My MBA experience so far: I thought I knew. I had no idea.

Turn back the clock to last November when my interviewer asked what I want to do during and after my time at Sloan. Before I begin to answer with lglowing descriptions of the well-researched ways I’d contribute to the MIT community in and outside the classroom and in the world beyond Sloan, he adds: “Let’s pretend you actually know. Because you really don’t.”

By virtue of my admission, I must have given him a good enough answer. But he was right. I had no idea.

If there’s anyone in the Class of 2015, 2016, (and now 2017!) who should have had a clue about the MBA life, it should have been me. As many of my classmates know and as anyone who does a Google or Linkedin search of my name can discover, in my life before MIT Sloan, I was a Research Associate at Harvard Business School. I wrote case studies and teaching notes to help professors teach the cases I wrote.* I worked as a TA for two semesters, creating slide decks, evaluating student participation, and grading exams. I got lunch in the same cafeteria, worked out in the same gym, and locked my bike on the same racks as the 1800-plus MBAs across the Charles River.

Even if I’d never worked a day at HBS, I’d have had plenty of time to familiarize myself with the conventions of the MBA experience and prepare myself for all the charms and quirks of the b-school life. Between the day I was admitted to Sloan and the first day of orientation, I had eight months to reach out to current students and hear about their experiences. On at least one occasion, I got off at the “Kendall/MIT” T stop, sat in E62, and soaked in the culture that within the year I’d have the pleasure and privilege of calling my own.

Based on what others had told me, I knew that there would be extremely late nights for parties and projects. I knew that my crowd of peers was going to be insanely diverse and accomplished. I knew I was going to struggle when it came to grasping the technical pieces of a business education — and then I was going to struggle more because learning accounting would be the hardest thing for me since learning Mandarin Chinese. And yet no amount of experience, preparation, or knowledge could have made me truly ready or able to expect what was in store for me the past semester.

Four months ago, walking into orientation, I was surrounded by four hundred strangers. Two weeks ago, in the dim Wednesday night lights of the Beacon Hill Pub, I was embraced by many of these no-longer-strangers toasting the end of the Core. And while I’d have to dig up my slides to tell you the balance sheet transaction for retiring a bond, I could tell you the name of just about everyone who was in that bar.

There were times this semester when I felt I just couldn’t do it. I broke down from the stress of solving cases for DMD. I panicked like no other in the run-up to my Communications for Leaders presentations. I felt utterly useless when sitting with my team to go through financials for group cases for Competitive Strategy. The list goes on.

Just a semester in, I can say this program is the hardest thing I’ve ever done and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. Because every time I was willing to be push myself into the notorious “stretch zone” and be uncomfortable, I learned. Because every time I was willing to rely on my peers and ask for help, I was met by incomparable kindness and support. I am beyond grateful to the people in this program for reminding me that I was never in this alone.

As my interviewer said: I thought I knew what this would all be like. I had no idea. And that’s a wonderful thing.

To all these those reading and especially the “beautiful Sloanies” who’ve entered my life this year, I wish you nothing but the best in 2015. Happy new year!

Erica

*Because people often want to know, these are the titles of the case studies I wrote. N.B.: You probably haven’t read any of them: “Kunshan, Inc.: The Making of China’s Richest Town”; “Teach For China and the Chinese Nonprofit Sector”; “Wanxiang Group: A Chinese Company’s Global Strategy (B)”; “From Beijing Jeep to ASC Fine Wines: The Story of an American Family Business in China.”