What are the qualities of successful business school candidates? Intelligence, flexibility, ambition, and a willingness to be exposed to new experiences — among others. If the experiences of some of this year’s cohort are anything to go by, then extraordinary resilience and steely determination should be added to the list.
As MBA and master’s students arrive on Europe’s campuses this month, stories are emerging of plucky students who refused to let Covid-19 stop their plans. We caught up with six who have overcome adversity to get to Europe.
Yara from Beirut, who does not want to give her surname, will soon start her MBA at emlyon in France, following a daunting array of challenges. She was unlucky enough to catch COVID in June which, she says, was stressful as some people refused to see her for the three months following her recovery. She was then in a shopping mall that collapsed following the port explosion in Beirut in August, receiving injuries that required treatment by the Lebanese Red Cross, as the hospitals were all full. Following this, she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
OVERCOMING HURDLES FROM BLACKOUTS TO THE PANDEMIC
Added to this were financial problems. Although she has been saving for an MBA for five years, Yara was unable to access her money because of government rules limiting dollar withdrawals from Lebanese banks to $1,000 a month. Her employer began paying her into a different account, but ATM withdrawal limits meant it took up to three weeks to take her salary out. The bank refused to allow Yara to transfer money to France to pay emlyon.
However, she was determined to continue her MBA. “I decided I would not let the political situation, or the banking system, prevent me from pursuing my education. I could have accepted a family reason, but not this. I rejected the reason,” she says.
Yara had to ask a friend in France to pay her enrollment fee for her, and paid back his parents in Beirut in cash. Added to this were electricity supply problems in Beirut, which led to blackouts for up to three hours a day and made communication even more difficult. Finally, however, Yara has overcome all these hurdles and will begin her (delayed) MBA at emlyon in January. “Emlyon have been very supportive, I haven’t joined the program yet and I already feel part of the Emlyon family,” Yara says.
CHINA TO THE U.S. TO AMSTERDAM TO SPAIN
Tyler Douglas Berghorst, who has just started his MBA at IESE in Barcelona, had been teaching in China for the past three years. He was all set for his video interview in February and a month before, during the Chinese New Year holiday, he went traveling through Asia. As he was away, COVID exploded and his employer advised him not to return to China. He went to Mumbai, where he had a cheap bespoke suit made, then conducted his MBA interview on his phone from a hostel in Myanmar. “One thing that I really liked about IESE is that the interviewer went: ‘Wow, what an interesting story!’” Tyler says.
After traveling to China via Thailand — one of the few places with flights to China — Tyler received his offer from IESE. Then his real problems started. His residence permit was close to expiry, but embassies were closed to getting a visa for Spain proved impossible. He planned, therefore, to travel to his home state of Michigan as applying for a visa for Spain would be easier from there.
Three flights were canceled before he finally made it to the U.S. From there, he gained his visa for Spain. However, days before flying he heard from a classmate that the country he was planning to fly to was refusing to let Americans enter. So he hastily re-routed his flight to Amsterdam and arrived in Barcelona at the end of August, just in time to begin his MBA.
“When my third flight from China had been canceled, I strongly considered deferring for a year, but after a moment of wavering I became more determined,” Tyler says. “I had committed to this program and was so excited that I couldn’t give up.”
A BRIT IN OZ TRIES TO GET HOME
Bianca Sartori-Sigrist recently arrived in London to begin her MSc in Climate Change, Management and Finance at Imperial College Business School. A British citizen living in Australia, she was applying to programs and navigating interviews with Imperial just at the time when Australia closed its borders, on March 20.
“Like most of us, I never thought like most of us the ban on travel would last that long. The borders are still closed now,” she says. As a resident in Australia, she had to get a formal exemption from the Australian home office to leave, which took almost three months. She had to submit evidence that she was leaving for the long-term, such as proof of residence in the UK, course details, and details of her family in the UK.
Just a month before she was due to fly, a spanner was thrown into the works when the UK said that arrivals would have to quarantine for two weeks, meaning that she had to change her flights, which proved a headache because of the number being canceled.
