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Real Humans of the MIT Sloan MBA Class of 2023

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sloan mba class of 2023Christina Peña, MIT Sloan MBA Class of 2023

Age: 32
Hometown: Houston, TX
Undergraduate Institution and Major: Duke University, English; Relay Graduate School of Education, Childhood Education (1-6)
Pre-MBA Work Experience (years, industry): 9 years, Education Management/ Education Technology

Why did you make the decision to attend business school? Why now?
Like many others, the last year and a half prompted a lot of reflection about what I really wanted for myself and my career. As cheesy as it sounds I made the decision that life was too short not to pursue my dreams. I had thought about going to business school many years ago but had felt intimidated by the application process as someone coming from my background, and ultimately ended up pursuing other opportunities.

I spent the last three years working in school leadership, but this pandemic reignited my passion for technology and the critical role I think it has in preparing our children to be 21st-century citizens and in closing the opportunity gaps for all children no matter their zip code or family income.

I see business school as an opportunity to push myself and meet talented individuals who come from many different backgrounds, people that will challenge me to think differently so I can innovate in the education space. I’m excited to go back into EdTech and find ways to reimagine the way we do school here in the United States and beyond. I’m still exploring whether that will be as an operator, investor, or even as a founder, but I’m committed to eliminating the racial and economic inequities that exist in our country through education, technology, and entrepreneurship.

Why did you choose MIT Sloan? What factors figured most prominently into your decision of where to attend?
From the onset, MIT Sloan stood out as unique and innovative. I enjoyed completing the application, which was drastically different from all of the other schools I applied to. Every step of the way I saw their values and mission of “developing principled, innovative leaders who improve the world and generate ideas that advance management practice” being lived out.

Ultimately, I was sold on the entrepreneurial spirit. There was a palpable sense of people thinking outside of the box in order to tackle real-world problems. I’m pursuing the Entrepreneurship & Innovation track in which I’ve already met so many people looking to innovate in different areas, whether that is in FinTech, Climate Tech, Health Tech, or beyond.

I knew coming in that I would be focused on ways to change the status quo in our education system, and potentially starting my own education technology venture, and there was no better place for me to do that than MIT. There are so many resources available to students who want to pursue an idea, such as the Martin Trust Center, the Sandbox Innovation Fund, the 100K competition, delta V, and much more. Earlier this week I attended an event called Pitch2Match where people pitched their ideas or themselves as they looked for co-founders or other people to join their team. It was exhilarating to witness so many amazing ideas!

Lastly, as an educator, it was critical to me that the program I chose included multiple opportunities to roll up my sleeves and learn by doing. I really identified with MIT’s motto, mens et manus, which is Latin for mind and hand. With only one core semester, Sloan’s curriculum is designed to be flexible and provides multiple opportunities to get hands-on experience, whether that is through action learning labs, clubs, or the Independent Activities Period (IAP).

What do you think is your most valuable or differentiating contribution to the Class of 2023?
I’m definitely coming from a non-traditional background compared to my other classmates who have had careers in finance or consulting. I began my career as a Teach for America corps member in the South Bronx and have since served as a teacher, coach, EdTech operator, and school leader over the last nine years. As a result, I have a very different perspective to add to our classroom discussions, in particular given the communities that I served in NYC. I have also found that because I have managed people for several years now, I bring a skill set around project management, communication, and organizational processes that others have not yet gotten the opportunity to experience.

Tell us a fun fact that didn’t get included on your application:
I’m working towards hiking and photographing all the U.S. National Parks. Now that I’m living in Cambridge, I’m planning on taking a weekend trip with friends to Acadia National Park to do the Cadillac Mountain sunrise trails.

Post-MBA career interests:
I’m focused on the EdTech vertical, but still trying to figure out in what capacity. I’m exploring roles in Product Management or Venture Capital, but am open as I believe there are many different ways to add value and make an impact in the space, especially right now.

Advice for Current Prospective Applicants:
– What is one thing you would absolutely do again as part of your application process?
I would research the schools and speak to as many current students and alumni as possible. This really allowed me to get a sense of what each individual school was like in order to determine which school was the best fit for me. It can be nerve-wracking to do cold outreach to people you don’t know, but in my experience, students and alumni are generally happy to chat with prospective students and talk about their experiences. I know I plan to pay it forward!

