In 1992, Erika Walker stepped onto the University of California-Berkeley campus as a first-generation college student. An American Studies major, she says she’ll never forget how huge the campus felt, and how she wondered if she’d survive. Fast-forward a couple of decades and the daughter of a military family is the Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Programs at the Haas School of Business — one of the most prestigious undergraduate business programs in the world.
“I didn’t have a network of people to go to ask for assistance for anything. I came here on a scholarship, and it became my resource. I went and asked questions, and learned how to become my own advocate,” Walker says. “You learn to create smaller communities within larger communities. And some of my closest friends today are those whom I went through the struggles and stressors of college with. We stood alongside each other in classes, survived the hard exams, and came out together bonded.”
Because of her experience at UC-Berkeley, Walker doesn’t hesitate to respond that the thing she loves most about her work is being a part of an institute with a mission to provide high-quality public education to all students.
“I started out as Director of Admissions, and what I bring to the table is a lens of leading that’s centered on the student experience,” Walker says. “I brought a lot of attention to how we were engaging with students in advising and activities, how to create meaningful activities supporting co-curricular activities they did alongside their classes, and helping students make meaning in classrooms while informing their learning.”
BRINGING NONPROFIT AND PRIVATE SECTOR EXPERIENCE AND KNOWLEDGE TO HAAS
Before joining Haas in 2004, Walker spent some time working closely on youth development, training, and student services, in both nonprofit and private sector settings. She says by moving into higher education, the one thing she’s noticed is things move a lot slower. Faculty governance changes the pace of things, Walker says, as more people are plugged into decision making to make sure a change doesn’t negatively affect other areas.
Walker believes that her experiences help her guide students at Haas today as she can relate to their experiences, whether as a first-generation student or as a business student navigating college in search of meaningful experiences. Because she’s managed internships for Fortune 500 companies in a time where organizations were just beginning to set up recruiting departments to take on interns, she says she’s also familiar with how to convert internships to full-time job offers.
“Even though it’s been over a decade since I worked in those areas, things have just gotten much faster, with clearer expectations,” Walker explains. “A lot of my leadership is student-centered”
P&Q: Moving from Director of Admissions into your current position as Assistant Dean, what are some of the biggest mistakes you’ve seen students make that are totally avoidable?
Walker: The biggest mistake students can make is not being true to their authentic selves when they apply.
Students today are hearing so much noise about how competitive it is to get into certain schools, what admissions committees are looking for, and what they think schools want to hear. As a result, they’re looking for a magic formula, when the magic is being themselves and bringing that across in their applications. Just imagine, when all the students think we want to hear something, or are looking for something, a lot of the applications begin looking and sounding the same, and that’s not what we want at all.
Lots of students talk about how they’ve always known that business would be their life’s dream, and that it started with a lemonade stand, or when they played Monopoly. But really, what is it about business that strikes you? That shouldn’t look the same for every person, and answering that will make you more refreshing and attractive to the selection committee. We want to know that you have prior business experience or internships, but don’t just list them. It’s about how you developed a passion around business that’s made you want to pursue it that we want to hear more about.
Some students think we want to know that they know a lot about business, but no, you’ll learn when you get here. We’re looking for thoughtful reflection about what business is.
Because I had no one to tell me what I should or should not do, my generation had to be much more independent. Young people are much more closely knit with their families, and so it’s important that they think about what they truly want to do. A college is a place for exploration and discovery, and if they already know that they want to do business, it’s great, but if not, it’s OK to leave room for discovery.
Students also need to remember that we are still a liberal arts space and we want them taking classes in other colleges and learning different perspectives. Business is very interdisciplinary, and a great business person can see things in a number of different ways. The key is to be motivated and persistent, and not get into business because your family is saying it’s something you should do or it’s where you feel comfortable and safe. It’s about where your passion lies.
What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in undergraduate business education during your stint at Haas?
This generation has been raised with technology and design thinking. When I chose to pursue business, it was more of a traditional route. Now is more of a fun time to pursue business, with more electives and special topics.
Business classes today are more engaging, with more experiential learning opportunities, where students learn theories, apply it, and test it out to see it in action. Classes are more collaborative, where when I was an undergrad, we were lucky if we had a course that had us working in a team. In most of our courses today, students work in teams because it’s what businesses and startups do. What’s happening in classrooms is also different as students have more opportunities to learn from each other, not just from the faculty. We also have many faculty members teaching both at the graduate and undergrad levels, and they bring in their industry experience to the classrooms. The result is that students who are interested in working in those industries or firms get direct advice on how to get in and create work.
Tech has a huge imprint on this generation in many different ways. I didn’t see a computer till late middle school, but today, students minds are operating so much more quickly, with high-quality K-12 educations, STEM programs, and summer camps that expose them to exercising their minds to ask questions and take in lots of information. Students are used to beta testing and trying things out.
I’m always encouraging faculty to be mindful of what’s happening in K-12 education because students are coming to us with expectations that we move beyond and build on their experiences in middle school and beyond.
Tech has also changed the way we teach, the instructional formats we use to deliver classes, and how we set up collaborative learning spaces. In many of our classes now, each one builds on the class before and connects to the class after, and there is intentional coherence across the courses.