July 8, 2010 — For most of us, a summer trip means heading to the beach or the mountains.
For 72 graduate students at the University of Virginia's McIntire School of Commerce, a summer trip meant a six-week adventure learning the complexities of business and culture in Europe, China or Southeast Asia as part of the program's intensive – and mandatory – Global Immersion Experience.
The M.S. in Commerce program, now in its second year, is a one-year, 38-credit-hour program that prepares recent graduates of liberal arts, science and engineering programs for successful careers in business. It was launched in August 2008, welcoming graduates from U.Va. and other top colleges and universities around the country.
"It's almost impossible to convey fully the value of a meaningful international experience," said McIntire dean Carl Zeithaml, who, along with Peter Maillet, associate dean for global initiatives, led the Global Immersion Experience's Southeast Asia track.
"Our graduates will be living, working and competing in an international context. As educators, we must provide them with the cultural, geopolitical and economic insights that success in that context will demand."
International travel is not only a critical component of the M.S. in Commerce program, Zeithaml said, but also of the school's overall education of its students.
"McIntire has adopted a goal," he said, "that 100 percent of its graduates should leave having had a significant international experience."
Old World, New Lessons
The 26 students who participated in the GIE's European track cut a wide swath across Europe, visiting Copenhagen, Brussels, Munich, Prague and Barcelona.
"We've designed the GIE curriculum to weave together academic, corporate and cultural experiences in a roughly even mix so that students get to experience different 'slices of life' each place they travel," said Associate Dean for Graduate Programs Mike Morris, who co-led the European track with McIntire professor Ira Harris. "Each track is designed to provide students with the most enriching, thought-provoking possible array of experiences."
The idea, Morris said, is to help students understand the subtle ways in which historical, political, cultural and academic forces manifest themselves in various corporate and business practices – and to challenge students to reflect deeply on some of their own assumptions.
The students' European tour included collaborative classroom time at two of McIntire's partner schools, the Danish Institute for Study Abroad and Spain's ESADE, as well as visits to a BMW plant in Munich; the W Hotel in Barcelona; the Duvel Moortgat brewery in Belgium; a Procter & Gamble plant outside of Prague; and MOSER a.s., a high-end producer of blown glass and crystal in the Czech Republic.
Each corporate visit was preceded by a discussion of local business practices, norms and customs, as well as of the particular strategic mindset and challenges associated with doing business within the market at hand.
For students, the wide-ranging itinerary proved eye-opening.
"Traveling through Europe revealed so much to me about the differences in people's perspectives on the world," Chip Bond said. "Although the United States is certainly not a monoculture, the spectrum of thought and attitudes in Europe appears to be vastly broader than that in the States."
Moreover, he said, his exposure to different ways of thinking heightened his appreciation for different ways of approaching and solving problems.
"By being immersed in situations that constantly reveal new perspectives and ideas, I was challenged to think much more critically and carefully about any decisions I make, which will certainly be of huge benefit to me both personally and professionally," he said.
Bond's classmates reported that their time abroad had a similarly enlightening effect.
"An ESADE professor argued that the competitive, 'Darwinistic' aspects of American society actually prevent true innovation," Alli McKee said. "In Europe, this professor argued, they encourage collaboration, teamwork and equality, which more effectively enable innovation. This attitude really surprised me – I never even imagined that the American mindset could be seen as hindering progress."
Said Bond, "Europe was a five-week boot camp for my brain and certainly pushed observation, reflection and critical thinking to the top of my priority list."
While Bond and McKee were learning about teamwork and innovation in Europe, 24 of their classmates were busy taking in the sights, sounds and lessons of the world's current economic dynamo: China.
Students in the China track – led by James Maxham, associate dean for the B.S. in Commerce program – visited Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, where they stopped at corporations including Guangzhou-based Jetta industries, the world's second-largest toy manufacturer; J.P. Morgan; and Youlian, a major spice manufacturer.
The journey also included academic work sessions at Peking University's Guanghua School of Management and The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, both McIntire partner schools.
In stark contrast to the experience of the European contingent, students traveling through China witnessed the jagged edges of a newly emerged, dynamic form of capitalism.
"I'd heard about this disparity in wealth," student John Miller said. "I knew that there was this economic engine, and that a lot of people were becoming wealthy while a lot of people were being left behind."
