If you are one of my two followers on here, you may have noticed I haven’t posted much of the year. My plan was to document this incredible year living in France through here, but life had other plans. We were in lockdown mode in France from the day I arrived in November to mid-May. Try telling 650 MBA students who spent their life savings on a one-year program to stay in their houses for 6 months, and you will understand why I could not write anything.
Talking to family and friends from home, they perceived my Instagram life to be incredible in France – staying in chateaus, eating pain au chocolats every day, and meeting an enormous amount of new people in the middle of a pandemic at an age where it is difficult to make friends. In reality, this year was much more challenging than I thought it would be. I came into the year energized, ready to take on both my personal and professional goals. I thought paying 89,000 euros would make it easy to get my dream job and that most people I met would have similar goals of becoming friends and making a network that, honestly, we know we paid for in that tuition price tag. I came into the MBA with a vulnerability that I had not let myself experience in a long time, knowing that I would only get the full experience if I was open to it. What I had not anticipated, is that by being fully open and giving my full self to the experience, I would also be open to criticism and gossip. We get a PLDP (personal leadership development program) coach throughout our time at INSEAD, and our talks would help me reorient away from thinking about what was being said about me by people I did not know, which is much easier said than done. When you are in a small town in France, unable to travel due to COVID, back at school, a bubble gets created. The perks of this bubble is that you form bonds with people extremely quickly, get to know each other on a deeper level, and forge friendships. The downside is that a bit of high school comes back. While this year was not the year I hoped it to be, it was the one that I needed. So in the spirit of New Years in which I am quarantined due to close contact exposure, let's recap (but only a light recap due to aforementioned restrictions - what happens in Fontainebleau doesn't always stay in Fontainebleau but will not be shared on a public site):
Period 1 (January - early March)
This period (there are no semesters - there 5 periods throughout the year), encompassed such excitement for the year and hope that COVID would be over soon. We had to get weekly PCR tests to gain access to campus, but at least our campus was open and we had in-person classes. Trying to memorize everyone's names was difficult, made near impossible by wearing masks and trying to guess what someone looked like underneath their mask. Thankfully, that's where nametags come in handy. Social life looked a bit different during this time, which must remain in the Telegram and Whatsapp chats only. We worked out together to try stay healthy, and then my entire shared house caught COVID. As soon as the person I was exposed to developed symptoms, I began to worry. I am immuno-compromised, and I was staying a foreign country where I was unfamiliar with the healthcare system with a limited French vocabulary that would not be helpful in a hospital setting. I had one moment of panic before officially testing positive, wondering what would happen. Luckily, I only developed the cough and was able to do yoga within 3 days, but some classmates were not as lucky and had to go to the hospital for breathing issues. During this time, you saw people's true personalities come out - there were generous people bringing groceries to those of us quarantined and then there were others placing blame for catching COVID in the middle of a pandemic. There were those sharing supplies and others not including friends in quarantine grocery orders. There were people across the spectrum not knowing how to feel. But by the end of the week, 1/3 of our class caught COVID and a feeling of camaraderie began to emerge as judgments fell away.
My biggest learning from this time period: Have some empathy.
Period 2 (early March to early May):
With restaurants and bars still shut, three of our wonderful classmates organized a group to participate in a Spartan race. This race took place in the Andorran mountains where you could choose to participate in the 5k, 10k, 21k, or 50k race, each with a varying amount of obstacles. While I have always been active, I never considered myself a runner and debated if I should stick with the 10k race or a different level. One of my best friends promised me he would carry my ass over the finish line of the 21k but he insisted I would need no help, and one of my other friends questioned why I was only doing the 10k after the first week of our training sessions. Both insisted I should try it, placing a confidence in me I had not felt in myself. One of our friends is an extremely fit athlete who put together a training plan, and before I knew it, I was running longer distances every week than I ever had before. Period 2 felt different than Period 1 - I felt like I was developing deeper friendships and slowly reaching some professional goals I set for myself. Travel was also starting to open up, and we were able to cross a border and enjoy more than takeout for a weekend.
My biggest learning from this time period: Keep friends around who believe in you more than you believe in yourself at times.
Period 3 (early May to end of June):
While there were some trying moments between COVID, drama, and people not always treating each other kindly in P1 & P2, this was where it really felt like the beginning of the rollercoaster ride people describe. On one hand, it felt like everything was starting to pan out. I secured an internship at a venture capital fund in London, hit my running stride and completed the 21k Spartan Race with some of my closet friends, and met someone I had not anticipated. I debated even writing that last part, but it is part of my story from this year. As with a rollercoaster, you usually reach new heights and what must go up, must come down. I felt like I was finally hitting my stride, and then someone told me I should know what some people were saying about me (who at this age cares about our love lives?) and the person I thought was a decent person turned out to be a confused boy not knowing what he wanted in life, leading to a winding path of wondering what was worth trying and what was not for a few months.
