Where There Is Smoke…

You are not quite sure what you want to say about this week.

At its face, the story of how an MBA program was affected by the worst wildfire in California history feels small and any focus on it insignificant at best and disrespectful at worst. Even the obligatory cover photo of a man in a mask feels trite – this is about so much more than masks.

Yet, there is a story there, and in the experience of the week, you think important and valuable lessons for the “beginner’s mind.”

What began with a surprise on the morning of the 13th to find out classes at UC Davis were canceled, led to a conversation on your class’s Whatsapp group about how by doing so, the university shot itself in the foot. If the weather did not improve the next day, or the day after that, they would have set precedent that they would cancel and open themselves to liability. Sure enough, after the initial announcement that classes would proceed they reneged on that promise the following morning. And they canceled the next day. And the day after that.

UC Davis has been closed for over a week now, leading into your Thanksgiving break.

And, to be honest, at first, it felt like a snow day.

Snow-day

This little inner child screams with glee about the ability to be irresponsible and un-adult. A day to just play. You make plans in the evening with friends. You take that trip to San Francisco for a meet-up and you do so with a lot less reservation of being sleepy the next day for classes. Your international classmates joke, rather darkly, that the air quality causing said cancelation is no worse than an average day in Beijing or cities in India. And they aren’t exaggerating. Which really, truly makes you think. Only when you live it, does the reality of what that means actually set in.

beijing-air-pollution

Shortly, however, reality sets in.

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As one class after another, one club after another, one program after another, gets canceled, you start actually connecting to the inexorable truth that you are, in fact, an adult. You have paid for an opportunity to learn, one that you have placed all bets on to open up new doors of fortune for your life. You are “all in” as the poker players put it.

all-in

You start wondering if you actually had a winning bet, or maybe you did, but the hand is going to have to be played over due to a freakin’ technicality. Sure, you and your classmates are graded on a curve, but will you now be penalized for being an aural learner? Will you lose your scholarship at the end of the year based on the fact that you couldn’t go to a class and learn the material as fully as you can? You are in a quarter system, so each class only has ten meetings. You have now missed two for accounting. This is not a small percentage.

Meanwhile, your professors are canceling homework, and you find yourself using valuable time looking into informational interviews and internship applications, and you are actually grateful for this added opportunity, perhaps, arguably, to do what is really, truthfully the most valuable thing you do in an MBA. Job search. You discuss the tragedy with a couple of people, and it makes you sound smart, informed and caring. Did you just use the tragedy to sound like a better person? Are you that ruthless about getting ahead?

You are also starting to recognize that the air… is getting worse. This is no longer a joke about Americans freaking out over an everyday occurrence overseas. Your family is texting you about wearing masks, and you know you should, but perhaps you are in shock, or maybe it’s your Beijing-resident classmate warning that masks themselves cause danger. You have come around to the idea that UC Davis did the right thing. Being here isn’t healthy.

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Inextricably though, you return to campus one more time. To the annual “Friendsgiving” celebration. You bring your “spare change” coin jar to the event after it is announced that donations will be accepted for the victims of the Campfire. It is completely full at the end of the night, and some of that “change” is in the form of $20 bills and gift cards. There is a low turnout – many have chosen to not come back to campus now that classes are canceled. But, then again, the turnout isn’t as low as you expected. Despite the fact that is now, at times, even hard to breathe INSIDE the building, everyone gathers, mostly people from countries outside of America, and a tradition is held.

You catch up with a few people from adjoining programs you haven’t spoken to in weeks. Who somehow now feel like old friends.

And honestly? You just feel lucky. Some absent classmates have relatives who have lost their homes. Others are absent due to being busy volunteering in Chico. You and your classmates are using the Whatsapp group to reach out to check on the former and reach out to support the latter with pride.

You hit the road the next morning, leaving the eerie grey calm of a near-empty campus behind you. You can’t help but think this all feels a bit post-apocalyptic.

You will be back next week. The journey continues.

You are, indeed, thankful for that. Whatever happens next.

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