But hearing about the vast income gap, he said, was a far cry from actually seeing it.
"In Beijing, you see some of the most magnificent architecture in the world and people driving very expensive cars and wearing very nice jewelry, and then you step around the corner and see people who are really struggling to make it day to day," he said. "Seeing that was a powerful experience."
Fellow traveler Andrea Keating, who'd spent a semester in China two years prior, said she "fell in love with the culture" during that prior trip.
"I feel like the more you study China, the more difficult the puzzle becomes," she said. "You can't even begin to comprehend the contradictions until you actually see them and live them."
The students visiting China also had a chance to witness the Chinese economic juggernaut in action, not only in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, but also in the "smaller" city of Chengdu (population: 15 million) and in Guangzhou Province.
The students were impressed by the changing nature of Chinese industry.
"The engineering that was done at the Jetta plant at Guangzhou was amazing," Miller said. "Basically, they took a concept that everyone said was unworkable, and this team of very talented engineers made it happen."
Miller's comments reveal a new global reality of profound importance, Maxham noted.
"A lot of outsiders who haven't visited this region believe that success is driven by the manufacturing of cheap stuff for export to the United States," he said. "The reality is that in all of these places, the people are incredibly bright and incredibly motivated, and they're working at the cutting edge of technology."
The China travelers were also struck by the remarkable work ethic of Chinese youth. A visit to a Chinese middle school in Chengdu, for instance, revealed a 13-year-old girl who already had her sights set on working at Morgan Stanley – and a population of middle-schoolers who study from 6 a.m. to midnight, hoping for admission to a good high school and then a good university.
"It's inspiring," Keating said, "and a little scary."
While Keating and her classmates tried to absorb the complex patchwork of contradictions in China, 22 more students were making their way through one of the world's emerging economic hot-spots: Southeast Asia.
The itinerary included visits to Singapore, Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City and Hong Kong, as well as time at the National University of Singapore, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Indonesia's BINUS University School of Business and Management. Corporate visits included tours and lectures at Danish manufacturer ScanCom International's Indonesian facilities; Indonesian bank BPTN; Procter & Gamble's Vietnamese manufacturing facilities; and the Singapore Port Authority.
If students visiting China were struck by the country's dynamism, those visiting Southeast Asia were bowled over by the energy of the region's people.
"Everyone was on a mission, everywhere," student Carson Green said. "Everybody had somewhere to be, or was on their way to get something done."
Indeed, said Green, who went to high school in Kuala Lampur, "I was shocked by how much things had changed in just five years."
It wasn't just the people's hustle and bustle that impressed the students, but it was also their professionalism and ambition.
"A lot of business leaders in Southeast Asia received their education – often an M.B.A. – in America," Luyi Zheng said. "Their methods of presentation and management are very professional and organized, and they're not just interested in domestic markets."
Indeed, Zheng observed, "many of them are thinking about how to expand into other Southeast Asian markets, as well as into Europe and America."
Maillet, the faculty co-leader, made a similar observation. "What struck me the most was the changing nature of the competitive environment," he said. "Multinationals increasingly understand that they're no longer just competing with each other – they're competing with local companies whose names consumers may not yet widely recognize."
Also remarkable, the students commented, was the diversity the region offered – in terms of its religions, ethnic groups, wealth, political systems, infrastructure, attitudes toward investment and geography.
"We really homed in on the importance of context," Susie Baker said. "When we looked at Singapore, we talked about its recent independence and small size, and how those factors affect business capacity."
Likewise, she said, the group spent time examining the influence of Islam on business practices in Indonesia; the role of communism in Vietnamese corporate culture; and the unique relationship of Hong Kong to China.
"In each of these places, context plays a huge role in understanding how business works, and how we as Western businesspeople can understand how to connect with that context," she said.
It's precisely such connections, Zeithaml said, that he hopes to engender through study-abroad opportunities.
"I traveled extensively over the years," he said, "and I find that the world continues changing in fascinating and challenging ways. With each trip, I also continue learning and changing. It's been a profoundly important experience for me, both as an educator and on a personal level. My hope – and the school's goal – is to provide every one of our students with an equally enriching and meaningful international experience."