Acceptance and Appreciation in Today’s COVID-19 Reality

Violeta Todorova

How the world has changed over the last two months. In early February, my classmates and I were still planning to go on the China trek over the P3-4 break and now, even those in Fontainebleau, who are 9,000 miles away from Wuhan, are quarantined indoors. 

Let’s get two things out of the way: 1) this pandemic has negative impacts on an accelerated 10-month MBA and 2) there are large communities that are more severely impacted than INSEAD students. 

Many of us are still privileged enough to have access to basic healthcare, a consistent food supply, secured housing, and even - an online education.

But the reality is that the MBA experience has radically shifted under our feet.

As a '20J, the global explosion of coronavirus cases perfectly coincided with recruiting season, elective classes and campus exchanges. Over the last few months, I watched my cohort (myself included) go through the five psychological stages of change: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. 

New emails hold the potential of another hiring freeze or two additional weeks of campus closure. Many are currently dealing with the financial strains of getting housing deposits back or refunds from planned activities, which just a few weeks ago seemed perfectly risk-free.

At this point, we have fading hope for INSEAD traditions such as Summer Ball, Grad Trip, and Graduation. Tension between student groups formed due to cultural disagreements on the way governments should handle a national crisis.

Most classroom transitions to Zoom came with some level of technical difficulties. And some students felt extremely isolated, preparing for interviews in a small studio apartment after their flight home was cancelled. 

Now, I tell you this not because I want sympathy for MBA students, but because I want to paint a picture.

Prospective students reading this blog post may find it difficult to understand the true impact of COVID-19 on the INSEAD experience. In a few years' time, everything will go back to normal. We will wake up, go to work in an office, travel to see a client, and be able to visit elderly family members.

And most importantly, we will probably take our calm predictable environment for granted. I also describe the current situation vividly, because only then can you, the reader, fully understand the beauty of the '20J culture created in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak. 

A volunteer student committee was formed to streamline communication with the MBA office and provide regular updates on policy changes. Student clubs have moved their events online to offer Bollywood dance classes and live stand-up comedy via Zoom calls with over 100 people.

Students are keeping their camera switched on (maybe with a funny background) during electives to enhance classroom participation. Sponsored students in different time zones are willing to do case prep with me at inconvenient hours so I can ace my MBB interviews. And fundraising campaigns to support medical staff in Spain and Italy have collected over EUR 100,000 from the INSEAD community. 

Even if I had the chance to start a year earlier or a year later, I would still choose to be a '20J.

I honestly cannot imagine my life (now or in the future) without my fellow classmates. While this might not be the exact experience we signed up for, most people I have talked to still agree that the friendships made during this year are special.

The small hassles of our current life in quarantine will eventually fade away and we will mainly remember the emotions, comradery, and perseverance of our classmates. 

Memories of meaningful conversations will remain, even though they happened over Whatsapp. And I will forever be grateful to my housemates for spending 24 hours a day with me during recruitment season - which has meant consoling after every failed interview and making pancakes to celebrate a move to the next round.

Rather than being more competitive over limited job opportunities, I have felt increasing levels of support from fellow students. And despite the wide geographic dispersion, I believe we have become more interconnected as an MBA cohort. 

Being the top international MBA programme comes with immense advantages under normal conditions, but is extremely difficult to maintain during a global pandemic.

I cannot stress enough how hard the special Student Taskforce and INSEAD administration have been working to adjust to the macro-conditions of multiple countries. While it took a few psychological stages to arrive at acceptance, I do believe everyone is now in the right mindset to make the most out of the coming months.

This is not the MBA experience we imagined; however, we have embraced the power of human connection to survive and thrive in the chaos. It’s been tough. It’s still not over. But these past two months have been the most realistic case of business disruption and organisational behaviour possible - something way beyond what could have been learned in a classroom.  

Some parting words to each member of the INSEAD community:

  • To the school administration - thank you for trusting us to co-create an educational solution to a global pandemic. 
  • To my fellow '20Js - there is no one I would rather be quarantined with, than with you. 
  • To past MBA generations - please be nice to us, we need some extra help finding jobs. 
  • To prospective students - don’t worry about this happening again, it’s a black swan event, which you can learn about if you take Claudia’s Risk Management elective in P3.