A Global Perspective on Life at HBS

Five international RC students share their experiences in a roundtable discussion on transitioning and adjusting to life at Harvard Business School.

Given my own process of trial and error in adjusting to a new life at HBS as an international student, I set out to understand how other international students manage the transition. In this article, I share what I have learned from a roundtable discussion with five RC friends, each from different countries and professional backgrounds, on adjusting to life as a first-year student at Harvard Business School.

Maria Shaton (NJ) is a quiet and articulate woman who previously worked in consulting in Moscow, Russia. Rei Yamazaki (NF) is a non-conformist Japanese woman with a background in investment banking in Tokyo; Pond Kittisuwan’s (NH) petite frame belies her strong sense of identity; she worked for the government in Bangkok, Thailand; Patricio Ciarfaglia (NH) is a charming Argentinean with a knack for making everyone feel important. He hails from Buenos Aires where he worked in financial services. We have often spent time together in classes and social gatherings but have never shared our experiences on our respective new lives in the U.S. I was eager to hear what they had to say.

Nadine (Harbus): Upon my arrival in Boston, my U.S. bank froze my account citing my change of address. I found myself with no money and it took me weeks and several exchanges of documents to finally lift the hold. Have you had similar trials in transitioning here?

Pond: I needed a computer immediately upon my arrival here. I planned to purchase an IBM computer online, but it turned out that I could not do it because they did not accept credit cards that do not have a U.S.-based address. Fortunately, a week later, a friend from MIT ordered the computer for me using her credit card.

Rei: I found it difficult to register for a Massachusetts ID card at the Registry of Motor Vehicle (RMV) office and I heard several Asian girls have experienced bad services there. Often people in possession of all the required documentation have been turned down without proper explanation.

Pond: Another issue is that our credit histories in our home countries are of no use here. This makes it difficult for us to have easy access to financial services such as credit cards. You can have a debit card, but your access to any type of credit is very limited.

Nadine (Harbus): What would you say has been most instrumental in facilitating your adjustment here?

Patricio: It is capital to be a friendly person and to make new contacts right from the start. My first night here was the toughest. I was miserable and nostalgic, but I made contact earlier with a sectionmate from the pre-MBA program who took me out for the night.

Pond: I arrived long before orientation week in order to participate in the pre-MBA program. Therefore, knowing somebody in Boston was critical for me. I had a friend here who drove me around and helped me purchase all my necessities and equipment.

Nadine (Harbus): We are all far removed from our culture, our families and friends. How do you embrace the new opportunities at HBS and still keep your own identity and values?

Maria: I enjoy at HBS a really global culture which is not a sum of the cultures of different nations. It is a culture of globalization with its unique development trends. I think it is very important to learn this culture and keep one’s own values at the same time. I would summarize it with a statement “Be Global, Stay Local.”

Rei: I want to be flexible and stay open to new things. I feel that it is important that I keep an open mind to other cultures. By doing this I will be able to broaden my own values by adding the best of what others have to offer.

Pond: I don’t see the need to lose my identity. For example, I want to be more articulate in English, to speak intellectually. However, I don’t think that my accent should impair my ability to communicate well. When I speak, the logic and the flow of my arguments should matter more than the accent inherent from my culture.

Patricio: Respect is very important. People should try to pay attention to one another, understand and respect each other’s values.

Nadine (Harbus): We are now three weeks into the RC year, how are you doing so far?

Rei: I am doing well so far. I don’t see any peculiar difficulties related to me being an international student. My only concern is that local students often have backgrounds on cases that were public matters in the U.S. and I often feel left out when they discuss those stories in the class.

Pond: I am also doing well. I am meeting new people, learning new things. My only problem is time management. Also, I sometimes have difficulties during case discussions in class because people speak very fast; they also often use slang and jokes that I don’t understand.

Nadine (Harbus): HBS organizes a lot of events aimed at facilitating students’ transition here. Is there anything that could be improved?

Rei: During my university years in Japan, I used to be a mentor for international students. Each new international student was assigned a mentor who helped him or her settle in the country. We fetched them from the airport, took them to their residence and served as a guide for a few days after their arrival. This type of system could be incredibly helpful to international students here.

Pond: We have a lot of regional student clubs here, but an International Club for all the international students could be very helpful by leveraging all the different strengths of the regional clubs. This club can then organize mentors/buddies for newcomers.