Reflecting on the Undergraduate Experience

I teach a fourth-year undergraduate seminar in strategic management that requires a term paper instead of an exam. The term papers were due at the start of the last session, so I asked the students to spend the time reflecting on their soon-to-be-completed undergraduate experience. Specifically, I asked each of them to give a short oral answer to the following question: “Looking back on your years as an undergraduate student, what did you learn or experience that you think will be valuable in your future?” Over cookies cheerfully baked by my wife, we went around the room to hear twenty answers, and then discussed what we had just heard.

Here are the most common answers in this year’s seminar.

First, the students think that an undergraduate business program with frequent assignments has taught them how to set priorities and manage their time.

Second, they feel they have learned how to work effectively in groups. One student argued that he much prefers working in groups to working solo. Another said group work helped him in the areas he was weak and allowed him to help others in the areas he was strong. Quite a few immigrated while in high school and said that group work helped them to overcome the shyness that was endemic to being in a new and different culture.

Third, our student body is extremely diverse, both ethnically and racially. The students, especially those who were not recent immigrants, see this diversity as a great strength. They recognize that there was much to learn from people whose backgrounds and experiences are greatly different from their own.

Fourth, many students observed that they did not begin the business program intending to major in strategic management. They moved to strategic management because it fit their emerging interests better than the more high-profile fields (accounting, finance, marketing) they thought they would major in. Their generalized conclusion from this experience is that it is important to be flexible and to adapt to changing circumstances.

Fifth, approximately three-quarters of our students still live with their parents. They think the benefits of that arrangement go beyond saving money, having the cleaning done and meals prepared, helpful as these all are. The most important thing their parents provide is psychological support: listening to their problems and giving reassurance and unconditional love.

This list of the most frequent student comments reflects the challenges implicit to our program: having been able to meet these challenges, the students have developed capabilities that they will carry into their careers.

I never ask students to do what I’m not willing to do myself, so I began the class with my own answer to the question of what I learned as an undergraduate that proved to be valuable in subsequent years. My undergraduate education – emphasizing individual work, with fewer deadlines, and spent living in residence with a much less diverse group of students, though – was very different than theirs. The times were also different, with a stronger labor market and less concern about job-readiness.

I entered university thinking I would make a career in law and/or politics. I took an interdisciplinary social sciences program (Social Studies at Harvard). I found out that economics and political science fascinated me more than sociology (which had been taken over by radical leftists), anthropology (due to my reluctance to do fieldwork) or law (thanks to a boring summer job). I went on to a graduate degree in Public Policy. I hadn’t chosen a profession, but at least I had set a direction.

I had considerable free time at my disposal and spent much of it watching movies at the Brattle theatre, going to plays, learning about classical music, and visiting the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. My undergraduate years shaped my cultural interests for the rest of my life, and I retain a lively interest in film, art, opera, and music.

In addition to recounting these major influences, I made the point, which those who spoke about flexibility would understand, that life has many surprises and ironies, and I mentioned three.

I was active in sports in high school, but in university chose to be an intellectual rather than a jock. After college, sore muscles after participating in pick-up baseball or touch football games led me to discover how much of a couch potato I had become. At a time when jogging was becoming popular, I realized that the dichotomy between intellectual and jock was false. I became interested in cardio sports (running, swimming, cycling, cross-country) and this interest has become lifelong and fulfilling.

One of the fields I explored in university was architecture. The Bauhaus, which had strong links to Harvard, particularly fascinated me, and I even dropped in on Ise Gropius, who showed me around the house in Lexington her husband Walter had designed.  Regardless of this inspiration, I realized I didn’t have the necessary artistic talent. Thirty years later, as chair of the Department of Management at UTSC, I had the privilege of working with two outstanding architects, Bruce Kuwabara and Shirley Blumberg, to design our new building. The process helped me understand how architects try to make aesthetics, functionality, and cost all align to produce a great building.

Finally, I was an undergraduate in the United States during the height of the protests against the war in Vietnam, which fulfilled the full measure of the Chinese curse about living in “interesting times.” It was a period of great anxiety. My undergraduate class was publicly referred to by Harvard’s then-President as its “worst class ever.” Despite, or maybe it was because of that moniker, we developed great esprit-de-corps, with an active daily list-serv, record turnout at reunions, and many ongoing deep and fulfilling friendships. What a wonderful irony.

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