  Happy that I lived life to the fullest here for two years and gained not only professional skills but also personal awareness.  Happy that I will be forever proud to call myself a Darden alum and Charlottesville a second home.


  1. Brilliant post Jonathan! One of the best I've ever read.

  2. Great post...I'm sure many of us first years will feel this way next year.

  3. Like like! Thanks for sharing your great thoughts, Jonathan!

  4. Awesome post Jonathan! Good luck!