Professors never stop being students. Every day, their learners teach them something new. Their experiences lend fresh takes on old truths — and their questions expose what’s taken for granted. In business school, students are often more than pupils who are guided and graded. Sometimes, they become protégés who contribute alongside their professors.
That’s the case at Texas A&M’s Mays Business School. Here, you’ll find Sunjay Letchuman, a senior who’ll join the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai next fall. A Rhodes Scholar nominee who has interned with the U.S. Senate, Letchuman is consumed by boosting patient outcomes. This passion led him into the orbit of Dr. Leonard Berry, the school’s most cited researcher. Bonding over their mutual interests in customer service and medical care, they formed a unique teacher-student partnership — one that has resulted in two co-authored papers in Mayo Clinic Proceedings and another in the Harvard Business Review.
“Sunjay is the finest undergraduate student I have taught in 50 years of teaching,” Berry tells Poets&Quants. “He truly is brilliant, but what impresses me most is his character. He not only is intellectually gifted at the highest level, he is mature beyond his years, kind and generous, hard-working, and very determined to use his talents to make a positive difference in the world. His spirit of volunteerism to help others is unrivaled. His integrity is impeccable. Sunjay is the only undergraduate student that I have collaborated with on academic research, and he is the only undergraduate student in the history of our business school to ever publish in a medical journal.”
58 WOMEN HEADLINE THIS YEAR’S LIST
Sunjay Letchuman is among the 100 seniors honored in Poets&Quants’ Best & Brightest Business Majors of 2022. Entering its 7th year, the Best & Brightest features seniors who embody the best in business education. To compile this year’s list, P&Q invited each of the Top 50 undergraduate Business Schools to submit two students. Like previous years, the schools chose their representatives using their own selection criteria and process. However, P&Q encouraged the programs to consider students based on factors like academic performance, extracurricular leadership, and innate potential. Overall, the list includes 58 women and 42 men. In addition, 10 students hail from nations outside the United States, including Ghana, Egypt, Portugal, Bulgaria, Nepal, and China.
What do this year’s Best & Brightest have in common? Just ask the faculty. They label these students with terms like “born leader” and the “hardest worker I know.” They describe them as tireless workers who lead by example and set the standard for their peers. Some command the room with their contagious energy. Others live by a “Lift as you climb” code that compels them to put others first. They don’t look to always be right or be the smartest. Instead, they seek out common ground that brings people together and harnesses their strengths. That’s why professors relish having them in their classes — and treat them more as partners than pupils.
Carl Voight, a clinical management professor at USC Marshall, estimates that he has taught over 20,000 students in his career. Among them, Kate Donenfeld stands out, he says. A former class president who also teaches Ballet, Pilates, and Zumba classes, Donenfeld is best known as a stellar presenter who knows when to step up…and when to step back.
“Want something done, ask Kate,” Voight cracks. “Kate has that special “something” – the curiosity and enthusiasm to learn the why, the courage to stretch into leadership responsibility, a no excuses delivering results drive, a quiet “let’s figure it out” confidence of being in control in new challenging and ambiguous situations, a master of the details and the inspiring vision at the same time, and the rare talent of being both serious and fun at the same time.”
THE QUALITIES OF A ‘BEST & BRIGHTEST’
At New York University’s Stern School, Eric Zhang possesses a similar versatility. An ultimate Frisbee aficionado and PwC hire, Zhang carries the aura of a graduate student — “smart, confident, and aware,” according to Brian Hanssen, director of the management communication program at Stern.
“He balances a fierce drive and competitive spirit with a humble, easy-going demeanor that folks naturally gravitate to. If I had to sum up Eric, it would be like this: play him in a game of chess (or other strategy game) and Eric would simultaneously beat you, cheer you on, help you improve your game, and make you want to play again. How many people in this world can do all that?”
