A more or less true adventure, part of the "Story of my Life" series of notes, letters and tidbits of my soul here on earth.
A few years back, when I started my quest for a graduate school education, I had no idea what I was getting into. It had been five years since I graduated with my undergraduate degree and thought my classroom/academic career was over. That said, my bosses (work and wife) were pressing me to get a Master's Degree in Business Administration (MBA) to advance my career options. After all, no one wants to be a graphic designer their whole life, right? Right? Uh, well, I guess not...
I had solid college grades (3.5 grade point average, or GPA) and a more than acceptable GMAT score. I looked at my various schooling options. I was friends with the admissions director for the MBA program at USC, so I thought my chances were good for admission there, particularly for the part-time program. Apparently, not good enough.
My friend told me the bad news. "Tarik, a prerequisite for the MBA program at USC, along with solid grades, job experience and a strong GMAT score, is that you need to have taken calculus in high school or college. I can't do anything about that - until you have it, I can't accept you into the program."
Needless to say, I was shocked. I knew that I needed some advanced math courses (I was already taking advanced algebra at Pasadena City College to help with GMAT studies) because my high school didn't offer calculus (or trigonometry or pre-calculus) and, hey, who needs more than basic math as a Graphic Design major, right? Right? Uh, well, I guess not...
Suddenly, my options were limited. I needed a part-time MBA program in the Los Angeles area where I could take as few as one class per semester (I was working 14-hour days at the time), one where I didn't need calculus as a prerequisite, and one that was on my work's list of approved and accredited universities for tuition reimbursement.
Most schools in the area met all of the above - with the minor exception of the calculus requirement. Note: It's not that I didn't want to take calculus, but the required coursework (advanced algebra to trigonometry to pre-calculus to calculus) was going to take me a minimum of two full years, further delaying my entry into an MBA program.
I went to a National College Fair to get some help. The college fair had all the information I needed, and told me exactly what I didn't want to hear: Most of the MBA programs attending were out of state. Of the local solutions, USC was already out because of the calculus issue, as was Cal State L.A. and Cal State Northridge. UCLA could skip the calculus requirement but needed seven years of management experience (I had less than two years). Pepperdine was local, could skip calculus, and didn't have a minimum class requirement, but wasn't nationally accredited.
I was just about to leave the fair when I saw some smiling, happy people near the exit - the folks from Loyola Marymount University (LMU). We made some small talk, exchanged information, and I was on my way home for dinner.
As a huge college basketball fan, I knew that LMU was coming off a bittersweet season as it advanced to the final eight of the NCAA "March Madness" basketball tournament following the on-court death of its star player, Hank Gathers, in the preceding conference tournament.
I left the fair with a very warm and fuzzy feeling about LMU. Though I was always impressed with the school, I had never considered them for an MBA, mainly because I didn't know they had a master's program. The Jesuits have long stressed an importance and commitment to business ethics, something I personally found very appealing and in-parallel with my Muslim upbringing.
The next day, I made a few phone calls and found out that LMU was nationally accredited (i.e. work would pay for most of it), I could take one class per semester (as long as I maintained a 3.0 GPA and stayed continuously enrolled), and, as long as I qualified for the program and could keep up and/or get help when needed, the lack of calculus experience was not a deal-breaker. In addition, the relatively small size of the university, albeit private, made for smaller classes and easier access to faculty, administration, financial aid, etc. I immediately applied and was soon accepted into the program.
In other words, my world was about to change.
At the time I started the program, I was newly married living in an apartment. I was working long days at the Los Angeles Times during a time of great tumult - what I call the beginning of the end of the newspaper industry. In my nearly ten years at the Times, I witnessed a major reduction in staff, from nearly 10,000 employees in 1988 to less than 5,000 when I left in 1997. My wife was working full-time and was just starting her masters program at USC, so we had a lot on our plates.
At the first night of orientation at LMU, I was overwhelmed by my new reality. If I was going to take one class per semester, including summers, it was going to take me five years to get a two-year degree. Doubt and pressure consumed me. How in the heck was I going to be able to do this?
I needed a sign.
As if on cue, near the office of the head of the MBA program, I noticed a bulletin board. On one side of the board was a spot where the department could post notes of upcoming events, such as job fairs and schedule changes. On the other side was marquee-type sign with push-pin letters. On that side, to my complete and utter amazement, in white, two-inch uppercase letters on a black felt background, was the following message:
THE JOURNEY OF A
BEGINS WITH A
- LAO TZU
It stopped me dead in my tracks. I know it sounds cliché, but I suddenly felt as if a great weight was lifted from my shoulders. "I can do this," I said to myself, just as I was being introduced to the dean. I pointed to the sign, he looked, smiled and nodded, and we shared a laugh of mutual understanding. He clearly thought I was nuts.
