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A Conversation with Northwestern MSC Alumna, Adriana Leyva

Adriana currently works as a consultant at Ernst & Young in Chicago, consulting with organizations in the financial sector. In addition to working in change management services, she works within people advisory services, specializing in human beings. As a consultant, she enjoys the collaborative environment of bouncing ideas off each other in a team.

At what point in your career did you enter the Northwestern MSC program?

Before I entered the MSC program, I was back home in Colombia, working as a strategic planning vice president and head of the project management office for the insurance broker Marsh. I was in charge of communications and change management for all strategic initiatives.

Why was this the right time and program for you?

I started to feel like my brain was getting into a comfort zone that I didn’t like. I needed to activate it. When you’re a consultant you’re learning all the time and always changing clients, projects, teams, and subjects. In my old job, however, because the strategic planning process was very long, and I would usually get very comfortable in every project. I asked for opportunities that made me uncomfortable, but they didn’t have anything for me in the country. I thought to myself, I can either change jobs or go study. My heart told me I needed to go study so I decided to come here.

What were the more challenging parts of the program and were these different being an international student?

For me, the program was such a shock at first because I had been out of school for a while. Before I was a working woman, now I was a student on a budget. I wanted to prove to myself that I could manage in a different setting. It also was a culture shock. Colombians are very open and here it is more individualistic.

Being the oldest international student from Latin America was originally challenging, but I learned to leverage my differences to connect with others. It was a team effort. My classmates, who were from diverse cultures and backgrounds, taught me to have a fresh perspective and opened me up to their outlooks of the world. In turn, they were able to leverage the longer work experience I had in our classes.

I also realized that my accent was an asset, rather than a liability and I was proud of it. My accent is a blend of British, Australian, and Colombian (American influenced English).  I used to be concerned that people wouldn’t understand what I was saying, but I learned that people not only could understand me, but also found my accent interesting and memorable, and paid more attention.  

What was your favorite aspect of MSC at Northwestern?

You will meet amazing people while you learn amazing stuff. I met people who will be my friends forever. Sometimes when you enter a master’s program you have the idea of just networking, but these are genuinely good people. I was longing to connect with people when I got here, and that made me go out of my comfort zone. I think it’s amazing that these relationships will grow and become very meaningful for the rest of your life.

Can you talk about the value of the MSC network?

The first day orientation, I sat next to this woman named Victoria Priola and we talked about the six degrees of separation. I didn’t think we were connected because I am from Colombia and I didn’t know a single soul in Chicago. I told her I loved doing yoga and was a yoga teacher. She told me she got certified by a Colombian yoga teacher in New York, who it turns out was the same teacher who certified me! We became friends right away and took a class together and got to work together.

One day I went to lunch with Victoria, and she asked me what I wanted to do. I told her I’d love to stay in Chicago and go back into consulting. She told me she could introduce me to one of her good friends who was a partner at Ernst & Young. What happened to me was a sign that what my MSC professor, Nosh Contractor, who teaches networking, said was true. It was through my network that I became friends with Victoria and have my job now. 

What advice would you have for anyone considering the MSC program?

If you are an international student, ask for the program to connect you to other international students who have finished the program. It’s helpful to have different perspectives of what it’s like being an international student. If you can, try and go to one of the classes and ask people about their experiences. Definitely by all means, build your network and build a group of friends that will be there for you. Go outside of your comfort zone and reach out to people. Don’t be afraid to leverage the people you know to explore opportunities to get to where you want to go. Build a network, but don’t just view it as a network; see it as a support system. Finally, I would say study and do something with your degree – make your investment at Northwestern worth it.