Roughly four years ago, I emailed a request for a need-based fee waiver for Ross School of Business’s external transfer application, expecting no response. Now, as I near the end of my college career as a working-class first-generation Latino Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) student, to say that my time at the Ross School of Business has been transformational is an understatement.
Usually, when a fellow Wolverine asks me what my major is, they are startled to learn that I am a Business major and even more surprised that I didn’t simply respond with an irksome singular syllable: “Ross.” Apparently, I give off sociology-public-policy-or-humanities major vibes.
Ross is an abbreviation for the Stephen M. Ross School of Business and serves as a casual umbrella term for the program. Whenever people ask me about my experience in Ross, I always preface my elaboration by explicitly mentioning that in my analysis of Ross, I decouple the institution itself — which encompasses faculty, staff and resources — from the culture among the student body, specifically the undergraduate cohorts of BBAs. The rigorous academic experience offered by the institution is truly deserving of its world-class distinction and numerous accolades. The culture created within the BBA student body … is a bit more complicated.
My first interaction with Ross BBAs actually occurred a few months before setting foot onto the University of Michigan’s campus. During a multi-day diversity conference hosted by a large bank, I met two Ross BBAs that I bonded with as we roamed around New York City with a large group. These two BBAs were gregarious and down-to-earth, and I thought that they were representative of the greater Ross culture. Little did I know, I was completely wrong.
Shortly after the conference, I received an email that I had been accepted into Ross. With only a week to accept, I had to make the most consequential decision of my life up to that point. Ross releases decisions for external transfer applications in late June, which is considerably later than the typical early-to-mid May admissions date from other schools. At the time of the conference, I had already established in my mind that I would be transferring to Boston College’s Carroll School of Management in the upcoming fall. I was stunned by the surrealness of my decision, but my parents were even more perplexed than me. Given that I am the first in my family to go to college, conveying to my parents the gravitas of choosing between two schools in terms of prestige, geographical distance and financial aid was difficult. Ultimately, it’s pretty clear which business school I ended up attending.
At the BBA sophomore orientation held shortly after the academic year started, I kept my eye out for the two BBAs I had met months prior. They were ecstatic but equally confused to see me before I explained to them the life-altering development that occurred shortly after we had met at the conference. Soon, I too would be flummoxed, except my shock would be caused by the prevalent opulence found throughout the halls of the University.
Now let’s talk about the BBA student body culture. You know, the Rossholes. The smug BBAs that brandish the infuriating “YeAh I’m In RoSs” phrase. These instances reinforce the Rosshole stereotype that BBAs will attempt to shoehorn their association with Ross into any conversation. Consequently, everyone loves to dunk on Ross, which occurs on a spectrum of valid critiques from vehement anti-capitalist rhetoric to light-hearted jabs. Even BBAs themselves engage in self-denigration for the sake of friendly banter.
The BBA culture is like a vast ocean. BBAs can choose to remain on the periphery by treading in the safer waist-high shallow areas, but inevitably, everyone is forced to get soaked and swim through the turbulent waters at some junctures. The currents of the BBA grading distribution — a.k.a. the notorious Ross curve — ebb and flow with the tidal ranges of exam season. The midterms and finals are like the moon and sun, exerting a gravitational pull made most apparent when hundreds of BBAs huddle outside of classrooms as they wait to be funneled in by proctors. The whirlpools of on-campus recruiting (OCR) appear in the fall and suck upperclassmen BBAs into the abyss known as LinkedIn. At times, a BBA student like myself can feel like a fish out of water, floundering for help. It feels as if you bleed even an ounce of vulnerability and weakness, BBAs will devour and shred your confidence to bits like frenzied sharks. For example, there is a general uneasiness that arises from Ross’s inherent spirit of competition and capitalism that others are out to get you when clamoring for class participation points.
