Pepperdine People Magazine
Pepperdine People Magazine Spring 2008
Fear and Friendship
A Pepperdine MBA student reflects on an encounter with anger, fear, promise, and hope
by Rick Gibson
The last person dressed in a suit and tie to sit so closely to Hector was a court-appointed attorney who leaned in to carefully explain that he was going to prison for a very long time. For much of his life, if this former gang member ever found himself in a room filled with people like me, it meant he was in trouble. I, on the other hand, had never spent time with anyone like him. Hector was a dangerous character, like those I had read about in special features in Newsweek. The only thing we had in common was that he did not trust me and I did not trust him.
So began another unique day as a student in the Presidential and Key Executive (PKE) MBA program at the Graziadio School of Business and Management. The homework assignment our class received was simple: "Leave your textbooks at home. No need to bring your calculators, strategy books, or graph paper. Oh, and one more thing. You can leave your pride and sense of self-importance at home too. Simply come to class dressed in slacks, white shirt, and tie, and prepare to reconsider your assumptions about homelessness in America. By the time class is finished, you will have a different answer to the question: 'Who is my neighbor?'"
An Unlikely Pair
Early that morning our cohort known as PKE 121 gathered at Pepperdine's Westlake Village Graduate Campus. When the van carrying our guests arrived, I felt my body tense slightly. The rowdy room of executives and CEOs quieted as each of us wondered which one would be our partner for the day.
I saw Hector almost immediately through the window blinds. My partner was cool and confident with a swagger that I recognized from a movie. He bore the tattooed marks, both artistic and vulgar, of his past. Other marks—scars—caused me to wonder about the things he had seen and the deeds that he had done. There he sat next to me, our knees nearly touching. How could I possibly offer this person anything of value?
A Surprising Discovery
Hector was one of the capable, employable, but homeless people who joined us on campus for a full day of job-preparation training. Equipped only with their brokenness and low self-esteem, the group came to fulfill an assignment issued by the Ventura County Rescue Mission. My peers and I served as personal job-training coaches, facilitated group discussions, and conducted role-play job interviews, all under the mentorship of Wayne Strom, professor of behavioral science.
During my time with Hector I drew heavily upon the listening and observational skills I learned in class and helped him to prepare a résumé. Despite initial concerns, my sense of dread faded as I began to see in Hector a person filled not only with fear, anger, and hatred, but also an enormous amount of insight and awareness.
While facilitating a group session, I questioned the class about their personal networking skills. The room filled with silence and blank stares. "What does 'networking' mean?" asked Hector. My feeble explanation only confused him. "A personal network is made up of business acquaintances, family, and friends who you can call upon when you need to conduct some kind of transaction." He just stared at me. Finally, he nodded, smiled, turned to the group and interpreted my useless textbook definition. "You know, man," he said gesturing to his fellow classmates, "when you needed to sell drugs, did you know who to call?" Much to my horror, they all nodded in the affirmative. "When you needed to buy drugs, did you know who to call?" Again, the answer was "yes." With a satisfied smile, he said, "That's 'networking,' man." He then turned to me and quietly said, "I need a new network."
In a strange way, Hector and I shared something in common. Through my MBA program, I have gained an opportunity to join a new network. Up to this point, my life has been only a simple reflection of what little I have known. Hector's story is no different. As he and I shared the day together, I learned that he also was a product of the environment into which he was born. While he acknowledged that violence and crime were always present in his life, he did not see himself as a victim. He claimed responsibility for his past, but he desperately wanted to move ahead. A vision for his life was emerging and he was eager to embrace it.
At the end of the day, I handed him the résumé that he and I had completed together. I was concerned that he would be disappointed with how little there was to show for his career, but he was not disappointed. Hector read his name aloud repeatedly and he shook his head as if saying "no." He turned to me, pointed to the résumé and said with a voice filled with emotion, "I want to be this person. I am going to become this person."
Rick is the associate vice president for public affairs at Pepperdine University and is a student in the Graziadio School's PKE MBA program. This article is a personal reflection of his experience during the Civic Leadership course. "Hector's" name was changed to protect his identity.