I just finished my first year at HBS and, COVID-19 aside, I have spent a considerable amount of time over the past week reflecting on how incredible, humbling, enlightening, and roller-coaster-like the past 12-months have been. It is hard to think that it was just a year-and-a-half ago that I walked up to the second floor of Spangler for my Admissions interview. Only then did the thought of attending HBS seem close enough to visualize, but realistically so far out of reach that it remained an evasive dream. 

In fact, it was a dream my parents would have never imagined would become a reality. We immigrated from Colombia in the late 90s and lived the first decade of our American lives as undocumented immigrants after various attempts to adjust our immigration status failed. We joined the many first-generation immigrants who are the construction and cleaning engines fueling the growth of our cities and keeping them clean.

Yet what has struck me the most during my reflection is not the fact that I made it here and felt like I fit in despite my family’s story. I made it here and fit in because of it. I realized that for the past decade, my focus on success had led me to believe I needed to “fit in” in order to get the promotion, land the next job, and get the raise. I had mastered the art of camouflage, and, though I never felt ashamed of my story—in fact, I would never change it because it has taught the most valuable lessons of life—I had shared it only with a few intimate colleagues and friends. 

During my first week at HBS, I went about introductions the way I had rehearsed them – my name is Mauricio, I was born in Colombia but raised in Florida, I went to Georgetown for undergrad, worked in banking at Goldman for four years and spent the last two-years as the head of finance at an LA-based startup before coming to HBS. Yet the superficial nature of those introductions drastically changed after meeting my section (Section J).

Shortly after the start of the fall semester, I was invited to deliver the first “MyTake” in my section. HBS “MyTakes” are Ted-X style talks delivered by students about their lives, hobbies, or subjects of expertise. I stood in front of my 94 section mates and five professors, none of whom I had met just two months earlier, and I poured my life out—talk about breaking the ice. I shared the story of my parents; whose extreme poverty limited them to an elementary school education. I spoke of my personal struggle with our immigration process, the lack of belonging I had experienced growing up, and the sense of despair I felt when I couldn’t attend college after graduating from high school because of my undocumented status. But I also shared the fact that my parent’s story taught me the value of perseverance, humility, and hard work and I confessed that my graduation from Georgetown had crystalized the meaning of hope and joy, the pinnacle of which I later experienced when I bought my parents their first home with my savings from the years I worked in banking. It’s no hyperbole to say you could hear a pin drop in the room that day. Nor words aptly describe the sense of connection I felt to each member of my section at that moment. Somehow, after only a month together, Section J became my family and for the first time in my adult life I felt welcomed in my entirety, with my whole story, not just the education and the jobs I had listed on my resume. 

It was then that I also understood the depth of value offered by the HBS section experience. The case method is incredible at helping us cultivate a profoundly analytical and conversational mind. The cases used in each course are challenging and support the foundation of the academic rigor at HBS. But the section—the incredibly diverse group of 94 classmates, hand-picked by the administration to create a representative microcosm of the entire +900 class—has been the most wonderful unexpected gift in my HBS journey. To them I am grateful for the many lessons they have taught me, but, most importantly, to them I am grateful for giving me the freedom to be my authentic self.