My very first class was Business Accounting. While I had no trouble balancing a checkbook, I just didn't "get" accounting. I was so focused on the trees, I couldn't see the forest - the big picture. After nearly failing the mid-term, a strong final exam and term paper saved me. I got a "C."
I felt relieved until a week later, when I got a letter in the mail from LMU. Since my GPA had dipped below 3.0 (a "C" is 2.0), I was now on academic probation. If I didn't get my GPA back to up to 3.0 or higher by the end of the next semester, I would be expelled from the program.
Now, you don't have to be a math wiz to know if I'm taking one class per semester, and the first semester GPA was 2.0, and I had to maintain a 3.0 GPA, that means I needed an "A" in my next class just to be able to survive. Piece of cake, right? Looking in my notebook, the next class on my schedule for this non-business undergrad major was - wait for it - Statistics.
Dr. Kala Seal is an excellent professor. Sharp, smart, intelligent, funny, knows his stuff. In the end, he was one of the very best professors I've ever had. However, being from India, it should be noted he has a very thick Indian accent. Now, I grew up in an immigrant community. I've acclimatized myself to Spanish, German, Arabic, Pakistani, even Chinese accents.
Dr. Seal's accent was the most difficult I've ever had to encounter.
Without exaggeration, it took me two weeks to figure out what he was saying. It didn't help that he ended every question/statement with the words, "isn't it?" which went up four octaves, a la Julia Child.
I studied hard for the mid-term with a group of students. They helped me with the formulas, I helped them with the transliteration/translation of Dr. Seal's guidelines on what to expect on the exam.
Depression set in. I got 56% on the mid-term.
When he gave us our test results, I was resigned to the fact that an MBA was not for me. This hole was too big for me to dig myself out of. Embarrassed and humiliated, I had no idea how I was going to tell my bosses, friends, family and co-workers. I convinced myself I would leave and not return - just fill my car with gas, drive it as far as I could, and get out and start a new life. It was a simple plan until Dr. Seal dropped the other bomb:
The class average on the mid-term was 47%.
Apparently, this non-business undergrad major was - wait for it - getting an "A" in the class.
I would finish the semester with an "A" and, to make sure I didn't fall in the same academic probation hole again, I got an "A" in every class for the next seven semesters.
When you can only take one class per semester, and it takes you five-plus years to get a two-year degree, you don't get the chance to study with the same group of people every semester. But after getting all the core classes out of the way, I was basically now on the same track as a small group of students who, along the way, became good friends.
Of those classes that had an impact on me, the Entrepreneurship class, taught by the legendary (at least legend in his own mind) Dr. Fred Kiesner, by far had the biggest affect on my life – even to this day. While stories from that class could fill novels (or at least fill blogs), let me say this: Dr. Kiesner had a way of motivating and inspiring that caused you to move – to think more differently and more creatively than you ever thought you knew you had in you. He got me out of my comfort zone, and I will be forever grateful. Thank you, Dr. Kiesner! You are one of my mentors, one of my heroes, and a true legend in my mind.
When I finally graduated in August of 1997, not only had my wife and I moved into our first home, we shared it with our two children.
The morning after I graduated, I decided to treat myself by taking the day off and go golfing with friends. Later that afternoon, I would surprise our 3-year-old son, Yusef, by picking him up after his very first day of school. With so much behind me and a lifetime ahead, I was feeling a bit strange.
When I pulled up to the school, I got out of the car and found Yusef running straight toward me. As he hit me with the full force of a 40-pound bowling ball, I caught him and fell back toward the front gate, just missing a stack of other children's backpacks.
While hugging and squeezing me and covering me with kisses, Yusef brought me to my senses. As I gathered my wits and glanced back to the wall on the opposite side of the gate, I saw a giant cork message board that, in later years, would be filled with photos of teachers and children and with the school's important "Value of the Month" posted for all to see. On that day, however, to my complete and utter amazement, in black, four-inch uppercase letters stapled to the cork board, was the following message:
THE JOURNEY OF A
BEGINS WITH A
- LAO TZU
As I stood there, I finally realized just what I'd been through. By the grace of God and through the help of family, friends, co-workers, professors, neighbors, fellow students and a couple of message boards, I not only survived - I succeeded. What a long, strange and exciting journey it's been. Thanks for being along for the ride.
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