Maybe it would be Jordan Davis, a Kelley School senior who’ll join Bain & Company this summer. She was recently the recipient of the Wells Senior Recognition Award, the top academic award across Indiana University. However, Davis’ brainpower is just one dimension that makes her so formidable.
“When she speaks, people listen. When she acts, she makes a difference,” writes Josh Perry, who chairs IU’s Department of Business Law and Ethics.
POISED, PROACTIVE, AND PURPOSEFUL
Funny thing is, so many Best & Brightest make it look so easy. Reality is, they are proverbial ducks: poised on the surface and paddling madly below. Just look at SMU Cox’s Petar Bozhilov, an athlete and honor student. On top of 15-18 credit hours, Bozhilov spends an average 25 hours a week competing swimming, 10-15 hours tutoring peers, and 15 hours as a TA in the financial studies center. The duck analogy would apply equally to Thomas Kolath, a Providence College senior who is lauded by faculty for his focus and dedication to self-improvement. As a freshman, he worked three jobs to pay for school while maintaining a near-perfect GPA.
“Going to sleep at 5 a.m. and getting up for class at 8:30 was, to say the least, not sustainable long-term,” Kolath jokes.
The Class of 2022 isn’t lazy, to say the least. And they don’t sit back and wait for things to happen, either. No, they are the first to raise their hands and dive into a situation. 100% committed, the question is always how and the answer is always yes. That’s why you’ll find them everywhere on campus, always on the move and doing something. That includes leading clubs, organizing conferences, running orientations, and contributing to task forces.
And some are even teaching classes!
BETTER STUDENT EVALUATIONS THAN SOME PROFESSORS
Exhibit A: Hannah McDonald. She started out as a TA and proctor for the University of Denver’s Microsoft Office Certification Program. In this role, she conducted classes of 30-80 students on Excel, Word, and PowerPoint. For the past two years, McDonald has served as the Teaching Assistant Coordinator, where she manages the program’s daily operations, including supporting 18 TAs and nearly 500 students. This fall, she experienced complications usually reserved for seasoned managers. That included operating short staffed with an entirely new TA team — not to mention returning to face-to-face instruction after spending a year online due to COVID. McDonald’s response: She shouldered the load without complaint and never looked back.
“I updated all our program materials, developed a three-day onboarding program, and facilitated ongoing training through a series of workshops. Further, due to being short staffed, I taught an Excel class to a group of 80 students—a class size never seen before in Daniels. Despite these challenges, we saw incredibly high student pass rates on the certification exams, resulting from the development of a strong TA team. I am proud of this accomplishment because it demonstrated resilience and adaptability, and most importantly, I got to see the growth and success of those around me, including students and my team.”
The Best & Brightest weren’t just instructors, but also thought leaders at their schools…and beyond. At UC Berkeley’s Haas School, Natalia Nava-Urbina served as the economics columnist for the Business Review at Berkeley, the school’s undergraduate business journal. Impressed? Just wait until you hear about Alex Kogen. He served as a course manager, course assistant, or lab instructor for six courses at the University of Illinois’s Gies College. He even developed two course websites, when he wasn’t busy as a researcher for the school’s Center for Professional Responsibility in Business and Society. Sure enough, his student evaluations placed him among the professors ranked as “Excellent.”
Kogen even wrote the book — literally — for one course, says Professor Eric C. Larson. “He worked with me and four students over a summer to write a full 11-chapter textbook on business analytics with practice problems, datasets, and multimedia content. Then, he taught the course. He became an associate instructor, responsible for teaching weekly discussion sections to nearly 200 students over the course of two semesters and earned outstanding ratings for his instruction. If that was not enough, he migrated course content onto a completely new learning management system, adding his own personal touch to the student experience in the course.”
