Embracing A New Culture At MIT Sloan

Jeffrey Yang is CFO at Shanying Paper Industry Co., North America and a member of the MIT EMBA Class of 2017.

Having earned my prior educational degrees in China, I knew things would be very different at a U.S. school much less at MIT Sloan. After all, it's a completely different language and culture.
Not surprisingly, I hit a few bumps in the road when I first began the program. It's a rigorous program for anyone, but when you don't understand all of the cultural references, it's an added challenge. That can make some non-native speakers (like me) a bit reluctant to dive into the conversation. However, being part of the discussion – both in and out of classes — is a big part of this program. It's the sharing of perspectives and experiences that makes this such an enriching learning environment.
Fortunately, everyone is extremely supportive from the faculty and staff to students. With some coaching, I was able to get past these cultural hurdles and fully immerse myself in this transformational program. If you're coming to MIT Sloan from another culture, here are a few tips to smooth your transition:

Teaching Styles
If you've never studied at a U.S. school before, expect to find some major differences. Coming from China, I found the teaching style at MIT Sloan very different. While Chinese professors give you knowledge and theory, MIT Sloan professors engage students. When questions are asked, rather than giving the answer, the professors ask questions to inspire critical thinking and a deeper expression of insights among students.
Give Feedback
Expect to be asked for feedback about the program. This was a new experience for me, as students in China aren't asked for our opinions on professors or courses. But at MIT Sloan, you're encouraged to share feedback, which is often used to iterate courses. It's common for a professor to discuss those changes at the beginning of class, as this is a very open environment.

Don't Hide From Conflict
You'll work on diverse teams and conflicts will happen. Coming from many different backgrounds and experiences, not everyone will think like you. The program prepares students for this early in the program. You'll have a problem-solving exercise to work through, and then you'll come up with guiding principles to follow for future team projects.

Ask For Help
While my classmates come from all over the world, I'm the only Mandarin-speaking student in my cohort. I've worked in Switzerland and the U.S. for about eight years, but there are plenty of cultural references that I don't know. While I came to MIT eager to contribute in class, I lost some of that energy when I realized that I wasn't fully understanding many of the cultural topics discussed in class. I was hesitant to express my confusion, as I didn't want to waste anyone's time much less separate myself from the group.
Fortunately, this is a supportive environment and my increasing silence was noticed. Being MIT Sloan, my study group gave me feedback. They told me I should speak up more and voice my perspective. When I explained I wasn't comfortable, they helped me gain confidence. They encouraged me to be more open about times when things are lost in translation.
They also encouraged me to start talking to more students outside of our study group. They were right. While it's great to bond with your study group, part of the value of this program comes from the network you can develop here.
In addition, I sought help from the program's executive coach. He provided an analysis of my behavior and suggestions for how to change the dynamic. This executive coaching is available for all EMBA students.
Every student has challenges whether its class content or communication. Share that with classmates, professors, and staff so they can support you. Don't try to hide your challenge because you will only end up limiting your experience.

The Bottom Line
Nobody is perfect and we are here to learn and to improve ourselves to make a greater impact. Be open about your challenges, ask for help, and make an effort to make connections. No matter what your challenge is, you'll find support to overcome it so that you can make the most out of your MIT Sloan experience.