Close to death before it starts

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Hamish Fraser has just started a two-year MBA at Stanford Graduate School of Business

In December I had the unpleasant experience of being sucked down a violent vortex while white-water rafting on the Zambezi river. The guides had advised that if this happened, you had simply to roll yourself into a ball and were bound to pop up above the surface sooner or later. I did this and calmly waited while being tossed and turned as though I was inside a gigantic washing machine.

Calmness gradually made way to panic, as I realised that no “popping up” was happening. With increasing terror I expected my life to flash before me (I heard this happens just before you die), but only two thoughts kept churning: first, this is not fun; second, you will never know if you made it into Stanford.

I am Hamish Fraser and although my name might sound Scottish, I am a 26-year-old South African (of the Afrikaans speaking variety). The Afrikaner’s history has a very distinctive thread of aversion to anything foreign, in particular with regards to race, language and culture. Yet at some early age – through a love for both sport and academics – I started developing an appreciation and respect for diversity.

From growing up in a small agricultural town to working for an international consulting firm during an incredibly important time in South Africa’s history, the pursuit of diversity always meant life was going to be an amazing journey. And somewhere along this journey I started taking note of Stanford Business School.

I cannot remember what first attracted me to Stanford. It could have been the entrepreneurial spirit and innovative thinking. It could have been the world class research and brilliant lecturing.

It could have been the general management, big picture perspective. It could have been its location in the heart of Silicon Valley or maybe even the great California weather. In the end, one attraction topped all others: the diverse, remarkable and humble people associated with the school.

Upon receiving an MBA sponsorship from my employer, my choice was pretty clear: if admitted, I was going to Stanford. One month after my near-death experience on the Zambezi, I received a phone call from Stanford’s director of admissions: I had been admitted to the class of 2007. Seven months later I drove through Stanford’s main entrance, passing some of the beautiful sandstone buildings as I made my way to the on-campus residence for first year MBAs.

I actually arrived a week earlier than the majority of the class. Stanford has a short pre-enrolment programme for international students whose native language is not English and who are unfamiliar with the US teaching style. As an Afrikaner on my first visit to the US, I fitted the bill perfectly. The programme was very useful, and during breaks between visa status updates and mock case discussions, we all scrambled around to open bank accounts, undergo tuberculosis tests and do whatever else was needed to make us temporary residents of this land of opportunity.

As the international programme drew to an end, the US students (and the more “adjusted” international students) started arriving. After a welcome dinner, it was time for pre-term. This is a two-and-a-half week programme, allowing the class to adjust back to an academic setting, while providing ample opportunities to meet classmates through a range of social activities.

The academic side of pre-term started with a two-day management simulation exercise.

The aim of the exercise was to produce greeting cards and sell these to customers, making as much profit as possible. The production team literally had to cut, paste and colour, using supplies ordered by the administration team. The sales team had to liaise with faculty who acted as customers, while the product design team had to come up with designs to meet market requirements.

With production cycles only 20 minutes each, the first round ended in disaster, with hardly a card produced or sold. However, as we started mapping processes, defining roles and realigning our manpower, production started to flow smoothly. Sales followed and profit grew. It was a pretty simple exercise, but illustrated many valuable points. In particular, it illustrated the importance for a manager to see and understand the big picture.

After the simulation exercise, we began with short courses covering teamwork, career management and even a short warm-up in Excel. One of these courses considered the subject of ethics. Even by only scratching the surface, we were introduced to the thinking of Kant, Rawls and other philosophers in this field. Most of us felt we could intuitively tell right from wrong, but this course challenged us also to answer why something was right or wrong when viewed from different ethical frameworks. With managerial ethics under increasing spotlight during the past few years, I found this course both insightful and extremely relevant.

The social activities that filled pre-term were more like one ongoing single activity.

From one barbecue to the next, from a 1970s karaoke and bowling party to a Mexican party, from running around San Francisco doing a scavenger hunt to watching the Giants play (my first baseball game, with the “obligatory” hot dog and fries). The list goes on. And amid all of this I was meeting the most impressive group of people I could ever imagine.

One evening at a 1980s party (people here have an incredible appetite for theme parties), I bumped into the umpteenth new classmate. It turned out he had worked for Nasa, and was involved in the design of the Mars Exploration Rover.

One year ago, I could never have imagined meeting a true “rocket scientist”. Now he was just a regular classmate, as was the guy who recently climbed Everest, the girl who trained fighter pilots in Israel, the guy who owns a chain of restaurants in Paris, the captain of a liquefied natural gas carrier and the girl who started her own organisation to fund small businesses in Africa.

We finished pre-term this weekend with a choice of outdoor activities. I joined 80 classmates for river rafting on a stretch of the American River near the small town of Coloma. This time I made sure I stayed in the raft.

That was yesterday and it was all fun and games. Tonight the mood is a bit more subdued, because tomorrow is the start of the first quarter. Some people are moving in behind desks to complete assignments due on the first day of class.

Others are reviewing syllabuses and timetables. By the sounds of it, this term is going to be particularly tough, but like the guides on the Zambezi the faculty and second years have told us to sit tight . . . sooner or later we will pop up to the surface again.

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