Darden grads Amanda Wiggans and Katie Cech were recently named to the annual 100 Best & Brightest MBAs for the Class of 2021 by Poets & Quants. In a Q&A with Poets and Quants, the two each shared why they chose Darden to pursue their MBA, what they’re most proud of and how their academic experience was influenced by the pandemic.
Wiggans, who was a UVA Entrepreneurship Cup (E-Cup) finalist, and president of Humans of Darden. She is passionate about criminal justice, and worked to develop and manage prison programs, including a 8-month curriculum that trained the incarcerated in entrepreneurship. Listen to Wiggans on the Experience Darden podcast, and check out more about the E-Cup and her first-place venture, Grome.
Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school?
I think I’m most proud of my role with Humans of Darden. My First Year, I helped run our randomized dinner club, which I loved but hadn’t really intended to seek a leadership role my Second Year. With some encouragement from the outgoing president, I applied and now have the opportunity to work with an amazing board of peers for an organization that I think is desperately needed, especially during the pandemic. We have continued some of the events that have made the club special since its inception (dinner club, game nights…for the record I am one of four reigning Darden Catan champions) as well as added some new ones. Since our whole mission centers around the power of small group gatherings, the pandemic restrictions have actually allowed us to expand our reach, supporting new events like a virtual meditation retreat, Thanksgiving dinners cooked by domestic students for International students, randomized Valentine’s Day “buddy” dinners, and a small group orientation event for First Years. Leading an organization this year has been both a huge challenge and learning opportunity.
Why did you choose this business school?
I chose Darden for two main reasons: its dual MBA/M.Ed. program and its use of the case method. My long-term goal is to work at the intersection of business, technology, and education – and my work with Defy showed me just how important having skills in both areas really is if you want to enact meaningful change, especially in education. I also knew that standard lecture-based classes would be tough for me, having never taken finance, accounting, or statistics; my college experience at a liberal arts school made me really appreciate the value of discussion-based classes. I knew these two aspects of Darden would help me maximize my two years, and I can say with certainty that they have.
What was your favorite MBA event or tradition at your business school?
I think the Building Goodness in April Auction is a very cool Darden tradition. Each section builds a deck with items donated by students and professors — ranging from poker nights to pep talks to tennis with the dean — and then a live auction ensues to benefit Building Goodness, a local organization dedicated to providing homes and buildings for disadvantaged populations. Everyone gets super creative with their submissions, and I learned a lot about my classmates’ hobbies and interests (including that Mack has a future in auctioneering if investment banking doesn’t work out.) It’s fun to see some portion of signing bonuses disappear on a live tracker as each section competes to outraise each other.
What surprised you the most about business school?
Candidly, how much work you have First Year. I was certainly not fully prepared for the mountain of responsibilities you have – between academics, recruiting, career exploration, social engagement. At times, balancing it all truly felt like a juggling act that was seconds away from total catastrophe. I am extremely grateful to have an incredibly supportive partner who cheered me on the whole way, even though he did not see me much during those first few months! And ultimately, I came out the other side better for it, as the pressure of first-year helped me identify my priorities – both professionally and personally – and I learned to make tough tradeoffs in order to focus on the things that mattered most to me.
What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose?
Being very selective about the school to which I applied. I did my homework early and set my sights on only three schools that would be game changing for me. By narrowing my search and focus my research, I was able to really tell my “Why Darden” story because I knew the program very deeply. Through my essays and interviews, I was able to demonstrate how committed I was about Darden specifically, and get beyond the general excitement about business school in general. I believe that passion set me apart in a sea of incredibly talented and accomplished applicants.
How disruptive was it to shift to a hybrid environment after COVID hit?
The disruptions have come in waves. To Darden’s credit, the administration moved mountains in the initial days to make sure the pivot to an entirely remote learning environment was a smooth and painless as possible. To this day, I am still in awe of what they were able to accomplish in less than 10 days. Then as we settled into “virtual school,” we dealt with new challenges like how to remain focused when your email is just a click away and what to do when you’ve been staring at your computer from the same spot on your couch for 10+ hours. Over the summer and heading into the fall, the whole Darden community did its best to embrace the new normal, finding the silver linings in hybrid classroom set ups and cherishing social opportunities when they arose. It would be foolhardy to say it wasn’t – and still is – an incredibly challenging year that none of us expected to navigate when we originally showed up on Grounds in August 2019. But I have to believe that through the challenges and disruptions, we’ve become more resilient and perhaps even more grateful than we were to start.
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