International Experience: The Professor’s View
Each spring, the more than 200 students in the Yale SOM first-year class board planes and fly out to destinations in Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa. For 10 days, they meet with business and political leaders, visit factories and cultural sites, and gain a unique view into the global marketplace. They return having had the experiences of a lifetime, which make the International Experience one of the centerpieces of the Yale SOM curriculum.
But it's not just students who return with new lessons and lifelong memories. For the faculty who lead the International Experience trips, the excursions serve as an opportunity to meet with some of a country's most dynamic leaders, a font for new research, and a unique way to bond with Yale SOM students. "In many ways, this is the first opportunity to really get to know students as individuals," says Shyam Sunder, James L. Frank Professor of Accounting, Economics, and Finance. "It's very important for the education process. We have in-depth conversations outside the framework of courses. I believe it contributes to Yale SOM being special."
Work for both students and faculty for the trips begins months before the March departures from New Haven. Olav Sorenson, professor of organizational behavior, says that as soon as he settled on Hungary and Estonia as destinations for his trip, he began reaching out to contacts at the Department of Commerce and the many Yale alumni in the two nations. He was able to quickly come up with a list of individuals and organizations that would give shape to the theme he had in mind for the trip: comparing two countries transitioning from command economies to ones that are more market-based. "I was really impressed both by how large—and plugged-in—the Yale alumni network is and how willing everyone is to help," he says. "They set up a lot of really great meetings or put us in touch with the people we needed to contact. These are not just Yale SOM alumni, but ones from all over the university. You hear a lot about the Yale network and it was really great to get to experience it."
Yale SOM faculty members often have deep contacts in the countries they are visiting, as a result of their research or history. When Mushfiq Mobarak, assistant professor of economics, took a team of students to Bangladesh, he tapped into his own network, fostered through his extensive work in development economics. For Sunder, a career spent between the United States and India helped him generate many opportunities for students to meet with some of India's most influential leaders. This year, he led his second trip to India, taking his group of students to see three cabinet-level ministers, the CEO of a growing hotel chain, a wind-turbine entrepreneur, and senior bankers, as well as Rajeev Dubey '82, president of human resources at Mahindra & Mahindra, one of the country's largest conglomerates, and even Lushin Dubey, a famous Indian actress, director, and producer, who spoke to students one evening about art and film in the country. "It's safe to say we didn't have any dead time," Sunder says.
But, he says, the point of the trip wasn't to pack in as many visits with people as possible. The International Experience is intended to provide students with a unique perspective on the global economy by delving deeply into a particular country or region. To that end, professors stress preparation, beginning the process at the beginning of the school year. Each faculty member holds sessions on the politics, culture, economy, and history of each nation. Students are assigned individual companies and organizations to research and report on. The result is effectively an additional course—and students who arrive in each country knowledgeable and ready to engage some of its most important leaders. "A number of the people we visited commented on what an unusually well-prepared group Yale students are," says James Choi, associate professor of finance, who led the trip to Chile. "This was my first time in Chile, too, and I found I was really learning a lot from the students' presentations. The quality of preparation and thought was truly impressive."
One angle that Choi pursued in the Chile trip was the country's innovative approach to retirement policy. In 1980, the country switched from a Social Security-like system to one where contributions by workers are managed by private pension funds. Considering the ongoing debate over the fate of Social Security in the United States, Choi felt that it was a timely topic for students to study. The trip also aided Choi's research. As an academic, Choi studies how the way retirement plans are structured influences their effectiveness. He says that going to Chile could help steer some of his future projects.
Sorenson also saw the International Experience as an opportunity to further his academic pursuits. One course he teaches is on venture capital. Both Estonia and Hungary are in the midst of trying to discover the best ways to foster entrepreneurship in their countries. "I've been interested in adding an element on emerging markets to the course," he says. "Going on the trip enabled me to meet with venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and those trying to incubate start-ups in places where there isn't a long history of such activity. You can't beat the perspective of being on the ground and seeing how something really works. I have no doubt the experience is going to enrich what I'm able to do in the classroom."
It's this unique perspective that to Sunder ultimately makes the trips such an important part of the Yale SOM curriculum. Throughout their first year, students are acquiring key skills and concepts, as they build a sense for what it takes to lead in a truly global marketplace. The International Experience offers a first opportunity for students to take what they've learned and begin to apply it in real-world settings. "It's all about going deeper, to get to the key, important lessons," Sunder says. "When we go on a visit, we're not there to discuss routine things. We get down to what's really cutting edge. The point is to make every hour worth it. Then once we've had a visit, we all talk about what we've discussed and we reinforce what we've learned. And along the way, I get to spend a lot of real quality time with the students. All of it has been tremendously rewarding."