Investment banking and strategy consulting are what most Canada Goose-adjacent BBAs in Ross-affiliated pre-professional student organizations flock toward. Why are roles in the two aforementioned industries so coveted? The reasons generally boil down to money, prestige and career advancement. These entry-level positions are often described as client-facing or revenue-generating roles and feed into lucrative positions of seniority. Moreover, these roles provide managerial and functional skills as well as operational, financial and technical experience. The skills, experience and pedigree are all pivotal for professionals seeking to climb up the ladder into the upper echelons of business.
These aforementioned pre-professional student organizations consist of finance clubs, consulting clubs and business fraternities. After attending several informational sessions and presentations, interested applicants must submit extensive applications. If their application advances, they will go through a rigorous and grueling process that consists of club coffee chats (yuck) and several rounds of interviews to squeeze out their remaining innocence. The senior members of these clubs exert power over applicants, seeking to emulate the same rigorous process they underwent. For example, candidates must feign interest in those who, not so long ago, were also satiating the egos of other senior members; thus, they impose the same sadistic expectations — if their unfettered influence over helpless applicants is not enough to satisfy them.
One focal point in the slide decks shown during these pre-professional clubs’ informational sessions is the “Placements” slide. These slides — which feature a multitude of corporate logos indicating the firms where current and past members have worked — are displayed in a manner that resembles the menus plastered onto the side of an idyllic ice cream truck. In some sense, the presenters might as well be ice cream truck vendors enticing their mesmerized, prospective customers. “Care to try two scoops of our classically-caustic-consulting-caramel ice cream? Would you like a bitter-banana-boutique-investment-bank popsicle? How about the faithlessly-fruity-finance sorbeto? Apply to our org, and you might get a taste of these scrumptious flavors … IF you get in!”
These pre-professional student clubs seek to recruit cookie-cutter candidates that will ossify their clubs’ gatekeeper statuses and top placements. BBA corporate zealots then frequently broadcast their involvement in these clubs by strewing their club acronyms into their conversations.
Although the recruitment process for these pre-professional STUDENT clubs is agonizing for everyone involved, there is one unsatisfying, yet sound, reason for the insanity. A graduating executive board can be the death knell for a student organization, losing its momentum and fervor once the founders leave. This is one reason why student clubs come and go: many of them live and die by the state of their current and future leaders. I have witnessed at least two first-gen clubs form, exist for less than two years and unfortunately fizzle out.
In recognition of this, Ross’s pre-professional student clubs structure themselves in a way that makes them more resilient. The numerous “director” and “vice president” positions are not just for résumé padding, but are also intended to sustain a high degree of internal involvement and engagement. The ample junior-level leadership spots serve as robust succession pipelines that hedge against disarray and ensure the clubs’ longevity.
However, this concrete structure also foments a rigid club culture, ultimately inspiring the same internal affinity biases that plague the corporate world’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) efforts. The informal networks that are siloed within these clubs parallel the informal networks that exist in the corporate world — which are also predominantly white, upper-class and elite — serving as obstacles for candidates of underrepresented identities and nontraditional backgrounds from reaching the upper echelons of business.
As a result, it can be more difficult and intimidating for students from underrepresented backgrounds to compete against upper-class peers who have known about target schools, case interviews and the investment-banking-to-private-equity career trajectory since high school. All but a few are rejected, and future prospective applicants, noticing the near lack of representation, may be deterred from applying. The structure and biases, general exclusivity and sparse membership of students from underrepresented backgrounds all play a role in a vicious self-fulfilling cycle.
Members of these pre-professional student clubs are poised to become the next set of board of directors, C-Suite executives and senior-level management across various business sectors and firms. These future industry leaders are also likely to be involved with think tanks, foundations and other influential institutions. Will they be stewards of systemic stasis or catalysts for commendable change?