‘I COULD HAVE DEFERRED BUT I DIDN’T WANT TO WAIT A YEAR’
Just when things seemed to be running smoothly, two weeks before she was due to fly Bianca’s airline introduced a requirement that passengers have a negative COVID test in the previous 96 hours. “My flight was at 9 p.m. on a Sunday, so I had to run around last minute finding a test center where I could get a results certificate in 24 hours, which no centers in Sydney could guarantee,” she explains. Finally, though, she made it to London.
“I could have deferred but I didn’t want to wait a year because climate change is such an important issue that it needs to be dealt with now, not in a year’s time,” says Bianca. “This is a unique course and Imperial is one of the best universities anywhere, so It’s worth making the effort to travel across the whole world for.”
Beth Salas found it nearly impossible to make it to the Netherlands, and Nyenrode University (above), from Malaysia
CLOSED EMBASSIES MADE IT DIFFICULT TO GET STUDENT VISAS
Beth Salas, who has just started her MBA at Nyenrode University in the Netherlands, is from the Philippines but was working in Malaysia and had accepted her offer before the pandemic began. A four-month lockdown in Malaysia made her wonder whether she would be able to make the start, she says, “especially because the worth of my savings dwindled significantly the moment the lockdown lifted because of the Ringgit losing heavily to the Euro.”
However, she had her heart set on a career outside Asia. “I guess I was full of the belief that life will go on after the pandemic, so I still chose to be where I wanted to be when all this is over,” she says.
What made the situation particularly stressful, she says, was the uncertainty. Embassies were closed or functioning with a skeleton staff, so visas were not being issued. Beth had to cancel her “employment pass” before getting a passport. Thanks to a canceled appointment that she was able to take, she managed to secure her passport just a day before she was due to fly.
“There was a lot of last-minute stuff that I didn’t think would work out, but somehow did,” Beth says.
“At one point I thought that it’d be impossible to make it to the Netherlands and considered Japan instead, but eventually I decided that I had a plan and I wanted to be in a place I was happy once COVID is over.”
A MiM BRINGS ONE STUDENT FROM TURKEY TO BERLIN
Ekin Su Matkap
Ekin Su Matkap, from Turkey, got an offer to study a MiM at ESMT, in Berlin, in March and applied for a visa that she expected to receive in May. However, visa centerss closed and when they re-opened were hard to contact, and prioritized tourist visas over educational ones. In mid-September, as her program’s orientation week began in Berlin, she finally got an appointment, although it could still be four to six weeks until she receives her visa.
“I am being optimistic, and hoping I will arrive in mid-October, though it could still be later,” Ekin says. She participated in orientation week virtually and says that the school has made a great effort to try to integrate those who are not yet on campus, but that her experience is very different from a normal first week of university. She will start taking classes via Zoom, which she says she can accept because even those on campus are taking 50 percent of theirs in the same way.
“It has been a very frustrating time, but I never considered giving up because I am concerned the currency will devalue further if I wait, and also my parents are supporting me so I do not want to be a burden on them,” says Ekin. “It has been a bad experience, but I don’t want to wait any longer.”
THE LONG ROAD FROM CHINA TO FRANCE
Yinuo Yu, from China, only received her visa to come to France to study in INSEAD’s first-ever MiM in August. “I waited for six weeks to get my visa, and eventually had a flight booked for September 7,” she says.
However, a storm that evening meant she could no longer fly from Guangzhou but had to switch to Shanghai – a three-hour drive from where she was living. The new flight connecting rather than a direct one and was three hours longer.
Heroically, Yinou had chosen to wear full personal protective gear while on the plane, including a mask, large goggles, and gloves. “I didn’t want to be responsible for spreading the virus to my classmates in Paris,” she explains. “All it takes is for one person to be infected, undiagnosed, and we would all have it. It was the worst flight ever. It was a nightmare, I was sweating so much that the skin on my hands went wrinkly.”
After her ordeal, though, Yinou arrived in Fontainebleau, where INSEAD has its French campus and has now started her MiM. “I’m learning a lot,” she says. “It’s challenging, but my team members are helping me a lot.”
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