My biggest learning from this time period: You're going to lose yourself at times and the goals you set for yourself - try to have people around you who can call you out when you need it (thank you Cv & Lisa).
Summer: Working remotely and traveling was amazing; spending time working out said confusion with confused boy was not.
Period 4 (late August through mid October):
Loneliness. While P4 had many highlights, such as our makeshift Oktoberfest, traveling to Copenhagen, and seeing friends again, much of P4 encompassed loneliness. Many people think that in a new place with so many classmates, that you will never be lonely. You will constantly meet people and have so many friends around. What they do not realize, is that an MBA is an expensive year to be selfish. But in that pursuit of selfishness and figuring out what you want most out of life, you also may get lonely, because everyone is on the same journey (different path, but same journey). So inevitably, there will be events you are not invited to (exacerbated by COVID where you had to be conscious of the number of people around), people will have different schedules and it might feel strange actually finally having alone time, and Instagram posts might make you question whether everyone else is having a better time than you. Insecurities I had never felt before began coming out, and then realizing I was always the person reaching out to friends at home and abroad, I began to wonder what was wrong with me, and if I stopped reaching out first if I would have any friends at all. At first, I even wrote that sentence in the third-person, because it is a damn scary vulnerability to share. But it's true, and I told myself this is where I can be truly authentic (yes, I know, ironically on the Internet where everyone can read it). This was also the time where most people starting recruiting for jobs so on top of personal life stress, there was professional life stress. And the ironic about this feeling of loneliness? When I finally talked to other people about it, they felt it, too. This time period also included my birthday, which I have always been weird about. Ever since my 18th birthday, something bad happened on my birthday. I have been trying to reframe it; this year proved no different but a few people did make me feel loved. Next year, I'm going off the grid.
My biggest learning from this time period: It's okay if things aren't panning out as you expected and hoped, and it's okay to be sad about it. But sometimes you need to get over your previous expectations.
Period 5 (the final - mid October to early December):
This was probably the strangest time of all. We thought we were in the clear now that vaccines had been rolled out for COVID, and then a resurgence in cases started. We were looking forward to being able to cherish the last 2 months together, have a true Thanksgiving feast, and celebrate graduation together. These all still happened, but they did not happen the way we expected. Now that we were all vaccinated, the infamous Rugby Club was able to start fully functioning again. As much as the Europeans say that rugby isn't like American football, it is. You just pass backwards. We spent our Thursday nights playing rugby and having unlimited drinks and pizza at the best spot in town: Pizza Mimi's. Being able to have some aspects of campus come back to life was incredible. While travel opened up during the summer, this was the time where we were able to truly capitalize on it. Most people finished recruiting in Period 4 (except for those of us venturing on a different path - I'm sure this blog will make someone really want to hire me now) and wanted to make the most of the time we had left, so there were trips almost every weekend or simply going to Paris more. We won the MBA rugby tournament in Barcelona, and it felt like we were living real life again. And then a surge in COVID infections hit Europe. We were having to be more cautious again as half of us were traveling to Thailand soon for our graduation trip and half of us were staying in France for a ski trip, worried that COVID would derail Thailand. Right before Thanksgiving, I was close contacted and 300 euros of groceries purchased for a 50 person feast had to be frozen as I waited on a negative PCR test result. We made it to Thailand for our graduation trip, which was incredible, and spending a week with some of my favorite people was a top highlight of this year. We came back for graduation, and we had to wear masks while receiving our diploma, but at least were able to celebrate a bit.
My biggest learning from this time period: Celebrate the small victories, and enjoy what you have while you can.
If you have made it this far, congratulations and I will tell you everything I could not say on here. While this post may not have been the entirely upbeat, OMG-worthy post about an MBA abroad, it was still such a special year of my life. And this post is not to say it was not worth it or to deter anyone from living abroad (I do hope to work full-time in Europe) - it was more to be honest about the rollercoaster ride that I did not expect. I learned more about myself than I thought possible, uncovering professional dreams and personal aspects I need to continue to work through, and I made a few friends I will cherish for the rest of my life. Many people told me I was always smiling and happy, but few saw the self-deprecating and dark humor I have, so thank you for reading this, hopefully understanding the humor and empathizing with the true emotions. My PLDP coach kept asking me why I was comparing my journey to others', wondering why it seemed like I was not having as much as fun as I "should be". He gave me wonderful advice: maybe it's not the year I needed, and instead what I needed was a year for personal growth. I uncovered more about myself than I expected, with much of the growth still in the infancy phase. Thank you to the people who made this year one to remember.