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Around the world again: Immersive global experiences are back

Students in the MBA Global programs

Ross Powell (MBA ’23) has worked for a church in Uganda, conducted research at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and trekked through the Himalayas to deliver pop-up medical care clinics to farmers in northwestern India.

Students in the MBA Global programs in IsraelBut he had never been a part of something like the Global Immersion Elective (GIE) in Israel offered by UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.

In the spring of 2022 Powell and 24 classmates gained a behind-the-scenes, deep and intimate understanding of how entrepreneurship and innovation has spurred economic growth in the country. They met inspiring venture capitalists and owners of technology startups in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem who dream big but dream pragmatically.

It was an eye-opening experience and the perfect fit for someone in UNC-Chapel Hill’s MD/MBA dual-degree program who wants to run his own patient-care startup while practicing internal medicine in North Carolina and conducting global medical mission work.

“You could sense the hunger and the ambition of everyone from software developers to business development leaders at the companies that we visited,” says Powell. “Even though I want to do a domestic startup focused on North Carolina, a lot can be learned from the way other countries deliver healthcare and run their businesses. That’s why I knew that I wanted to have an international experience at UNC.”

Powell’s experience is representative of the global business education approach at UNC Kenan-Flagler that’s back in full force after the COVID-19 pandemic closed borders and eliminated in-person educational opportunities.

Powell hopes to fit in one more global experience before his medical residency starts.

“My goal is to travel to Kenya to work with physicians studying healthcare innovation at Strathmore Business School and also work in an emergency department there,” says Powell.

The world awaits

When the pandemic impacted GIEs and other forms of global in-person experiences it was a blow. Around 50% of Full-Time MBA students participate in GIEs. Many also participate in long- and short-term exchange programs such as Doing Business In (DBI) designed by partner universities.

“COVID jarred everything. The hardest time was those first months when everything shut down,” says Valerie Slate, director of MBA global programs. “Our students suffered this massive loss and we needed to support them.”

While most schools decided to not offer global experiences for students from 2020 through 2021, UNC Kenan-Flagler took a different approach.

In fall 2020, the School offered virtual exchanges and in 2021 the global programs team launched virtual GIEs that still integrated cultural immersion and meetings with business leaders. Students studied innovation and entrepreneurship in Russia and Estonia, responsible leadership in Rwanda, and healthcare in Thailand and Japan. In-person, in-country experiences were all that was missing.

In-person, semester-long exchanges began to kick off again the following year and the number of participants each semester has steadily risen. In addition to Israel, in 2022 the School’s first in-person GIEs since the pandemic saw students studying healthcare in Switzerland, strategy and general management in Greece, and sustainability and social enterprise in Iceland.

Students in MBA Global Programs in IcelandIn September 2022, 117 MBA@UNC students traveled to Zurich for the first international summit since 2019. In March and May 2023, the School will again offer GIEs on healthcare in Switzerland, as well as real estate in Peru, sustainability and social enterprise in South Korea and strategy, and general management in Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Don’t call a GIE a trip or a vacation. Or even studying abroad. Slate never does.

Students at LindtThe global experiences available to all MBA students at UNC Kenan-Flagler are just that — experiences. Every aspect is intentionally designed. You don’t just visit Tel Aviv on a GIE. You talk with a venture capitalist who was there before venture capitalism took off. Students experience the intersection of business, culture and innovation. They learn about businesses investing in renewable energy in Iceland and explore the healthcare ecosystem in Switzerland (along with a tour of the Lindt Chocolate factory).

They learn even more about themselves in the process.

“The Israel GIE has been one of the highlights of my business school experience. It’s a once in a lifetime adventure that has forever changed me,” says Christine Pham (MBA ’23). “The GIE has taught me to embrace and value my sense of curiosity beyond the walls of McColl and champion my colleagues’ innovative ideas — as well as my own.

“It illuminated the importance to lead not only with my mind, but also with my heart.”

