By Jeffrey Gangemi When Steve Nolen got to MIT Sloan School of Management, he had a wealth of international experience. Nolen comes from a military family, was born in the Philippines, and spent the last three years of high school in Iwakuni, Japan. Following in his father's footsteps, he attended the U.S. Naval Academy for undergraduate studies and then joined the military, where he spent seven years, eventually rising to the position of aviation logistics officer.
In the fall of his second year at Sloan, Nolen signed up for Global Entrepreneurship Lab (G-Lab), a course that culminated in a three-week consulting project with a private software-development company in Dalian, in Northeastern China. Nolen says coming up with an entry strategy into the U.S. for the company served as the highlight of his time at B-school, because it presented him with a genuine real-life business challenge within the relative security of the school's support system. "China is going to be the market in the next 50 years, and I don't want my first experience there to be with a multibillion dollar deal on the line," says Nolen.
SURGING DEMAND. Are you hoping for a strong international component to your MBA studies, too? With the world increasingly becoming one global economy, most top-tier B-schools now offer international study options. Trouble is, many of the programs amount to little more than a glorified -- and often subsidized -- spring break. If you want a genuine educational experience like the one Nolen got at MIT, you have to get beyond the marketing hype by asking questions about each school's programs and what you'll get out of them.
In the past five years, demand for global study options has dramatically increased at most B-schools. Sloan's G-Lab program doubled in size from 60 in 2004, to 120 this year, while Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management's Global Initiatives in Management program has gone from 24 students in 1990, to 434 in 2005 -- almost two thirds of the total population. Many schools, including Babson College's Olin School of Business and Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business have made international experiences a mandatory part of the full-time MBA curriculum.
The major reason for this phenomenon: As markets globalize, companies want their MBA hires to arrive with more significant international experience than in the past. The most desirable MBAs have "a great combination of business skills and technology and global knowledge," says Mario Queiroz, vice-president for content and product data management at Hewlett-Packard (HPQ). Global knowledge, he says, is what sets them apart.
DELVING INTO INFRASTRUCTURE. In the past, the best choices for internationally oriented MBAs often resided in specialty programs such as the Thunderbird Garvin School of International Management), the University of South Carolina's Moore School of International Business), and the up-and-coming Monterey Institute of International Studies' Fisher Graduate School of International Business. These schools pride themselves on having more demanding language requirements, overseas internships, and international curricula than traditional MBA programs.
To keep up with rising demand, the mainstream B-schools have had to inject more hands-on international experiences into their curriculums. "Students are really feeling the need to get on the ground and meet with people abroad, as well as to bond and network with their peers," says Shauna Barry, assistant director of MIT Sloan Student Affairs. However, the offerings are far better at some B-schools than at others.
Full-timers at Georgetown, for example, are now required to complete a mandatory "Global" -- a consulting project consisting of a class devoted to business in one of five regions of the globe. The projects can be quite demanding: Last year students led by Professor Pietra Rivoli worked on a research project called Public-Private Partnership for the Shanghai International Group, assessing the corporate client's needs in funding infrastructure projects. And each project culminates in a two-week trip to deliver the team's findings to management at the overseas client company.
"Study tours have become a dime a dozen," says Rivoli. "Where we're going to distinguish ourselves is in real projects in these countries."
MINICONSULTING PROJECT. Georgetown's demanding approach stands in sharp contrast to the more traditional, vacation-style programs at many schools. At Columbia Business School, the study tour experiences are student-initiated, optional, and not tied to a curricular or credit-bearing course. Jason Santiago, a first-year student at Columbia, says his trip to Japan was just one of dozens that Columbia advertises. Santiago says he'll be traveling to as many destinations as he can, even though the trips have little connection to his summer internship.
And who could blame him? Partially subsidized by Columbia, his 11-day trip to Japan was not only fun but also cost him less than $2,000.
Columbia says letting students organize study-abroad trips cuts down on administration costs and bureaucracy. "Anytime students can pull together a good tour, they can go," says Jennifer Tromba, program manager at Columbia's Chazen Institute of International Business. "Otherwise, we'd need a professor [to lead] each trip, and there may not be enough to go around. [The program] would have to be much more highly regulated."
LEAVING COMFORT ZONE. Nonetheless, even many student-initiated vacation-style programs are now being tied in with significant classroom study back home. For instance, the popular Global Scope project at the University of Texas at Austin's McCombs School of Business) combines classroom research with a "miniconsulting project," culminating in a two-week tour over spring break. Steve Blankenship, a second-year at McCombs, says his trip to South Africa combined a healthy dose of business with cultural experience. "I'd say that the trip is about two-thirds business and one-third cultural," says Blankenship. "We're graduate students after all, so some students party."
Of course, many MBA students don't really want much rigorous study connected with their trips abroad. At MIT this year, four nine-day trips -- to Africa, Brazil, China, and India -- were organized and completed by students as part of MIT Sloan's International Spring Trips. Barry admits that these for-credit trips "are more for networking and socializing with classmates" than for getting hands-on business skills. The grades doled out carry only about half the weight of a traditional course.
But Nolen is glad he opted for the more demanding China project. "The opportunity to be out of my comfort zone but still safe was like a learning laboratory," he says. And chances are, more and more corporate recruiters are going to favor MBAs with such overseas experience on their résumés. In tomorrow's global village, having international experience may help determine who's chief and who's out of a job. Gangemi is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York