MBAs Abroad: The New Normal?

map pushpinsBeing an elite MBA graduate who has gone abroad makes you look distinct—well, for now, at least. Soon, it might be obligatory. With employers increasingly coveting applicants who’ve checked that box, Michigan Ross Dean Alison Davis-Blake says she’s seen more and more students go on trips or study abroad programs. She’s even seen an uptick in students pursuing multiple international opportunities.

A POPULAR AND RECESSION-PROOF TREND

The trend is “almost recession-proof,” argues Bertrand Guillotin, director of the international programs office at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. He would know: Guillotin has held this position for the past 10 years. Aside from a drop in demand between 2009 and 2010, students have been consistently eager to go abroad; these days, some students even ask him about it within a week of arriving at Fuqua. “It’s expected that somebody is going to do something international,” Guillotin says. He imagines that in a reunion of Fuqua alumni 10 years from now, the person who hadn’t taken advantage of any abroad opportunities would absolutely stand out.

It’s also something would-be MBAs think about when they’re choosing between schools. “Candidates are looking for those opportunities as well, particularly the opportunity to work on a project abroad or participate in a leadership track,” says Ann W. Richards, interim director of admissions and director of financial aid at Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management. Amanda Soule Shaw, the assistant dean of student services at Johnson, notes that the school is currently looking for extra staffers to help keep the study and travel abroad programs going.

At Fuqua, Guillotin has even found himself slowing some students down, discouraging them from doing things like traveling to 10 countries in two weeks just for the stories. “There’s a huge appetite for global opportunities,” he explains. But as good as those opportunities look on a resume, he doesn’t want students to get so caught up in traveling that they forget the more mundane aspects of their job searches. “That’s the balance we’re trying to find,” he says.

BEYOND STUDENT EXCHANGE

It’s hard to blame MBAs for being anxious to travel, because going abroad no longer simply means going on exchange. Nowadays, it often means meeting with businesses, studying emerging economies, and even searching for jobs. For example, when Shaw was a Johnson MBA in 2005, there was one big trip that people talked about; now, the school offers five to seven courses per year that involve international travel. That figure doesn’t even include trips that don’t count for academic credit, like the ones organized by student groups. Shaw estimates that 100 to 150 students go on some kind of weeklong or multi-week international journey every year.

One class, titled “International Consulting Practicum,” involves partnering with MBAs located thousands of miles away. Students who took the class this fall were working with students at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore on company-sponsored consulting projects and industry analyses. In December, the Johnson students spent a week in Bangalore, where they finished up the projects and visited companies (and hopefully got a nice break from the harsh Ithaca winter). Other courses Johnson is offering in the 2014-2015 academic year include trips to South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Japan, and Korea.

Fuqua offers something similar: the Global Academic Travel Experience (GATE) courses. In these classes, students spend six weeks studying the culture, economy, and politics of various countries and regions and then spend roughly twelve days actually experiencing them. In September, the Tuck School of Business added an immersive global experience to their curriculum beginning with the Class of 2017, which includes credit-bearing courses, pre-travel orientation, overseas travel, and reflection on the experience. 

Deidre-Ann Nelson, an MBA from the Class of 2013 who traveled to multiple continents (yes, continents) through Fuqua, describes a GATE trip to various parts of China in a blog post: “Surprise—the trip was awesome!” she gushes. “It was 2+ weeks of non-stop movement, discussions with classmates and business leaders at amazing companies, and total cultural overload. Not only did I leave China with a better cultural understanding and greater business access, but also, and equally important, deeper friendships with classmates that I did not know at all or very well prior to taking the class.”

  • devils0508

    It’s fun, and it gives us an excuse to go to these countries in a way we can positively spin on our resume.

  • yup

    I agree 100%… It’s a bit crazy, but I’m also guilty of the b-school rich attitude. It’s a bit of an issue in b-school… but, ya know, YOLO and such… My signing bonus has been allocated to s0 many things…

  • lol

    Anyone who has worked abroad before will know how ridiculous most of these “opportunities” are in the mba program. It’s impossible to say you have grasped the culture of another country by visiting for 12 days. Even if you did an 3-4 month exchange, most of the time is spent in an academic setting, not a business setting. MBA programs have a ton of these global opportunities where you spend 1-2 weeks visiting companies and such during a break. Can you really say visiting InfoSys in India will indicate that you can work in India? It’s absurd. And the price tag for this amazing opportunity can be upwards to 4-5k USD.
    I’m sure some schools do offer great programs where you do get a high level idea on the country but this is definitely a pick and choose scenario and assess critically. So many students feel that they are “bschool rich” and just go because “like YOLO”. Then coming back saying that they’ve learnt so much when all they can talk about is generic bs.