At the University of Louisville, the bulk of learning for business graduate students comes within classroom walls. Each spring, however, those walls come down. From one city, students spread out across the globe, taking in new cultures and business practices oceans apart.
The international program has been a component of the University of Louisville’s Masters of Business Administration program ever since the format of the MBA program changed to cohort-based in 2007. All current MBA students are eligible to participate in the international program, which takes place in May.
Each year, between 130 and 150 students travel on one of several international trips to all corners of the globe. In all, over 1,000 graduate students have traveled on 42 trips to 32 different countries over the past 10 years.
Typically, programs span about 10 days, and students visit several different businesses during that time, observing the practices and meeting with industry leaders. Time is allotted for cultural immersion experiences as well.
According to Associate Professor Robert Nixon, the program helps to fill a void. After arriving at UofL in 2001, Nixon found that nearly half of MBA students had never undertaken real international travel prior to their graduate study experience.
“Before I came here to UofL, I did a lot of international travel and teaching for the university I was with,” Nixon said. “I personally feel it is very important. I have personally traveled a lot, and I see the value in it.”
Nixon ultimately founded the international program at UofL several years later.
To arrange the trips, UofL partners with World Strides, an international educational-based travel planning company. World Strides organizes each trip, through Nixon, through his broad global expertise, customizes each trip in an effort to provide the greatest benefit to the University’s students.
“He thinks through all of it – logistics, hotel accommodations, transportation, experience, companies – the total picture,” said Vernon Foster, Executive Director of MBA programs. “There’s not that many people who would have that appreciation and understanding, and there are very few (MBA) programs in the country with the institutional knowledge of his magnitude. We are very fortunate to have him in that regard.”
Nixon and scores of students have seen a variety of sights and business practices over the past ten years, including at least a handful of unexpected occurrences.
One year, MBA students visited an Oregon-based furniture manufacturing plant located in Bangkok, Thailand. UofL students learned that several months prior, the Portland headquarters had sent a memo to the manufacturing plant about quality.
“It used the phrase ‘Let’s not cut any corners,’” Nixon recalled. “(The memo) got out to the factory floor, and the manager said it took them three months to get the workers to actually cut a corner off of a roundtable. The workers took (the memo) literally. They thought they would lose their job if any corner was cut off of a piece of wood.”
Most years, students have anywhere from four to five different trips to choose from. Around 25 students travel to each destination, and no there are no cutting corners – trips are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. The process has proven to be a success – approximately 85 percent of students travel to their first or second choice each year.
This May, 117 MBA students are scheduled to embark on six trips to 11 different countries – Argentina, Chile, Romania, Croatia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, South Africa, China, Taiwan, India and the United Arab Emirates. It marks just the second time the MBA program has taken six separate trips.
New this year will be a “service learning” component. Students will travel to a nongovernmental nonprofit organization (NGO) while abroad, and will “actively participate in the mission of the NGO,” according to Nixon. On a previous trip, students voluntarily participated in similar work, and their positive experience ultimately led to the change.
The change marks the latest wrinkle in a program that has provided students with perspective, memories, and friends lasting far more than 10 days.
“The international trip exposed me to so many fantastic experiences and lasting friendships,” said Alex Lovan, who graduated from the MBA program at UofL in 2016. “I met people outside of my cohort I otherwise would have never met, and we’ve since kept in contact. Overall, the experience opened my eyes to global business environments and connected me with wonderful people. It is something I will be forever grateful for.”
Travel is not limited to the graduate level at UofL, however. In the past nine years, Elizabeth K. Liebschutz-Roettger, Director of Undergraduate International Programs for the College of Business, says over 500 business undergraduate students have studied abroad as well.
Rather than taking a trip each May, College of Business undergraduate students travel abroad three main ways. Most (about 40 students per year) choose to study abroad during the summer when activity on campus here at home has declined. The College of Business partners with approximately 20 third-party providers, which organize study abroad experiences for colleges and universities across the world, to facilitate summer travel.
Other undergraduate students (about 20 per year) participate in exchange programs, as the UofL College of Business has partnered with approximately 20 different AACSB-Accredited universities in both Europe and China. Through this program, students can study abroad for a semester while paying a normal UofL tuition rate.
Finally, a handful of business undergraduates choose to fully immerse themselves in another culture. Marketing and finance undergraduate majors can participate in the University’s dual degree program, where they spend five semesters studying at UofL and three semesters taking courses at a university in Germany. Upon graduating, program participants will receive a degree from both institutions.
Pricing can always be an issue for undergraduate students studying abroad, and though exchange programs help keep costs reasonable for students, there are other ways to control pricing as well, according to Liebschutz-Roettger. Students who study abroad during the academic year can apply financial aid they are receiving to their program, and multiple generous donors have also allowed students to travel at reduced rates. Historically, Liebschutz-Roettger says, the College of Business has had good representation of minority and first-generation Pell Grant students participating in its international programs.
In all, about 10 percent of business school undergraduate students study abroad at some point in their career. Most who do return with a smile on their face.
As the facilitator of undergraduate travel in the College of Business for the past nine years, she says she’s seen firsthand the benefits of crossing country lines.
“I think education abroad is one of the most life-affirming experiences people have,” said Liebschutz-Roettger. “You tend to have to stand on your own feet, whereas you may have been able to lean on your family or your friends in the past. It can put you in a very uncomfortable environment, and yet it’s very invigorating and energizing. You have this time to really reflect and get to know yourself.”