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What drew Araceli Ortiz to Stanford Graduate School of Business were not so much the small class sizes or a wide choice of elective courses but what she hoped to learn many miles from the California campus.
“One of the main reasons I was excited to go to Stanford was its global experience requirement,” says Ortiz, who grew up in Chicago but whose family is from Mexico. “I wanted to get an insider’s view of foreign countries, and learn what they were all about.”
Through Stanford’s global study trips programme, Ortiz visited India and Brazil. She also participated in a student exchange with Tsinghua University in Beijing. These experiences “made the world seem infinitely smaller and far more interconnected”, she says.
“[They] made me eager to become part of the global economy … and want to further explore new places around the globe,” adds Ortiz, who received her MBA last year and is now based in San Francisco, working for Pac-12, the college athletics organisation. “I look forward to contributing to the global economy through my career in sports and believe this can be a vehicle to improve relations around the world.”
As business schools seek to educate professionals capable of managing across cultures and borders, many have made international study trips a required part of their curriculums. These excursions aim to go beyond shallow academic tourism – where students travel overseas to tour companies, sit through PowerPoint presentations and maybe visit a few museums – by giving students an opportunity to develop cultural dexterity, often by working alongside executives in a foreign country.
Schools that have introduced international study requirements, including Stanford GSB, Harvard Business School and London Business School, say the goal is for students to gain knowledge about the part of the world they visit and to learn to identify challenges and opportunities in an unfamiliar landscape.
Stanford made global experience a requirement in 2007 as part of its curriculum overhaul. Maria Jenson, executive director of its Center for Global Business and the Economy, says the move recognised that any senior manager working in business is working in a global economy. “As part of this we want [students] to experience a part of the world that’s new to them.”
Stanford offers dozens of overseas study options, from 10-day trips guided by a faculty member to month-long “management immersions” in which students work with an international company, government or non-profit organisation. Before students depart, they learn the historical and political context. Once on the ground, faculty “play a role in helping students to process and think about what they’re experiencing so it’s not just a blur”, says Jenson.
Her advice to students unsure of where in the world to visit? “Challenge yourself – put yourself in a situation where you won’t feel comfortable,” she says. “Even if they don’t necessarily think they will do business in Nigeria, Rwanda or India [students will get a lot out of the] process of thinking through what it means to work with a country that’s different from their own.”
According to research released by the US Graduate Management Admission Council, 25 per cent of prospective business school students worldwide expect to work outside their country of citizenship. (In Latin America, 55 per cent of prospective MBAs and in Europe 48 per cent said they intended to work in a foreign country.)
At Harvard Business School, 20 per cent of last year’s MBA class took an international post straight after graduation. Many more do foreign stints later in their careers, says Felix Oberholzer-Gee, a professor at the school and senior associate dean for international development. “We are trying to simulate a career step many managers will face over the course of their professional lives,” he says.
The school has launched a year-long required course for its 900 first-year students called “Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development”, or Field for short. This includes a week-long trip to an emerging market country where student teams are embedded in a company and must develop an idea for a new product or service.
This year’s trips will be to locations including Argentina, Malaysia and Ghana. “Field is focused on emerging markets, which are a strange combination of old-fashioned and advanced at the same time,” says Prof Oberholzer-Gee. “The hope and ambition is that students will gain some general insights about how emerging markets work and how they’re different.”
Faculty members accompany students on the trips, helping them work through marketing problems, operational issues and questions of organisational behaviour, says Prof Oberholzer-Gee. “Our students tend to be overconfident. When they leave Boston they are 90 per cent sure of what they are going to do. By day two in their new country, panic sets in.”
Prof Oberholzer-Gee says the course prompts “an element of self-reflection” and helps students “understand how their intuitions and assumptions may not turn out to be true in a new geography”.
This year London Business School introduced a new programme known as global business experiences, which take its 400 second-year MBA students on faculty-led trips to one of five locations around the world. This academic year students will have the choice of going to South Africa, China, Turkey, India or the US.
The trips, which involve company meetings, panels, workshops and guest lectures, are theme-based, says Amelia Whitelaw, programme associate director. The Johannesburg trip focuses on micro-entrepreneurship, for example. Over a week, student teams complete projects relevant to the theme and region.
It is, says Whitelaw, a “resource-intensive” undertaking. The trips represent 2-3 per cent of the school’s full-time MBA tuition fees of £57,500.
“We’re not spending a lot of money to transport students halfway around the world for them to party,” she says. “My hope is that this model reinforces what they have learnt. We hope we have developed something that challenges them – their ideas and their preconceptions – and puts them under pressure to work with people they don’t know in unfamiliar environments.”