In a culture obsessed with projecting a highly curated, manicured, and often exaggerated representation of ourselves, I frequently find myself astonished by how we applaud those with the strength of character to be authentic in how they represent themselves, and yet so few of us take the risk of actually living that way. There are many reasons we do this, and I am certainly not immune, but I find it to be such a perplexing contradiction that we value candor from others, yet we struggle so much to be transparent with others about ourselves.
So, I decided to lead by example and be as candid as possible about something that has defined my academic path more than anything else: failure.
My first big letdown in the world of academics was a failure to launch out of high school. I simply wasn’t ready to go. I had enrolled in four undergraduate classes at my local university and made a half-baked attempt…and failed. I partied so hard and paid so little attention that on the rare occasion that I showed up for class, I frequently slept through it—even the night classes! Needless to say, I was promptly put on academic suspension and bounced out of there (Duke doesn’t even know about this epic failure until now!).
From there I spent a year waiting tables and partying. I was living on my own, making decent money (for someone of my modest upbringing), and having a blast with my friends. But I eventually came to the realization that if I was ever going to do the things I wanted to do when I “grew up”, I needed to change my mindset. I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force.
Roughly halfway through my four-year enlistment, I decided that I was finally ready to go to school (to be an engineer, no less!). I enrolled in round two of undergraduate classes and embarked on a tumultuous journey through the dark arts that are the math and science classes required to get into engineering school.
Cut to three years later and I’d taken (and retaken) more chemistry and calculus classes than we have time to discuss here. It got so bad that I had to take a chemistry class for a third time at a separate community college before the University of Florida would even have a conversation with me about admittance into their School of Engineering.
The first time I applied there, they rejected my application outright (hence my attendance in my THIRD undergraduate program to date). Upon completion of that chemistry class, I reapplied and was rejected once again. This time, I appealed the decision and was allowed to plead my case. My explanation was something along the lines of my poor academic performance being the result of extensive travel while in the military (it wasn’t) and not having the necessary resources available to me (I did). Luckily for me, they relented and let me in.
Now in my fourth undergraduate program before the age of 27, I was in over my head more than ever. All of the other biological engineering students seemed to know way more than me, were better at the math, and spent less time studying. While all my previous academic failures had been mostly defined by a lack of effort, I was sure this failure was going to be a result of a lack of intellect.
However, after grinding through three years (and taking organic chemistry more times than I would like to admit), I was finally graduating. For those counting at home, that means I was somewhere in the ballpark of a Van Wilder-esque six-year undergraduate experience.
Ten years later, I inexplicably decided to pursue an MBA degree. Having recently moved to North Carolina, Keenan-Flagler at UNC was the logical choice, but I decided to shoot for the moon and apply to Fuqua at Duke. As had become my custom, my first attempt at joining Fuqua didn’t pan out. Feeling rejected, I had to clear yet another hurdle, but here I am: on the cusp of graduation with the class of 2023!
Ultimately, my hope isn’t that you see this as a story about overcoming obstacles through creativity and dogged perseverance. Indeed, many have overcome far greater socioeconomic, cultural, and racial barriers than I did. Instead, I hope to destigmatize the importance of being authentic to who you are, reminding you to laugh at yourself so that you’re always in on the joke, and learning to embrace the failures and experiences that have gotten you to where you are now.
I’ll close with a story that may or may not be true about Pablo Picasso. Legend has it that Picasso was at a Paris market when an admirer approached him and asked if he could do a quick sketch on a paper napkin for her. Picasso politely agreed, promptly created a drawing, and handed back the napkin — but not before asking for a million Francs. The lady was shocked: “How can you ask for so much? It took you five minutes to draw this!” “No,” Picasso replied, “it took me 40 years to draw this in five minutes.”