The latter is unlikely, but nevertheless, in order for them to work toward progress, these club members and the broader BBA student body must engage in substantive DEI discussions that are infused with candor. Without these authentic insights, their bubbles might never burst. These organizations are a core part of the Ross landscape and therefore have considerable influence on the BBA culture and experience. Currently, these clubs’ affinity biases and toxic culture trickle out and permeate into the rest of the BBA student body, ultimately playing a part in the surface-level DEI discussions and climate at Ross.
Generally speaking, DEI can be a thorny topic about which it can feel verboten to speak candidly. The DEI discussions that the majority of BBAs do engage in are mandatory ones that are brief and shoehorned into courses. Students bloviate with lofty pleasantries and platitudes to score participation points. Their insight demonstrates a lack of personal initiative to inquire about DEI-adjacent matters outside of the classroom since they don’t contribute to their individualistic and professional personal agendas. Their unfettered profit-maximization mindset would lead them to disregard those of lower socioeconomic status within the social pecking order — like Mr. Krabs sending Spongebob to Davy Jones Locker in the pursuit of a marginal gain of 62 cents. The state of DEI in the context of BBA culture is the DEI conundrum of Ross.
Social class dissonances
I always aim to get in and out of Ross as quickly as possible. Ross is not a space where I feel like I can linger or have a sense of belonging or presence in the building complex. The exhaustion of code-switching drains me of energy and siphons off mental bandwidth. At times, Ross feels more like the stomping grounds of finance-and-consulting-club BBAs — outfitted in their club-branded Patagonia Better Sweater fleece vests and quarter-zips that emit a repugnant aura of haughtiness — than a place for idealistic business novices.
But with graduation looming around the corner, I recently entered Ross a few days into the dead of winter that was supposedly spring break. The typical mid-day bustling scene of the Winter Garden was barren. The building was vacant of the chatter and BBA-lexicon-dense enunciations of “recruiting,” “investment banking” and “consulting” that typically ricochet within the terra cotta edifice. I felt most existent in this space amid the solitude, as memories of the highs and lows of my unorthodox journey resurfaced all at once.
I recently overheard some BBA sophomores near the Winter Garden yammering about matters related to pre-professional student clubs and recruiting. A mixture of commentary about which bank applications had opened, which brother they knew in a pre-professional business fraternity that could snag them a coffee chat and which firm’s diversity events were still on the table that they could leverage to secure an offer in the context of an already accelerated recruiting timeline. This meticulous devotion toward elite career optimization isn’t what I thought students with positive business values — a concept espoused by Ross as being its core, defining principle — would look like.
Shortly thereafter, I burst into tears in the Ross basement but was comforted by my Michigan in Color friends. This time, I was not alone as I wept, unlike the numerous past instances when I tried to expunge the incessant feelings of inferiority and navigate my way out of the dark catacombs embedded in my mind that I had meandered into and lost myself in.
This Rosshole conversation reminded me of the first few brutal months of my time at the University of Michigan and Ross. I was initially flummoxed by the “Latinx” term. It is frequently used in upper-class spaces like academia, but it is absent among the overwhelming majority of working-class and primarily Spanish-speaking communities like my hometown. In terms of the professional emphasis, I first heard about investment banking through some firm diversity recruitment events intended for freshmen minorities and about consulting from casual conversations with peers. But I had a hazy understanding that was nowhere near the level of my fellow BBAs. I couldn’t help but feel these clubs’ DEI efforts were a farce when one “top” club held a diversity event where the panelists only varied in gender identity and none of them had underrepresented identities. My BBA peers seemed to be able to hit the ground running as I was rejected by all but one of these clubs. I felt too uncouth and unkempt to fit in. How could I thrive in an environment known for having sharp elbows if mine were covered in the working-class grime that was my relative unpolishedness?
Ultimately, the Winter Garden conversation I overheard made me reflect on my scrappy upbringing and the social-class dissonances I’ve encountered in Ross. My mom and dad have worked, respectively, as a fast food crew member and landscaper for the past two decades. Throughout my upbringing, the combined amount of their total wages still fell under the free-and-reduced lunch qualifying thresholds. Their industriousness and love have been crucial and formative toward my character development and success. My mom wore several hats — branded with a different “M” — so that I could wear one with the University’s signature block M.
