Europe & Russia, Exchange program, global network, International Students, Student Perspective

From Paris to Charlottesville and Back: Exchange Student Nefé Etomi Returns to HEC full of Darden Lessons, Memories and a Newfound Love for Vineyards

By Lauren Wallace-
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Nefé Etomi (second from right in above photo) is a Fall 2019 Exchange Student from HEC Paris in France, located just outside of Paris in a city called Jouy en Josas. Nefé began her MBA degree from a traditional and nontraditional business background. While working in finance at Deutsche Bank in London and getting her ACA (CPA equivalent), she launched a music career that she pursued full time after four years at Deutsche Bank. During this time, she tried her turn at consulting, which inspired and confirmed her goal of pursuing an MBA degree. “The decision to pursue an MBA stemmed from my early career in finance, and my experience consulting reinforced that decision,” Nefé shared. “I am interested in many industries and I have always liked working on different and various projects at the same time, whether in school or in my personal time. Consulting suits me because it is a great way to learn about many industries and to constantly learn new things.”

Nefé spent some time with us sharing more about her MBA experience at Darden:

How did you hear of Darden and what made you decide to study abroad here on exchange?

I knew I wanted to do an exchange program during my MBA journey, though initially I wanted to do my MBA in the U.S. with an exchange in France. However, HEC’s program worked better for me at the time and so I chose to do exchange at Darden because one of my good friends in the U.S. recommended the school. I heard that Charlottesville is beautiful in the fall, and I have some family in Washington, D.C., Charlotte, N.C., and other nearby states so being on the East Coast also attracted me to Darden. I lived in the U.S. very briefly as a child and have visited the States almost every year as an adult, but I was intrigued to get a taste of what life would be like here as an adult in a non-holiday setting. I wanted my exchange experience to be fully immersive, and Darden’s unique situation in Charlottesville yet close enough to D.C. where I could visit family, fit my search criteria quite nicely.

Is this your first time participating in an academic exchange program? If so, what have been some key lessons you have learned from this experience?

Officially, yes, though I have traveled internationally many times before this exchange experience. One of the biggest lessons I have learned from my Darden experience is speaking up in class discussions. Actively participating in discussions makes me concentrate during class, think about my opinions and articulate my points better. At HEC, I did not speak up in class as much but contributing in class is one of the most valuable skills I have practiced here at Darden. Trusting my own mind more has been personally rewarding and I am grateful to some of my classmates that have given me feedback on my opinions and encouraged me to continue to share my points. I have enjoyed comparing and contrasting some of the points raised in class with the European and African perspectives I bring.

Another aspect of the exchange program for which I am grateful is the opportunity to get involved in clubs and events – without having to plan them! At HEC I am very active and involved in many extracurricular activities, but also involved in all of the planning associated with those activities. The exchange program allows me to enjoy clubs and extracurriculars without having to plan any events, which has been an eye-opening experience for me to completely immerse in the program and has also served as a great way to meet more people. I joined several clubs this semester, including the Consulting Club, Graduate Women in Business, Black Business Student Association, Latin American Student Association, Darden Africa Business Organization and Adam Smith Society, to name a few.

Nefé with several Fall 2019 exchange students at Darden

How has living and pursuing your MBA in Charlottesville been similar or different to your experience in Paris?

HEC feels like a small city in that it is the hub of activities and always has so many events happening at any given time. Darden has a very similar vibe. HEC is located just outside of Paris in Jouy en Josas, so there are even small city similarities between HEC and Darden. However, HEC is only 40 minutes away from Paris, unlike the two-hour commute between Charlottesville and D.C., so there are still plenty of living differences that I have had to grow accustomed to here, such as the lack of accessible public transportation within Charlottesville and between neighboring cities.

The main difference that I experience between HEC and Darden is the level of international exposure and experiences among Darden students compared to HEC students. There is no real cultural dominance at HEC: HEC is comprised of about 92% international students from 60 different countries and the average student speaks three languages, so students are enveloped in different cultures and constantly learn various cultural perspectives from their peers. Though the majority of Darden students are American, I have appreciated joining a seemingly homogenous group of people only to discover that there is much more difference than I anticipated, reminding me that there is way more to diversity than meets the eye.

What will you miss the most about the Darden community when you return to Paris?

My favorite memories of Darden must include First Coffee, of course! It was initially overwhelming trying to find people to talk to and not just stick to the safe circle of exchange students, but it ended up being such a nice time to catch up with friends and professors in between classes, and to enjoy free food when it is available (I will definitely miss all the free food up for grabs at Darden!) Though I have yet to take full advantage of them, I will also miss the tons of fall activities to do in Charlottesville, like hiking, apple picking and trips to wineries.

There is such a community feel here at Darden; I felt so welcomed into the community during my few months here. Darden students always invited us to events, reached out to get to know us better, offered to give us lifts around town. I have been very touched by how warm everyone has been – I suppose it has given me a glimpse into the “southern hospitality” I hear so much about. Getting to be a part of the Darden Section rivalry has been a joy that I will miss, since that is not something we do at HEC. Even when I am out shopping, I find myself looking for subtle yellow accessories now (Go Section E!)

What would you say to students who are considering coming to Darden on exchange?

Absolutely come! I would especially recommend doing the exchange in the first semester to experience the beautiful summer and fall seasons in Charlottesville. There are many activities to do in the fall, and everyone is excited to be on grounds for the start of their first or second year at Darden. Another unexpected joy of attending Darden are the relationships and rapport I have built with Darden faculty. The faculty are extremely welcoming and there are several with whom I know I will stay in touch after my time here, which is definitely not something I was expecting.

Nefé with Darden classmates at a local winery