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emba diary

Oksana Chikina is an EMBA student at Rotman in Toronto.

Oksana Chikina, who hails from Uzbekistan, is an international development professional on a leave of absence from Population Services International (PSI), a U.S.-based non-governmental organization. Having spent the past 12 years living and working in 10 countries on four continents, she is spending a year as an international student attending the executive MBA program at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. This is her second post for MBA Diary.

If you read my previous post, you might remember that having barely made it to Canada before the official start of my executive MBA program, I had spent two weeks trying to read hundreds of pages of marketing, accounting and finance. And so my first residential week began in mid-September. I was very excited to meet the other 64 EMBA students. Diversity in the room continues to impress me even now, after almost a month of classes: investment bankers, entrepreneurs, Canadian military officers, engineers, management consultants and medical doctors of all ages and cultural backgrounds. They say you learn as much from the people in class as you do from the textbooks and professors. That's even more true in an EMBA program, where you can learn more from your peers.

First, however, you have to reach a certain level of trust and comfort with your group and that takes time. You need to find a person behind a fancy title, overcome the wave of intimidation after the first round of introductions, and … remember yourself. My first week was full of surprises and unnecessary stresses related to communication and culture. I should mention that this had nothing to do with my English language skills.

It all started with the introductions. What is one of the first questions you ask when meeting classmates in business school? You start with, "What do you do?" And then you hope that you have enough information about the industry and company to carry the conversation forward. Well, I am an aid and development worker and, until the first day of school, was very proud of it. Naturally, not many people were familiar with international development as an industry and, unfortunately, I had a very hard time trying to explain how I've earned a living over the past decade. Honestly, why would one leave her family and friends, pack belongings into a 23-kilogram duffel bag (otherwise known as a "rolling coffin") and go to places often full of diseases, with limited infrastructure and very unique (for the lack of a better word) social life? And why would you change countries every year or so, not speaking local languages? Who would even pay you for doing that? Yes, at times I did feel that I was speaking Vietnamese.

And then I had an epiphany: This experience demonstrates the reason why international organizations fail to raise money to "make the world a better place" and why there is so little integration between non-governmental organizations and the private sector. The answer is simple: We get too wrapped up in our mutual lingo and forget the basic wisdom of describing everything in simple terms. And this applies to almost every industry and position, as I am sure many of my classmates picked up on the perplexed looks from me.

So, advice to the future EMBA students: Get your elevator speeches ready and do it early. Do not forget to put the person you are before the title and industry you're in. If you have small children, take this audience very seriously and practise. Believe it or not, this will help break the ice and get past the first awkward minutes of new conversations. And an extra tip for international students from smaller and less known countries: Work on introducing your country in two sentences and pretend that you are an ambassador . People are genuinely interested and want to learn.

My second major shock was related to my lack of knowledge of Canadian culture and the importance of this knowledge in the context of the program. The EMBA courses focus on using examples from the Canadian industries and that was my challenge in the beginning. For example, I completely missed the point of a 10-minute presentation on strategy as I had no idea what Tim Hortons was really all about. Yes, by now I know that this is an iconic element of life in Canada and truly wish I had had a cup before my first strategy class.

These soft elements came along with all the hard accounting principles and financial calculations that are an essential part of any business program. So my learning continues to be multidimensional and often unexpected.