Based on reported data, the average base salary of the most recent BBA graduating cohort was $84,000, an amount that eclipses my working-class family’s income and my FAFSA need-based aid package. The three most popular industries that BBAs enter post-graduation are financial services, consulting and tech. Roughly half of BBAs enter financial services, with most vying for investment banking. The detailed breakdown by industry, region and function displays median and mean incomes that are all roughly double my father’s and triple my mother’s respective take-home pay.
These jarring statistics illustrate that Ross truly does open doors to any industry and professional opportunity, including the competitive ones outlined earlier. This contrasts the slim job prospects available for those in the working-class town I’m from, especially the predominantly Spanish-speaking Latino community — some of whom are undocumented.
The exclusivity of these clubs. The starting salaries. The upper-class upbringing required to facilitate extensive preparation. All of these juxtapositions, paired with my hyperawareness of social class, can be agonizing to reconcile at times. Maybe my experience is not entirely unique in Ross, but with the stereotypes associated with Ross, you would assume I was the only one.
Sometimes it can seem like all BBAs are Rossholes. Despite the cutthroat nature of the BBA culture that I’ve described, BBAs are not monolithic.
Yes, there are BBAs that benefit from generational wealth, extensive family networks and nepotism to secure highly sought-after roles without much friction. But there are also BBAs who might have to factor in high compensation when deciding which career to pursue for the sake of feasibly repaying their exorbitant student loans.
Yes, there are BBAs who are only immersed in selective Ross-affiliated clubs. But there are also BBAs involved in Ross clubs with open membership (no applications!) along with a mix of University-wide clubs centered around advocacy, philanthropy and other interests.
Yes, there are BBAs who blow off DEI and put in barely-satisfactory effort into Identity and Diversity in Organization (IDO) milestones.But there are also BBAs committed to fostering an inclusive atmosphere within Ross that embraces a diverse wealth of lived experiences.
Yes, there are BBAs who embody the Rosshole stereotype. But there are also BBAs who are gregarious and capable of eschewing positivity.
Yes, there are BBAs who come from posh backgrounds, take themselves too seriously and are out of touch with the lived experiences of people outside of their bubbles — the pure Rossholes. But there are other BBAs who are first-gen and/or low-income who exhibit humility and have taken the initiative to interact with others outside of their organic sphere.
Sometimes it can seem like all BBAs are Rossholes. Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of BBAs are actually pretty chill. But it seems that when we are aggregated together, the culture brings out the worst in us. I bet some people have even perceived me to be a Rosshole at times within the setting of the Business School. Nearly everything I’ve described about the BBA culture is an open secret that isn’t captured in glossy Poets&Quants articles. It is universally agreed upon among BBAs that the culture sucks. So why do we continue to let the pernicious elements from this small faction dominate and dictate the BBA culture, as though they are supreme arbiters?
In the Corporate Strategy course (STR 390) — part of the BBA core curriculum — we briefly covered one profound concept, derived from Josiah Wedgwood’s industrialization of pottery, expressed in similar terms by another scholar: “All organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they get.” In other words, organizations will deliver tomorrow exactly what they deliver today. Akin to predetermination, without drastic internal changes an organization might be doomed to repeat the same outcomes within the same cycle.
Is the University of Michigan perfectly designed to attract and coddle DEI-disinterested upper-class students? Is the University of Michigan perfectly designed to stifle the voices of underrepresented students? Is the University of Michigan perfectly designed to consistently mishandle consequential matters and execute a series of blunders? Is the Ross BBA culture perfectly designed to extinguish empathy? Are Ross-affiliated pre-professional student clubs perfectly designed to exclude most, if not all, candidates who don’t fit the mold of their self-selection?
