Student Bonding: How One Elite MBA Program Makes Those Vital Connections Happen

Kellogg MBA students at a retreat in Camp Wandawega in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. Courtesy photo

Goal: Help facilitate bonding between MBA students.

Challenges: many, including an ongoing pandemic and a class size that presents countless logistical difficulties.

But the folks in leadership at Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management know the value of connection, which is why the school offers KWEST, a travel program planned by 200 second-year MBA students for nearly 1,000 first-years before school starts. On average, 80% to 85% of incoming full-time Kellogg MBA students participate in a KWEST trip, each of which is led by five second-year students for 20 first-years. Trips are also open to JVs — “joint ventures,” which are the students’ partners or significant others.

“The concept of KWEST is to facilitate an inclusive experience that introduces incoming students to a core group of classmates and second-year mentors in a safe environment,” says Annie Reagan, assistant director of Kellogg’s global programs. “We use travel and cultural exploration to create that concentrated space for community building.”


Annie Reagan, assistant director of global programs at Northwestern Kellogg

In 2018 and 2019, most KWEST trips occurred internationally; students traveled all over the world to countries in Europe, Africa, South America, and Asia. For the past two years, international travel has been off the table because of the pandemic — but students still got to travel domestically to places like Los Angeles, Martha’s Vineyard, Santa Fe, New Orleans, and Denver.

Annie Reagan says that while most students are drawn to KWEST for the destinations, many participants leave with the insight that the program is less about where they’re traveling and more about the diverse group of friends and mentors they’ve created throughout the experience.

“The relationships you form through travel can be really special because you’re going through a shared intensive experience together,” she says.

“The biggest impact of KWEST was the deep connections I made,” says Alfonso Garza De La Puente, first-year Kellogg student and KWEST participant. “It helped to reassure me that I made the right choice in choosing Kellogg.”


At the heart of KWEST is getting past surface conversation and building deep bonds, Garza De La Puente says.

For the first portion of the program, students are asked to withhold some of the standard conversation topics such as hometowns, previous jobs, undergrad institutions, and relationship statuses with the intention to foster more meaningful dialogue. “Some people even keep it a secret that they’re on the trip with their JV,” he says.

Malavika Chugh

Then, halfway through the program there’s something called ‘The Big Reveal’ in which participants share this information with each other.

“The Big Reveal allows people to dig a bit deeper in those early days and build connections based on conversations that aren’t so surface level,” Reagan says. “This tends to be one of the highlights of the trip. Students come back saying that The Big Reveal was a neat way to meet their classmates and build connections. It’s a great way for people to get to know each other and avoid making assumptions.”

“I loved the idea of intentionally encouraging people to talk about their feelings,” says Malavika Chugh, second-year MBA student and KWEST leader. “My goal as a leader this year was to help students build meaningful relationships. The Big Reveal is the most fun part of the program. This really helps cut superficial conversations and encourages people to be more present in the moment.”

Chugh, originally from New Delhi, India, led a trip to Martha’s Vineyard this August. While The Big Reveal helped to facilitate bonding, she also introduced the card game, Big Talk, to her group. This game was founded by two Kellogg students in 2020, and is intentionally used to get past small talk and go deeper. “Big Talk was an interesting way to learn about people without any of the external biases coming in. It helped people to lessen their anxiety and build connections with each other instead.”


Alfonso Garza De La Puente

Reagan explains that halfway through the trip planning process, the school opens KWEST for student registration. Students are able to communicate their trip preferences, and the administration works to allocate students to trips with diversity and inclusion at the centre of all decisions. “We focus a lot of our planning efforts on allocating incoming students and trips in a thoughtful way with the goal that they’re going to cross paths with a wide range of classmates and peers that they maybe wouldn’t have crossed paths with otherwise,” she says.

For Garza De La Puente, he benefited greatly from the diversity of KWEST. Originally from Mexico, Garza De La Puente spent the last decade in the Bay Area. There, he struggled to gain exposure to people and industries outside of the tech bubble. “Kellogg’s diverse and inclusive atmosphere is going to help me maximize my next two years by learning from others’ background and experiences, and helping me to broaden the way I look at the world,” he says. “It was reassuring to feel how inclusive the community was on the KWEST trip.”

Cristiana Matsubayashi, a first-year student from São Paulo, Brazil, believes that the American students in KWEST benefit from being around a diversity of international students. “Us international students have moved abroad and speak a foreign language. Most Americans haven’t lived in other countries or know foreign languages. KWEST provides amazing exposure for Americans to learn to become better leaders in this globalized world,” she says.

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