When I received my acceptance letter to the Weekend Executive MBA program at Fuqua, a sense of relief and exhilaration washed over me. My hard work had paid off and I was admitted into my top-choice school. As I looked ahead to a full term of new classes, a demanding schedule at work and a long list of summer activities for my toddlers, I wondered how I’d manage the load. But my bigger concern was how my career in community development and the public sector might be perceived by my private sector peers. I worried I’d be seen as—and feel like—an outsider. For me, it all came down to one question: even if I could fit business school into my already busy life, would I ever feel like I belonged?

Bringing My Whole Self to Business School

When classes kicked off a few weeks later, the rigor of the course load took me by surprise. With no prior corporate experience, I had to work harder than my peers to level up on basic industry knowledge that seemed second nature to most. I made adjustments at home and worked to create the study space I knew I’d need to succeed, but I still felt like an outlier. In those early days, it would have been so easy to allow the fear of not fitting in to consume me. But I didn’t choose Fuqua because I wanted an effortless experience; I craved new challenges. Embracing the invitation to bring my whole self to business school—my weaknesses and limitations, along with the distinct experiences that had defined me as a learner and leader—was far more audacious than tackling any case study or finance equation in the classroom. So instead of giving in to fear, I leaned into the discomfort of radical authenticity.

Amanda Vigneaud and classmates in the Weekend Executive MBA program pose for photo after climbing up the Duke Chapel

Daring to Show Up

Daring to show up, especially in new or unfamiliar environments, takes courage, wisdom, and practice. But I’ve found the rewards of doing so far outweigh the risks. Even better, the effects are often reciprocal: when I had the courage to admit I was struggling, my classmates would usually confess the same. My sense of belonging in business school grew not because I fit a particular profile, but because aspiring for authenticity cultivates connection. And, over time, those connections contributed to a more diverse, empathetic, and supportive community for traditional and non-traditional students alike. So, whether you are applying to business school, cautiously committed to attending or already walking the halls, I hope you’ll endeavor to bring your whole self while you’re here. It may just be the best investment you’ll ever make.

5 Ways to Show Up at Business School

  1. Accept: Recognize the choice to shy away or show up. Admit what you don’t know and embrace uncertainty. Openly share your concerns, questions, and growth goals with trusted classmates.
  2. Assess: Take stock of the skills you uniquely bring to the table—especially if you don’t have deep knowledge of the private sector. Everyone has something to offer; consider what assets you have to share and make them known. 
  3. Acknowledge: Enjoy the fact that your peers have skills that you don’t possess. Resist the urge to be intimidated or compare. Take time to give direct, positive feedback to your peers when you see their extraordinary abilities in action.
  4. Analyze: Strategize how to leverage your skills to help others grow and seek out ways to learn from your peers. The best teams bring diversity of thought and perspectives to work on common challenges. Find these opportunities and lean into them. 
  5. Aspire: Whether you’re walking into the classroom or the boardroom, remember every person has the potential to contribute to the common good. Aspire for authenticity in ways that help you show up as a learner and leader, and model the way for others to do the same.