You don’t really know a community until it’s tested.

As I was boarding my flight for a spring break ski trip in early March 2020, I thought our class had already been tested. The gauntlet of internship recruiting was mostly behind us, we were officially done with core courses, and our upcoming second-year responsibilities were mostly solidified. All of these aspects of the MBA experience had involved totally unexpected twists, deep and serious self-reflection, and most importantly, coming to know and love the humans of Fuqua. And that had nothing on what was yet to come.

Who Am I?

For a little personal context, I’m a former management consultant and software client relationship manager who had walked a pretty straight path to pursuing an MBA. Diplomatically-packaged authenticity from my application aside, I came to Fuqua to challenge myself and kick imposter syndrome’s butt.

Two things I swore I wouldn’t do in the pursuit of that master’s-fueled enlightenment were recruiting for a return to consulting (been there, done that, I had told myself) or serve in student government (Me? Overinvolved? Again?).

Never say never, friends.

As it turns out, I joined about half of our class in the marathon parade of case interview prep and firm networking events that make up MBA consulting recruiting for the fall terms. Then, as Spring Term 1 was just getting started, one of my very first Fuqua friends, Sarah Izzo, blew me away when she called me over during a Fuqua Friday to talk about running together for co-presidents of the MBA Association (Fuqua’s student government).

You guessed it—I ended up breaking both of my self-imposed rules. And I’m so glad I did because in really reflecting on the first half-and-change of my MBA experience, both decisions have offered me the most meaningful opportunities to really get to know Fuqua.

So, here’s my take on who we are, what that’s meant for how we’ve navigated 2020, and what that tells me about how we will face the future.

Mike and his four teammates pose for their first team photo; the Fuqua community
My Consequential Leadership team meeting for the first time on day one of orientation

Fuqua Was Great in ‘Normal’ Times

Getting to live out most of our first year as the Class of 2021 in the ‘normal world’ we formed, stormed, normed, and performed our way through core classes, section socials, Consequential Leadership (C-Lead) team projects. We went on Friday adventures around downtown Durham and experienced Cameron craziness over Duke basketball. We got to form the incredible friendships you often hear about from alumni, wistfully recounting the singular reason they’re all inevitably—but truthfully—most grateful for these two years. We had, in fact, already laughed together, cried together, seen each other through all kinds of challenges both orchestrated and organic, and made plans for our collective futures.

In our very first week, we did a team-building activity that involved getting our entire 400-person class over a 15-foot wall. We succeeded, though at the time I was surprised. I quickly got used to how Fuquans are the kind of people who dedicate their full attention to you in a conversation because they really want to know your story, while also keeping an eye out for any classmates who might be feeling left out. I saw countless classmates give their all to help friends prep for competitive internship roles they desperately wanted themselves, and then celebrate their friends’ successes as if it was their own. Prioritizing decency as a community, it turns out, makes a difference.

three dozen students pose for a group photo; the Fuqua community
A 2019 Friendsgiving celebration for our Section 4 where we got the chance to share the tradition of American Thanksgiving and what each of us was most grateful for about one-another
Mike holing a pan with a roasted turkey; the Fuqua community
I served as a social chair for my section, so they trusted me with the turkey

Then Times Weren’t ‘Normal’ Anymore

But back to me standing in line at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Hindsight being 20/20, you and I know that the clouds gathering on the horizon back in March 2020 would amount to a perfect storm made up of a global health crisis, an overdue reckoning on society’s values with regard to racial equality, and a need for extensive restructuring at the international, community, and individual levels to drive more safety, equity, and inclusion in our institutions, families, and personal lives.

Fuqua has been no exception. In fact, it’s been a microcosm, requiring even deeper looks in the mirror, tougher conversations, and more grace under fire than I could imagine finding anywhere else.

I’m proud to say that we’ve seen the very best in people shine through the challenges of the past few months. When COVID hit, Fuquans rallied, honoring 14-day quarantines and, as a community, taking CDC guidelines seriously as the right thing to do in order to protect others. Those who didn’t have to formally quarantine created volunteer lists to get essentials to those who were unable to do so themselves, including a whole bunch of early-morning errands for students run by our deans and other administrators. The members of our newly-seated MBAA Cabinet didn’t miss a beat, going way above-and-beyond to pull together programming that kept everyone connected, informed, and, for lack of a better word, alright, despite also facing the personal implications of the pandemic.

