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Things fall apart

December 29, 2011

Turning and turning in the widening gyre,

the falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold…

When I was a first year graduate student at Carnegie Mellon, my grandfather passed away. As with any death in the family, it takes time to grieve, to complete funeral and memorial arrangements, attend to other family members’ needs, and so forth. I remember quite clearly meeting with one of my professors a day or two after the funeral to ask for an extension on the due date for a class project. He just looked at me and said, “He died a week ago. What’s the issue?”

Fortunately for Carnegie Mellon, this particular jackass wasn’t representative of the school’s culture. But the point stands that it’s only when things begin to fall apart for a student that you really have an opportunity to see the character of the institution.

Near the end of this first semester at MIT Sloan, things started to fall apart for me as I became ill. I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog that I happen to have Crohn’s disease. At the beginning of December, I became ill with a stomach bug on my way home from a weekend session. I recovered within a few days, but on the way back to the airport to fly to Boston for the second December weekend, I suddenly became ill again. It was pretty clear that I was coming down with a second round of a nasty stomach virus, which is bad enough all by itself. With Crohn’s, you really have to take GI viruses seriously, lest you invite a flare up, which can quickly lead to hospitalization. I decided to head back home, which turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. I became progressively sicker over the next 48 hours, but fortunately I avoided a Crohn’s flare.

I remembered that during Orientation we were told that if some emergency required us to miss class we were to email or otherwise contact the professors and TA’s to make them aware of the problem and work out a solution. When I got home, I emailed both the accounting and economics professors, their TA’s, as well as the program staff to let everyone know that I was ill and that I would not be coming to Boston.

The response was fantastic. I had emails from both professors within a couple of hours expressing concern for my health and providing a substantial amount of information to help me to participate if I were feeling well enough to do so. One of the professors also emailed me a set of updated slides that he planned to use for the class to make sure that I would be on the same page with all of the other students. He followed up a few days later to see if I had recovered in time to enjoy the Holidays.

The EMBA program had clearly thought about helping students when things fall apart. They already had both process and technology in place, as well as a supportive culture focused on ensuring that the student succeeds despite the problem. For example, at MIT all of our lectures are simultaneously broadcast on a live video stream and recorded for later review. I was able to attend all but one of the lectures and recitations in real time, even though I was laying in my bed. In all honesty, it’s not quite the same as being at the school, but it’s much better than simply missing class. My learning teammates were also incredibly supportive. I received several emails expressing concern and support. I also had teammates offer to pick up next semester’s textbooks, which were being distributed that weekend, and mail them to me. It turned out to be unnecessary as the EMBA staff had already taken the step of shipping my new textbooks to me so that I wouldn’t fall even further behind.

As things fell apart for me, the MIT EMBA community was there to help to contain the damage, keep me from falling behind, and make sure that I completed the semester. I finished my last final yesterday, bringing the semester to a successful close – certainly something that I could not have done without the support of the professors, TA’s, the EMBA staff, and my teammates. It was all very much appreciated!

This is what MIT Sloan’s culture is about. To paraphrase Dr. Van Maanen, at MIT it’s not good enough to succeed. We must ALL succeed. If you are thinking about applying to an EMBA program, think about that for a moment. You could attend a hyper-competitive cut throat program knowing that when things fall apart, you’ll be on your own. Or you can come to MIT, where an entire system of support comprised of people who were complete strangers 90 days ago will pick you up and help you to succeed.

That’s MIT in a nutshell.



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