How international travel can enhance an Executive MBA degree

Eric Sussman, Senior Lecturer, UCLA Anderson School of Management

Classroom learning can get you a long way, but UCLA Anderson School of Management’s Executive MBA program takes learning to a whole new level.
In the later stage of the program, students have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the business world of another culture, says Eric Sussman, a senior lecturer at UCLA.
“The program affords students the opportunity to gain a broader perspective of what is happening on the ground in another country or geographical region,” says Sussman, who has led student groups twice to Dubai and, most recently, to Brazil. “They learn how business is conducted in that particular country and have the opportunity to network by meeting a number of representatives from both the public and private sectors across a number of industries. I don’t think you can graduate from a top business school without having that experience nowadays, and students who participate in this program get that in spades.”
Smart Business spoke with Sussman about how an international travel component can enhance an Executive MBA degree.

How has the EMBA program evolved over the past 10 to 15 years?

There have been two broad trends since I joined the faculty in 1995. One is the increased adoption of technology, and the second is the internationalization of the program. In the 1990s, we might have talked about international markets and about the growing importance of China, but we would be doing so from L.A.
That has changed 180 degrees. In any given year, there are at least half a dozen, if not more, of these international work/study trips. It’s amazing how much it has really changed, going from zero five years ago to about 10 this year.

How does the program work?

The international component consists of a full class lasting three-months. There are lectures and typical classroom activities before the course culminates in the actual trip. We talk about issues relating to that particular country or geographic region, whether it is China, Africa, the Far East or the Middle East. Then we spend one week in the country, generally in one particular city.
Students have the opportunity to listen to and meet with representatives of a host of organizations in both the public and private sector across a variety of industries to learn about what’s happening within their organizations specifically and in the country more generally. It’s a win-win-win all the way around, for the school, the faculty and the students. It’s a great opportunity to really understand what is happening globally. The reality is that what happens in Spain or China absolutely affects what happens here, and as business becomes more global, students  need to broaden their understanding and perspective.

What is the typical day like for students on a work/study trip?

The day usually starts by 8 a.m., and meetings start by 9 a.m.. For example, on the Brazil trip, students met with a representative of Banco Central de Brasil, who gave a one-hour presentation on the central bank and what’s happening in Brazil macroeconomically, followed by a Q&A session. That was followed by a presentation from another organization.
The afternoon includes additional presentations, such as one from a representative of a very large and well known oil company who talked to us about the country’s growing oil reserves, what is happening off the coast of Brazil, how that’s affecting the economy, and how it’s going to change Brazil going forward. At the end of the workday, students have the opportunity to explore, as it’s also important to go out and see the culture and what’s important to Brazil in terms of its people. Culture is really important in cross-border negotiations, and you have to look at the whole picture. It’s very intensive and very tiring, but it’s exceptional in every way.

Do students have any say in the focus of the course and the destination?

Absolutely. Students vote with their feet and we have to offer programs that the students want. There’s an add-on cost for them to participate, so we absolutely take into account where their interests are. Once the country or region has been determined, students then have to apply for the course.
This year, for Brazil, we had 60 spots available, and 100 students applied. The school then had to determine who would benefit most and who had participated the most in the international program.

How does the experience impact students?

I think if I’d asked students in January, when the course started, to tell me what they knew about Brazil, I would have heard things like, ‘Samba. The Amazon. Supermodels.’ As far as business goes, that knowledge was probably pretty limited to knowing that it’s a fast-growing economy, part of the BRICs.
If I asked them now, following their trip, however, they could easily talk for an hour about everything that is happening in Brazil, and provide specifics in terms of the economy and demographics, as well as the sources and risks of future growth. Most of them have traveled before, but they haven’t had this kind of immersive experience.
When we get back, we do a debriefing. I’ve done a tremendous amount of international travel and taught around the world, but on each of these trips, I come away with a real change in viewpoints and a much greater understanding of the places we’ve been. And I know if it affects me that way, it affects the students that way, as well.

Eric Sussman is a senior lecturer at UCLA Anderson School of Management. Reach him at [email protected] or (310) 825-3564.

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