Most impressive though, were those who took it upon themselves to check on each other outside of any formal roles. Three members of our class (including a C-Lead team member I now count as one of my very best friends) texted me every single day those first few weeks, knowing both that Sarah and I were trying to figure out how to lead in a COVID world, and also that I’m deeply extroverted and was taking the solitary confinement of quarantining hard. After a Zoom happy hour where someone in our section mentioned that he hadn’t gotten to see a person in real life for two full weeks, a classmate immediately bagged up homemade chocolate chip cookies and showed up at his door to make sure he was alright. A group of second-years made daily rounds to all those in quarantine to keep spirits up. A classmate curated a list of virtual Durham volunteer opportunities and got those slots filled. Another section mate of mine got nearly twenty students and a couple deans to grow out beards (we’d ultimately shave them into our best Hulk Hogans) in order to raise PPE funds and awareness for health care workers.

Times were tough, but our community rose to the occasion in the most inspiring ways.

a Zoom gallery screenshot with more than a dozen students sporting Hulk Hogan style facial hair; the Fuqua community
Some of the Hulk Hogans (including Dean Bill Boulding and Assistant Dean Steve Misuraca) in our big fundraising reveal...
Mike with his full beard, prior to shaving it; the Fuqua community
and a super fun closeup of my best attempt at a beard before the big shave

Then the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd served as stark reminders of the work we still have to do in the U.S. in pursuit of racial equality. A group of students coordinated a 2.23-mile, socially-distanced run on Duke’s East Campus to commemorate Ahmaud’s love of running along with similar participation around the nation and world. We held a community-wide conversation on allyship, facilitated by MBAA Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion Nwaka Isamah, attended by over 180 students, faculty, and staff—all there to take stock of where we were and how we could take meaningful action.

From there, the broader discussion took off in every corner of Fuqua, across our class-wide group chats, personal Instagram stories, and individual conversations. Students anonymously delivered care packages to members of the community feeling the impact of recent events most directly and personally. Leadership stood up the Racial Equity Working Group to help define meaningful action plans for our administration, staff, and faculty to take in the months and years to come. We’re developing enhanced programming to empower Fuquans with the right tools to lead inclusive teams in the working world. The MBAA kicked off a campaign to solicit personal Pledges to Learn and Act from every member of Team Fuqua—classmates, faculty, staff, and administrators.

For me, personally, it’s represented an opportunity to seek out more diverse sources of information and to take better stock of how I can improve my active allyship of others. We readily recognize that we have a long way to go and that this critical work will never be finished, but Fuqua has proven that it’s capable of and committed to actively fostering a community that celebrates and empowers every race, creed, color, ethnicity, nation of origin, religion, and personal orientation.

a slide where Mike wrote how he plans to learn more about and act to help combat systemic racism; the Fuqua community
My own Fuqua Pledge to Learn and Act

You Don’t Know a Community Until It’s Really Tested

I felt lucky to be a part of Team Fuqua that day in the airport awaiting my flight, before the world as we understood it shifted. Fuqua had given me so much in our first year alone that when Sarah was kind enough to approach me about trying to pay it forward by running to lead the MBAA, it was an easy decision. That decision has resulted in a front-row seat to the challenges our Fuqua community has faced in recent months and how we’ve responded. I can confidently say that I now know Fuqua.

Fuqua to me is the character, empathy, and resolve manifested in selfless acts of kindness by every member of the community, particularly when the world is being profoundly challenged. It’s the place I’m even more grateful to be today given the uncertainty of the coming months and years. And it’s the community I’m honored to be a part of and humbled to be able to help steward forward.

Mike posing with six friends at a birthday party; the Fuqua community
A few of the Fuquans who have changed my life…
Mike and fellow co-president Sarah during a socially-distant picnic; the Fuqua community
and made my MBA experience so meaningful