In the fall of 2018, four promising Risk Management and Insurance (RMI) students started their MBAs. Their education was proceeding normally. Consulting projects, participating in teams, facilitating discussions, attending classes, meeting with mentors, and presenting topics at advisory board meetings were all moving forward. The students were anticipating spring break when suddenly, a day before their departure, they were told to return to classes remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The faculty and staff of the Wisconsin School of Business successfully moved a mountain—183 courses—online within about 10 days. The teaching and learning continued, though tremendously disrupted, and the students graduated virtually.
The Class of 2020 included Nakul Arora, Navya Bandi, Shannon Mullins, and Will Brown. They met together again on campus in May 2023 for a risk and insurance alumni community event. It was simply wonderful to be with them again.
I caught up with each of the class members to relive some of their experiences.
Q: What was it like to suddenly complete your MBA online?
Nakul: Finishing the last few weeks of my degree online was very challenging. It is true that we knew all of the people and knew all of the requirements of classes, teams, etc. Yet we needed to convert from occasional use of virtual platforms to constant use. And, screen fatigue was real. Practicing empathy and grace became habitual.
Navya: Being a Teaching Assistant during that time was stressful. I was so worried about my students! Suddenly lively classroom debates were much less lively on camera. The transition to online teaching was hard but as a result of being a student myself, I learned from professors’ examples how to overcome the limitations of the software.
Shannon: It was easier to finish my degree online than it would have been to start that way. Connections with students and faculty were already formed, making it tolerable. Classmates were a source of inspiration and camaraderie, especially when we were all remote. No one wants to raise their hand first on a Zoom call, but we all made it through.
Will: Having pre-existing relationships helped, no doubt. I was so focused on the job hunt that I didn’t feel a loss about missing graduation and other activities. By the time in-person graduation was organized many months later, I was out of state and not able to return for it. I feel the loss now, yet am proud of my classmates and myself for persevering.
Q: How was starting a career during a global pandemic?
Nakul: To be honest, finding a job was very difficult. Alumni helped with openings they knew about, but there were so few openings, especially for international students. I eventually found a position at MUFG. Bonding with teams is much harder online and I kind of side-stepped that because fortunately, some of my team knew me from my pre-MBA work in India. I am currently an Assistant Vice President at MUFG working with enterprise risk management.
Navya: Many companies had hiring freezes at the start of the pandemic, so finding positions was challenging. International sponsorship also made positions scarce. I moved in with my sister after graduation to have a safe space to focus on my search. At the end of the year I had two offers and accepted a position with Amazon Fresh. My visa expired a few months after my job started, so I interviewed again and moved to London to be a Grocery Partners Expansion Project Manager, also at Amazon.
Shannon: I had a lot of great leads at the end of 2019 but they all vanished in the spring because of hiring freezes. Some freezes lasted longer than a year. I was lucky to have an offer at Kemper. Remote work was not a big transition for me because my pre-MBA underwriting job was remote, yet we all had to be very intentional about forming connections. While still in the thick of the pandemic, I moved to Willis Towers Watson and am currently an associate director of Risk Financing Consulting.
Will: Getting to know a boss in a stressful situation in a new industry when we could not meet face to face was one of the hardest things I have done. Spontaneous interactions and popping in on co-workers were nonexistent; therefore, setting the tone for successful relationships with teams and individuals took extra effort. I started my career at Kemper and now enjoy working remotely from small-town Wyoming as an Implementation Consultant for a company that works on Epic implementations.
Q: Pandemic or not, do you have advice for new RMI MBA students?
Nakul: Our alumni are amazingly helpful. Contact them early and often. I am an introvert and worried about reaching out, but learned through the program that we shouldn’t worry because people want to help. They will tell you if they don’t have time. Also, don’t worry about your grades, you’ll be fine. Take a variety of courses to determine which path you’d like to take.
Navya: I have advice for international students: you will be concerned about placement. Don’t let go of the opportunity to join the Wisconsin MBA because you are nervous about finding a job afterward. Give it a chance. Look at what you’ll walk away from the program with: a highly-regarded degree from a highly-regarded campus. And, do the international trips!
Shannon: Dive in completely and get involved as much as you possibly can. I did my undergraduate degree at Madison and was comfortable with my old friends and lifestyle, so I encourage students to immerse themselves in the newness as I should have. Community is such a big aspect, both during the program and after. Spend time in the risk center and just hang out.
Will: Pour yourself into the risk consulting projects with outside firms. Do not be afraid to ask questions of corporate partners. The sooner you start asking questions of people, the easier it becomes. The time to practice this is when the stakes are low, such as during the MBA. There is so much to learn. I’m a bit introverted and needed a gentle yet firm shove to do this.
We were able to say goodbye appropriately to the Class of 2020 when seeing them this spring. Happily, we have a special way to remember these incredible alumni and their place in history. A photo of each graduating class appears on the wall of the RMI MBA community room. Exhibiting their sense of humor and the typical dress of remote work, each graduate is wearing “business on the top and party on the bottom.” The photo makes us smile every time walk by it.