Some might argue, “why ask these raucous questions?” Not questioning the status quo, assuming the bull-market music will never end and suspending disbelief only leads to complacency and impropriety, breeding the WeWorks, Nikolas, Theranoses and Enrons of the world. Investigative journalists, whistleblowers and inquisitors are the antidotes to delusion and inertia. But it takes courage to stand up to the charming influence of nefarious Svengalis, charlatans and hucksters. Challenging the status quo and speaking critically can be an arduous and daunting endeavor. I choose to share a part of my story because stories can serve as an impetus for inspiration and change.
I’ve never been great at divulging much about myself, especially in a saccharine manner. But through the confidence I’ve gained from writing, I have shared more about myself to others within the past year than I have with even some of my closest friends prior to joining MiC.
But despite this, I have not proactively mentioned my work with any non-first-gen and non-MiC BBAs, that is, up until recently. After much deliberation, I shared my most recent visceral piece to two of my peers. I had worked with them in different group projects before and felt they were chill, but nonetheless I was still worried they’d eviscerate me or give lukewarm, insincere responses.
To my surprise, they gave some of the most granular appraisal I’ve received thus far. They praised the writing style, the underrepresented content and the courage to put myself out there. In each instance after reading their detailed messages, I burst into tears wondering what would have happened if I had been more open about myself sooner.
This recent development reinforced one simple but profound realization: stories matter. Much like how investment banking analysts and junior-level consultants utilize Excel and PowerPoint to create visually-appealing deliverables for clients, writers employ a repertoire of literary techniques to illustrate their experiences and convey their arguments. David Friedberg, a co-host of the unfiltered All-In Podcast, succinctly stated in a recent interview that a compelling narrative attracts employees, capital and customers toward a business. Somewhere buried in the bevy of numbers and words of a firm’s financial and legal documents — such as the articles of corporation and 10-Ks — are the woven threads of a narrative. A narrative that includes the reasons why the founder(s) took a leap of faith. The blood, sweat and tears of an organization’s people eventually evaporate, but their essence is imbued throughout all aspects of the firm, tangible and intangible.
I am on my way out, but there will undoubtedly be more BBAs in the future that are first-gen and/or low-income. Will the child of a gig economy worker feel like they fit in at Ross and the University? Despite all the turmoil, I think they will. There are BBAs, Wolverines and spaces that will embrace them with maize-and-blue warmth.
My time at Ross and the University was more than I could have ever envisioned four, six and even 10 years ago. First-gens have much to be proud of, and fortunately the first-gen identity is seen as noble due to the rugged-individualist qualities that are lionized in American culture. But I’ve recognized that I must also own the “less glamorous” parts of being a trailblazer, such as the mental health struggles associated with upward mobility and assimilation. I have been nourished by the Maize & Blue Cupboard, outfitted with professional attire via the U-M Career Center’s Clothes Closet and financially assisted by COVID-19 Emergency Funds.
Once I graduate, I will not miss routinely passing by the shops and restaurants I could never frequent in a financially feasible manner. I will not miss encountering the endless glaring daily reminders at the University that my working-class upbringing and that of most of America are not reflected here — granted, these differences will persist post-graduation, but at least they won’t be clusters of obnoxious Canada Goose jackets.
On the other hand, I will miss the times I felt seen by others — especially when others saw value in me during the times I couldn’t see it in myself. I will miss the friends and allies who helped dissipate some of my worst insecurities. I will miss the ephemerality of traversing this physical campus, whose grandeur and beauty never ceases to amaze me. Most of all, I will miss the privilege of simply being here.
I have no clue what the future holds, but this precariousness has always been a facet of my life. Maybe I will eventually become another casualty of the classist carnage of capitalism. But at least I will have reclaimed myself through my words. Whether it is in writing, music, illustrations, verbal dialogue or any other medium, I hope that anyone reading this will find the courage and energy to share their story.
MiC Columnist Gustavo Sacramento can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.