– What is one thing you would change or do differently?
I would have started studying for the GMAT/ GRE sooner! I think this is pretty common advice but it is 100% true. I’m naturally not a great standardized test taker and know the importance of this test in the admissions process. I decided pretty late to apply to business schools and almost didn’t apply because I wanted to bring up my scores. The sooner you get started, the sooner you can move on to other important parts of the application.
The essays also took a lot of deep reflection and each school had pretty different prompts, so I recommend getting started on those as soon as you can and get an accountability buddy who will not only help you stay on track but also give you candid feedback.

– What is one part you would have skipped if you could—and what helped you get through it?
If I had to choose, I would choose to skip the GMAT/ GRE. However, in hindsight, it was actually really helpful to go back into study mode after such a long time out of school and brush up on some of the basics, especially with my quantitative skills.

What is your initial impression of the MIT Sloan students/culture/community?
I have been so impressed with every single person I have met at MIT Sloan. Everyone is obviously incredibly intelligent, but they are also humble and kind. The saying “Sloanies helping Sloanies” is really true. We have several different chats going on and people are constantly jumping in with offers to help, sharing resources or opportunities, or invites/ reminders for various events. Even before I arrived, I was added to groups where second years and alumni answered questions or even scheduled calls to give advice on things like places to live and potential career paths.

There is such a collaborative spirit on campus too, and part of this is by design by MIT due to our Ocean cohorts and core teams. During orientation, we spent a lot of time getting to know each other through both organized and more informal activities. I work with my core team of seven people on assignments for almost every class and it has been exciting to see each of our strengths shine through already. We’ve also been super transparent about our goals and the areas that we are trying to improve upon at Sloan. My core team has been incredibly supportive as I navigate new content and try things for the first time.

What is one thing you have learned about MIT Sloan that has surprised you?
Something that was also really important to me as I was evaluating schools was to feel a strong community of Black and Latinx students and alumni. Transparently, it was something that I was worried about coming in since I haven’t always felt welcomed or included in certain spaces. I have been so impressed by the strong BIPOC community at Sloan. The Hispanic Business Club and Black Business Student Association have gone out of their way to make MIT feel like home. It was clear that the students and alumni before us have put in so much time and effort to make underrepresented minority (URM) students feel represented, even forming an affinity council focused on connecting alumni with multiple generations of URM students. They even shared a summer Venture Capital program through the Dorm Room Fund I was able to take part of before even stepping foot on campus where I was paired with a Sloan alumni as a mentor. I’m looking forward to getting involved with these organizations to continue to make MIT Sloan a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable institution.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your personal application or admissions process in any way? If so, how?
COVID-19 really served as the catalyst that led me to business school. During the pandemic, I think the world really woke up to realize the critical role that schools, and teachers play in our society, and the many racial and economic injustices that still exist in 2021. I was fortunate to be a part of a network of schools that provided us with a strong structure and resources for remote instruction when we first went into quarantine, but most of our students did not have computers at home, or in some cases internet, so they had to log in from their parents’ phones to finish out the year, with many kids not having access to any technology. This was the reality for not only my students but kids across the world.

Through generous donations to our schools, we were fortunate to get our students 1:1 technology. I was inspired by my team and how they came together to give our students the very best education we could from the other side of a computer screen during an all-remote school year. Teachers and students everywhere demonstrated so much creativity and resilience, but it became clear to me that we needed to change the status quo, especially as students need it most with lingering effects of unfinished learning due to COVID. I am optimistic that this difficult period will bring much needed innovation for learners globally. Already we’re seeing that investor funding for education technology has reached an all-time high with $3.2 billion being raised in the first half of the year, and teachers feel more comfortable using technology than they have ever before.

What is one thing you are most anxious about in your first year?
For the most part, the content I’m learning is definitely out of my comfort zone, which is both anxiety-provoking and exciting. A huge reason I chose MIT was because of the rigorous program that would allow me to get the hard, technical skills that I need to be successful in the business world. Economics, creating models and analyzing data using R and Excel, and accounting are all subjects that are foreign to me. However, I recognize that being stretched to think in a new way is never easy, especially in the beginning, but that is what growth feels like! It is comforting to know that my core team and friends are so willing to help and I’m learning a lot already.

What is one thing you are most excited about in your first year?
I’m most excited to continue to meet incredible people who are looking to make an impact on the world. Sloanies are truly problem solvers and do-ers. I feel honored to be a part of such a wonderful community and cannot wait to take advantage of all Sloan has to offer!

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.