Three stories above an outdoor course in the mountains of Pennsylvania, the MBA Class of 2010 received their first grad school lesson. Starting with 50-foot Alpine Tower, the day featured several obstacles designed to teach the incoming first-year students to push themselves past their limits. The course was created as part of Tepper Team Day, an annual event capping two weeks of orientation prior to the start of classes at the end of August.
Students worked in 15-person teams, shedding the baggage of their prior experiences and learning to work together on problems.
“It was one of our first real team-building events,” says student Joanna O’Kelley, a triathlete and former collegiate swimmer who came to the Tepper School after spending a few years as a consultant in Washington, D.C. “We could really get physical and get to know each other quickly in an environment where school didn’t matter, and it didn’t matter what your background was.”
Micah Paul Keith, a first-year MBA from Utah, was part of a group that dubbed itself the B-3 Bombers.
“You’re in a totally different environment, not in a workshop or lecture, dressed up and thinking you’re smarter than everyone,” he says.
That’s exactly the mindset that Student Services is aiming for, according to director Wendy Hermann, who coordinates the MBA event.
“It really removes them from distractions,” she says. “Our students are all problem solvers. They want to find a right way to do it. So, it’s interesting to see people try to develop a process for a solution.”
In one activity, students are blindfolded and asked to hold a wire as they follow a path between trees. They are told they may call a facilitator — usually a second-year MBA — for help at any time, then sent along their way. What they don’t know is that they aren’t following a path that leads anywhere; they don’t “arrive” until they ask for help, something high achievers might struggle to do.
A few students will continue blindfolded while their new classmates watch them wander aimlessly in circles. That’s when the second-year students help out by smoothing things over.
“The facilitators are pretty good at admitting, ‘I was that guy; I was there for 20 minutes,’” says Hermann.
For O’Kelley, the event gave her a newfound sense of reliance on people who were complete strangers just a few weeks before.
“When I started class on Monday, I knew these people already,” says O’Kelley. “I had built a trust network. Going into the next seven weeks, if I get stuck or overloaded, I’m ready to ask any of these people for help.”
For a few students, particularly those who have difficulty with heights, the Alpine Tower proved to be the greatest challenge. As one woman hesitated, the entire class gathered at the base and cheered her on until she reached the top.
To Keith, that single moment exemplified the MBA experience.
“You want to be top in the class, get the best internship, get the most offers,” he says.
“But this whole experience, and the second-years and alumni I’ve talked to, say, ‘that’s just not here.’ This activity is a symbol of the attitude that’s at Tepper: We’re all in this together. Let’s lift each other up and overcome any obstacle and make things happen. It’s powerful.”