Meet The Big Commuters On Campus

Executive MBA programs were intended for locals, but students from all over are enrolling

Charla Serbent wanted a Wharton MBA badly enough that she was willing to commute to school every other weekend between Shanghai and San Francisco. That was 10 1/2 hours there, 13 1/2 hours back. Given the magic of time travel across the international date line, she arrived at the West Coast campus of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School 4 1/2 hours before she boarded the plane back home. "When you're traveling over multiple time zones, you're studying and not feeling great," says Serbent, who is general manager for ppg Industrial Coatings' Asia Pacific office. "All of a sudden your MBA becomes a physical task."

A growing number of executives like Serbent are forking over weekend time to earn an MBA and commuting sometimes astronomical distances to do it. While weekend executive MBA programs were designed as a convenience for local executives who couldn't miss work for school, EMBA students are increasingly drawn from afar. According to the Executive MBA Council, 22% of EMBA students travel 100 miles or more, up from 11% two years ago. Those with international commutes jumped from 2% to 4%. EMBA students routinely fly to the U.S. from Korea, China, Singapore, and Bahrain for programs at Wharton West, the University of North Carolina, and Columbia University.

As Serbent's plane touched down at San Francisco International Airport, Vishal Verma could have been heading out the door of his Los Altos home for a 45-minute drive to Wharton West. Instead, the 32-year-old partner in venture capital firm Edgewood Ventures opted to fly nearly 1,800 miles to EMBA classes at the University of Chicago. "I wanted to get a whiff of the world outside of Silicon Valley," says Verma, who typically caught an 11:50 p.m. red-eye on alternate Thursdays before graduating in March. Like Serbent—who had been known to make her way from Shanghai to Seoul in five days of business trips, with stops in Melbourne, Hong Kong, and San Francisco along the way—Verma often scheduled classes around business trips to India, traveling 14 hours from Chicago to do so.

To make it work, big personal sacrifices are often required. For Marcus Goddard, who traveled seven hours door-to-door from his New Brunswick (Canada) home to Durham, N.C., for Duke University's EMBA program, time with his wife and three kids was the first casualty of B-school. The 52-year-old business developer for Irving Oil, an energy company based in St. John, wasn't around for bike trips, homework, school plays, or Easter. His wife, Jennifer, "was basically a single parent during the weekends," says Goddard, who graduated in November.


It's not just the Whartons and Dukes that are reaching out to distant students. EMBA programs across the board are widening their recruiting efforts. When layoffs cut Eastman Kodak's (EK ) Rochester (N.Y.) staff from 28,100 in 1998 to 12,500 last year, the University of Rochester was hit hard. The company once sent 15 students a year to Rochester's EMBA program. This year it sent none. In September the program shifts from a weekly to a biweekly format, in an effort to attract students from afar who were unwilling to make a weekly trip. Another incentive: Students can get airfare and hotel discounts through partnerships with JetBlue Airways (JBLU ) and Holiday Inn Hotels & Resorts.

Similarly, the University of Chicago began recruiting for its weekend EMBA program in San Francisco, Seattle, and Santa Clara after noticing unsolicited interest from West Coast students like Verma last year, says Director Patricia A. Keegan. To accommodate its globe-trotting clientele, the B-school hired a full-time staffer in November to work on EMBA student services such as airport shuttle coordination and hotel lodgings.


A Saturday/Sunday schedule is one reason Guru K. Prabhu, a service delivery manager at Bank of America's (BA ) Concord (Calif.) office, decided to go to Cornell University—despite a six-hour one-way commute by air and rental car to the EMBA campus in Palisades, N.Y., every other weekend. In nine months, Prabhu has earned enough frequent-flier miles to circumnavigate the globe 16 times. If he's delayed, his microeconomics professor will videotape the 8 a.m. class—a service he has needed only once.

For Prabhu, out-of-pocket costs will amount to about $24,000 for travel and $120,000 for tuition at the end of his two-year program. But Prabhu expects a rebate in the form of bonuses, raises, or full expense coverage from his next employer, an increasingly common practice. For Serbent and Verma, their companies paid for much of the air fares and hotels, since most of the travel was sandwiched between business trips.

The road warrior lifestyle on top of tuition and travel costs are the price Prabhu is paying for a chance to advance his career. "People call me crazy," he says. "Once you know what your ambition is, the rest follows." It's Serbent's mantra, too. Before graduating, she took each class as it came, one day at a time. "Before you know it," she says, "you're on your last day in San Francisco, and there you go." Just in time for a well-deserved nap and a flight back home.

By Jane Porter

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