Students in MBA Global Programs in IcelandGIEs are curated and rigorous, intensive and illuminating. Offered by UNC Kenan-Flagler since 1993, they are themed to modern business fields and issues. Students have engaged with business leaders in sustainable development in Bolivia, Ecuador and Iceland, and learned about general management and strategy in Greece, South Africa, Botswana and Zambia.

Students in MBA Global Programs in Greece“Participating in the GIE enabled me to connect global business concepts and strategies from the classroom to real-world companies in Greece. It was an eye-opening and enlightening experience to keep front of mind as I head into a globally focused career post-MBA,” says Annie Cassel (MBA ’23). “Navigating the company meetings and cultural moments alongside my classmates provided a unique environment to forge new friendships with my peers, which was surprising and one of my favorite takeaways.”

Also unique: All GIEs are led by UNC Kenan-Flagler faculty and staff whose specialties reflect the theme of the experience. An array of global programs are available across the School’s programs, including the Undergraduate Business Program and the Master of Accounting Program.

“The blended approach we take to business conversations and cultural experiences with a focus on experiential learning is different than what’s typical in other schools,” says Slate. “It’s challenging. We push students out of their comfort zones. You cannot escape the global aspect of logistics and supply chains and starting a business. The best way to feel that, to really understand it, is to have to navigate it yourself and physically be there to hear from the people who navigate it.”

It’s an approach not just seen in the GIEs. Second-year MBA students can participate in long exchanges as well as short exchanges, such as DBIs. Evening Executive MBA Program and MBA@UNC Program students also can take DBIs.

Exchange programs are facilitated through bilateral agreements through the Partnership in International Management, a consortium of nearly 70 business schools around the world. UNC Kenan-Flagler is one of the top schools that visiting students select for a North America exchange.

In the DBI program, students study abroad in elective classes at partner schools for one or two weeks.  Courses have a focus, such as the business of fashion in Rome and financial technology and innovation in France.

The Global Entrepreneurship Lab (GEL), blending classes and in-country study, is an additional option for Weekend Executive MBA students. Students work in teams directly with a startup in a country, are given a business issue by a startup’s founder and then deliver recommendations at the end of the experience.

Patricia Collins, associate director of MBA global programs, meets with every student who wants to go on a DBI or exchange program, finding the best fit for their interests.

“I always stress how important it is to look closely and think clearly about what they want to get out of it,” says Collins. “Are you concentrating on sustainability? Let’s look at schools that offer a strong sustainability concentration. Let’s look at countries like Denmark or Sweden or Costa Rica. It is always about figuring out what’s best for them.”

Collins works with hundreds of incoming and outgoing exchange students each year, meeting with them in person, on the phone or via Zoom. Collins calls them all “her children.”

“Some of them call me mom,” she says. “And that’s totally OK.”

Shifting perspectives

Changing minds is the part of her job that Slate might enjoy the most.

Students in the MBA Global programs in RwandaWhile in Tel Aviv, she saw preconceived notions of a dangerous region marred by unending conflict challenged when students saw a modern city that many consider the Silicon Valley of the Middle East. Studying in Rwanda by Vetter Dean’s Fellows led people to ask her why they would ever go there.

“I say go look it up and you’ll see exactly why we’re going there,” she says. “It’s an innovator on the continent. Look at how they overcame genocide to focus on government stability and technology. Look at how they’re also supporting small businesses and entrepreneurship.”

It’s perspective shifting. As part of a post-experience assessment, students are asked if they are interested in working in the country where they studied. About 60% say yes.

Developing specific competencies are part of the goals of every global experience. About 90% of students feel they’ve grown significantly in nine competencies, says Slate. Certain competencies rise to the top, such as empathy, communication and collaboration. Openness tends to come out of it as well. So does adaptability.

“There’s intercultural knowledge, knowledge of oneself and then knowledge of global business practices,” says Slate. “Business industry leaders say these are these are the skill sets they want in our graduates.

“The bottom line is that the Business School really cares about students having these experiences and really believe in their power. It’s a very collaborative and supportive global learning environment for that blended approach of cultural, business, community and human experiences. That’s very uniquely UNC Kenan-Flagler, even while in a pandemic.”