Hi, my name is Heather Jackson, and I am not supposed to be at Harvard Business School. No, I don’t mean I was an ‘admissions mistake’ (though every single admit, myself included, has thought this countless times). I mean, by every possible statistic, I shouldn’t be here. I grew up in a low-income single-parent household in rural Kentucky - I am talking about a town of 4,000 people and one incredible Betty’s OK Country Cooking restaurant with an out-of-this-world catfish buffet. My parents did not graduate from college, neither did anyone in my family or most other families I knew. Growing up, I did not have any idea what an MBA was or why anyone would need one.

Enjoying Kentucky’s Lake Cumberland from the pontoon

It was years after leaving my beloved hometown that I would hear that all-empowering phrase: “The answer is YES!” In my final year at Vanderbilt, I had started thinking about grad school. I had accepted an offer to move to Miami and work at Restaurant Brands International (Burger King, Tim Hortons, Popeyes) in their Leadership Development Program. While I was honored and excited about the opportunity, I couldn’t picture what was next on the horizon. It was then I heard about the 2+2 program at HBS. I really could not bring myself to believe that they would ever accept me into such a program, nor could I ever imagine I could afford it. I was an English major in undergrad and had not settled on business as a career path until later in my college career. I really didn’t believe I fit the bill as the all-ambitious corporate guru that I imagined all HBS students to be (hilarious in retrospect). With encouragement from my friends and professors, I decided to apply anyway, and wow, am I happy I did.

I remember exactly where I was when I received the answer that I was accepted: sitting on the floor of the LAX airport (1/10 do not recommend). I was blown away. First, by amazement that Harvard Business School chose me out of all the incredible choices. Second, by the slightly panicked feeling of how I would afford it all. I had received a full-ride scholarship to attend Vanderbilt, and I worked odd jobs on top of that to support myself and my family. I had never taken on debt and did not know how it worked, so I had a lot of fear of the unknown.

However, as I learned more about the HBS Financial Aid office (read: asked many very dumb questions to the Financial Aid office), I discovered different resources and opportunities that I could turn to in order to make this impossible dream a reality. The Forward Fellowship was designed for students like me with extenuating family circumstances that make the financial burden of pursuing an MBA extra tricky. When I first heard about the fellowship, I felt a sense of calm knowing that there were others like me on campus who, though they may not look like me or come from the same place as me, share a similar story. I not only feel fortunate to be a recipient of need-based financial aid and the Forward Fellowship, but I am now part of a developing community of other recipients who share similar journeys.

All in all, my time at HBS has been transformative (one of the truest clichés that you’ll hear about HBS). I wear my background like a badge of honor here, which is something I have never felt before. It’s unlikely that you’ll have a conversation with me where I don’t find a way to namedrop the great Commonwealth of Kentucky, and I’ve even have had the unique opportunity to jumpstart a club on campus dedicated to increasing awareness and empathy for rural America, The Heartland Club. After graduation, I’ll be moving to Seattle and starting as a Sr. Product Manager at Amazon Web Services, but no matter where I head off to next, I will always be extremely proud to tout the fact that no, I was never supposed to make it to Harvard Business School, but neither were so many of my incredible classmates, and that’s what makes this place so special.