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Fridays from the Frontline: Cornell Johnson MBA Diaries – When “Normal” Becomes a Memory of the Past

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Many aspects of life have been turned upside down due to COVID-19. MBA students around the world have had to adjust to a “new normal,” which Natalie Kirchhoff, Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management MBA ’21, describes in this edition of Fridays from the Frontline.

Natalie Kirchhoff, Cornell Johnson MBA ’21

When “normal” becomes a memory of the past

By Natalie Kirchhoff, MBA, ’21, Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, President of the Women’s Management Council

We are waking up to a new world, one that I would characterize as a “brave new world.” However, unlike the dystopian society set in Aldous Huxley’s famed novel from 1932, I’m envisioning a world in 2020 where we can learn from the traumatic effects of the pandemic and place greater focus on love, empathy and caring for our neighbors and prioritize wellbeing over capitalistic gain. I know that might sound counter intuitive coming from a MBA student, but I speak from the heart.

I purposefully chose to leave my job and return to school last August because I wanted a “pause” from the working world. I wanted to stretch myself in the classroom and sharpen my skills. I wanted to meet new people and have conversations about ethics in finance, leadership in organizations, and sustainable companies. I signed up for an MBA at Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management and I wouldn’t trade it for the world, even if that means participating in online classes.

Sure, it’s been hard adjusting, but now we are no longer talking about hypothetical case studies or business dilemmas from the 1980s’ recession or Dotcom bubble burst or the 2007 financial crisis. We are living a case study — right here, right now, in real time. We have the rare opportunity to live in these uncertain times where “normal” is being redefined; the ways we work, live, travel and socialize are being turned upside down. Now topics such as business ethics, corporations’ responsibilities to employees, crisis communication and leadership amidst uncertainty take on a completely new meaning.

Although we keep hearing about the importance of social distancing, I prefer to use the term physical distancing and that hasn’t stopped me from reaching out to socialize with others. It’s all been done virtually and I’ve witnessed that a 30-minute Zoom happy hour may seem small, but it can make a big difference in maintaining connections in these uncertain times.

Hours after receiving the message from Cornell University President Martha Pollack in mid-March that classes would be moving to online and the campus would be closing, my fellow Women’s Management Council board members and I brainstormed on a call how to keep the community connected during the weeks ahead. Here’s a snippet of how we are staying physically distant, but socially close:

  • Monday Happy Hours continue as weekly Zoom events. Graduating students have shared advice on classes to take, favorite moments from their MBA journeys and last week life in the new normal, grocery shopping tips and self-care routines.
  • Our book club discussion about the novel “The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison, (Cornell alumna, ‘55) took place on Zoom and we invited men and women in our community to discuss race and gender issues as it relates to the book.
  • Our movie night morphed into a discussion about women empowerment, body image and challenges immigrants face in the United States. We chose the film “Real Women Have Curves” to kick-off our talk. Members of the community joined virtually to share their personal stories and thoughts.
  • In an effort to have a little fun and promote relationship building, we launched Women of Johnson Trivia. Every Wednesday we feature four women from the community, a combination of students, faculty and staff. We are in week four of the competition and it’s a stiff race. Time will tell who wins the coveted Amazon gift card.

Are we having fun despite the physical distance and “stay at home” orders? Yes. Are virtual meetups the same as in-person interactions? No, but we are determined to make the best of the situation and find small ways to connect with each other.  Although I hope to never again go through a pandemic like this, I’m already seeing a silver lining. The past few weeks have been a “forced pause” —  which allows for an opportunity to step back, reflect and remember why I chose to get an MBA at Johnson in the first place: to grow and stretch so that I can be a more effective, empathetic and courageous leader.

I didn’t sign up to take COVID-19, yet here I am in the midst of it. This “class” is a defining moment for all of us. I am determined to come out of this cocoon brighter, fuller, and intentional because, after all, we never know when “normal” will fade away and quickly become a memory of the past.

Lauren Wakal
Lauren Wakal has been covering the MBA admissions space for more than a decade, from in-depth business school profiles to weekly breaking news and more.