TRUSTED AND VALUED PARTNERS
Drew Arnson made similar contributions at the University of Michigan’s Ross School. In one foundational course, he re-designed the final project. He also acted as lead researcher and case author for the Sanger Crisis Challenge, a simulation where students play different roles ranging from CEO to reporter in addressing a corporate crisis. At the same time, he audited every syllabus at both the BBA and MBA levels to ensure consistency and inclusivity. The latter initiative was a labor of love for Arnson, who’ll be joining the Huron Consulting Group in their higher education practice.
“I have been able to gain experience in every aspect of the learning process from early literacy to corporate learning and development, giving me a holistic view of how people can learn and grow throughout their entire lives. I knew that I wanted to go to business school to develop a set of skills I could apply to the education sector, because giving people the foundation of reading creates many more avenues of success in the future.”
Make no mistake: the Best & Brightest’s input was valued. Seton Hall’s Luke Tyler, for one, gained an audience with the Security and Exchange Commission’s Investor Advocate to present his team’s research findings on Environmental, Social, and Governance. By the same token, Miami University tapped Ruku Pal to be the student representative on the search committee for a new dean of undergraduate education, a role that included interviewing candidates and choosing finalists. At Wake Forest University, JB Blood joined forces with the school dean to form a student advisory board that conducted strategic analysis of academic efforts. As a President’s Aide, he served as a liaison between students and administration. Still, few experiences can match the adrenaline rush that comes from heading overseas to conduct a three day workshop with your favorite professor. That’s exactly what happened to Elon University’s Lilly Rothschild. Two years ago, she joined her mentor, Alyssa Martina, in Austria to train students worldwide on using design thinking to revamp curriculum. However, the biggest takeaways, Rothschild writes, came from intangibles that can’t be measured by attendee evaluations.
“While at the Alps Conference, Professor Martina and I also gave a presentation about venture creation for the social good. We discussed the ways to use design thinking to advance community-driven social change. Not only did I come away from this conference a more confident public speaker, but with more questions (and curiosity) than answers. The relationships I gained at the Alps Conference are invaluable. The students who took my workshop inspired me to reconsider the differences between the value engaged learning unlocks in America vs. internationally.”
A CALLING IN ENTREPRENEURSHIP
In some cases, the Best & Brightest were tackling the big issues of the day. At Wharton, Carisa Shah teamed up with classmates to find solutions to viruses like COVID. “We are working with the de la Fuente lab at Penn to create an accurate, rapid, and affordable point-of-care test that can diagnose viral pathogens and be easily deployed worldwide to fortify the frontlines of our global pandemic response,” she tells P&Q. “This project has been incredibly exciting because every time we are in lab, we use skills learned from class to solve problems. It is so rewarding to apply all the knowledge we have learned over the past four years to a project that has the potential to create a real, lasting, and positive impact.”
The Class of 2022 also stayed busy outside the classroom. Connor Sept notched two swimming records at Lehigh University (while landing a spot on the Patriot League’s Academic Honor Roll three times). Marian University’s Sandy Sledge made NAIA All-American as a pole vaulter. On top of that, Sledge was part of the Marian team that took 1st place in the National Team Selling Competition. As a Michigan State student, Julia Renee Lower — a self-described “social chameleon” — helped build houses with Habitat for Humanity. Not surprisingly, entrepreneurship was another outlet for the Best & Brightest. Last year, the University of San Diego’s João Pires Coelho co-founded a consulting firm in his native Portugal — a venture that already has grown from 3 to 25 members. At Berkeley Haas, Daniel Tsentsiper helped launch Ceriply, a bookkeeping assistant.
“What started as a class project in an entrepreneurship course at UC Berkeley quickly became a marketable solution for a widespread industry problem,” he explains. “We learned that existing players in our space overlook small businesses, favoring large enterprises with deep pockets. We want to level the playfield by equipping small businesses with confidence and control of their financial integrity. That’s only the start; our team has high ambitions to scale Veriply into an autonomous bookkeeping engine for small businesses, so they can focus on serving customers and growing their business.”
Go to Pages 3-4 for 100 in-depth profiles of the 2022 Best & Brightest Business Majors