“Nothing in the world causes so much misery as uncertainty” – Martin Luther
Six months into the Cambridge MBA, each one of us were eagerly looking forward to the most exciting part of the programme, that promised a wealth of travel and new learnings. This included undertaking the Cambridge MBA Global Consulting Project, an exciting competitive sporting event – ‘MBAT’, the keenness of interacting with professors, the nervousness of job interviews and the joy of attending elaborate and lavish Cambridge University May Balls. Having been perplexed by the Brexit fiasco in the previous term, we had accepted that the worst was over and that there would be better days ahead.
However, not in our wildest dreams, would we have ever imagined that within five days of our last Lent Term exam, all promises of the remainder of our programme would vanish into thin air. Where the COVID-19 pandemic would result in some of our cohort having to return to their homes, without any certainty of coming back for the rest of the programme. All of a sudden, we were bidding a strange farewell to our friends, some in-person and others over messages. The change of situation was so rapid that there was no time to properly process the reality occurring around us, and a sense of denial about its impact. The packed suitcases in the silent corridors were now witnessing teary goodbyes. Such was the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, on what was supposed to be the most memorable journey of our lives. Europe had already become the new epicentre of the pandemic, and the UK was no different, with an enforced lockdown and the shutting down of many of the University buildings. All of a sudden, our focus had entirely changed, from projects, internships and assignments, to evaluating some difficult decisions. This involved risk assessments whilst travelling, concerns over the well being of our families, uncertainty over careers, anxiety for our friends and more.
Despite all this, it was interesting to observe how the focus had shifted from being self-oriented to one of supporting each another. There was a definite loneliness, filled with panic, anxiety and worries, but the infinite support that we received from each other within the cohort helped us build resilience to deal with the worsening situation. It was comforting to see how well we adjusted during this time of turbulence and how we accepted each other with open arms, to create a support system with impact. The Cambridge MBA Class of 2019 helped each other through the array of emotions COVID-19 brought – including anger, humour, frustration and de-motivation. Every message we shared amongst ourselves was filled with a sense of responsibility and was designed to offer tremendous emotional support. In a fast paced one-year MBA programme, it had been difficult to connect with people on an emotional level, but now it was heartening to see how each one of us put the effort in to organise or take part in different online activities. To be able to interact and show concern for the well being of our classmates and our particular cohort overall.
The emotional stress we experienced became more complicated with the start of online lectures, scheduled interviews and the many assignment deadlines that filled our calendars as the new term began. Alongside a steeply declining job market and a constant concern for our friends and family back home. With countries shutting their borders, all of us had to make tough decisions on whether to return back home or not. There was no right or wrong decision, it was just complex, based on our own personal situations. There were too many things to handle at the same time.
After many sleepless nights, as we passed through the five stages of grief, and the weather became friendlier, we adjusted and adapted to the new reality around us. The next hurdle was to build and manage the quarantine routine. The stay at home guidelines pushed each one of us to try out new activities both for ourselves and for our classmates. There were many innovative and interactive activities that our cohort came up with. An online pub quiz saw a participation of more than 50 people. Many focused and themed groups were initiated to keep everyone involved. For example, a crossword group, a book club, an online wine tasting group and a Strava sports group to motivate each other to keep ourselves physically fit.
In addition, several innovative activities ensured the continuation of a quality ‘FaceTime’ outside of our regular classes. These activities included peer learning sessions that aimed to facilitate learning from the vast and wide experience of our own classmates, a leadership series that aimed to invite several leaders for an online talk, closed group online lunch and dinner meet-ups – like the South East Asian weekly catch up, even online formal college dinners, and many more. At an individual level, the quarantine gave us time to explore new interests, like learning a new language, picking up a new hobby like reading, cooking or baking, experimenting with online dating, or exploring fitness activities such as running, cycling, yoga or meditation. Since we were not able to see each other on a regular basis, occasional serendipitous catch ups whilst grocery shopping in Cambridge or outdoor activities resulting in a social distancing chat became a pleasant experience.
As we all continue to live a new format, I am sure this experience will make each one of us more resilient, empathetic and compassionate human beings and better equipped for the future challenges of life. The future managers and leaders of this Cambridge MBA Class of 2019/20 will not only be able to solve complex business problems, but also know that the bottom line is as important as the well being of the community around them, and that uncertainty can lead to an opportunity of transformation. I hope this harrowing experience becomes one of the most important lesson of our Cambridge MBA year, and helps us emerge as the strong and well-equipped leaders of tomorrow.