In the last two years, Christina Walsh has traveled to Japan, trekked through the Atacama Desert in Chile, skied in the Austrian Alps and toured Vienna and Budapest.

The 29-year-old was not on a long holiday or work sabbatical. She’s a master of business administration candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in the US.

For many MBA students, international travel has become a central component of the business school experience. In part, it’s a reflection of the increasing demand for managers who understand how business works in other cultures. Less understood, however, is whether these programmes actually help students become more global in their thinking and business practices. 

US emphasis

The emphasis on international travel is more prevalent in US MBA programmes than in other regions, said Matt Symonds, director of Fortuna Admissions, an MBA admissions consultancy. In part, that’s because prominent European business schools often attract students from many countries and working in other nations is more common among professionals in that region. In the US, however, the majority of students are American and are less likely to have international work and travel experience. 

Business schools, responding to demand by students and employers for more global exposure, have started incorporating international programmes into their curricula in the last decade or so. From short-term courses and consulting projects, to semesters abroad, most US MBA students can tick a box during their two-year programme. While some are more for fun, others are designed to build professional networks and a few programmes offer the kind of work exposure that can help secure a job post-graduation.

“International study experience can really shift perspectives and open your eyes to other ways of doing business,” Symonds said. For instance, Americans often think of Silicon Valley as the dominant technology hub, but it “isn’t the only culture of technology,” said Symonds. “Spending time in Tel Aviv or Berlin or Shanghai opens your eyes to that.” 

At Columbia Business School in New York, an international study tour of up to 10 days has students meet with executives and government officials and visit companies and cultural sites in places like Japan, Italy and Indonesia. A study tour at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin combines coursework and a cultural and economics-centred tour of places like China and South Africa. Other programmes match students with companies abroad for multi-week, on-site consulting projects.

Do they work?

Still, not all trips are meant to educate—and many are too short or too social in nature to even give students a strong perspective of culture and ways of doing business. Symonds said it’s up to schools to ensure that these trips show the “warts-and-all insight” of doing business in a particular market.

“From a learning perspective, schools really need to structure the nature of these treks and trips to ensure the interactions they have with company representatives on the visit are enlightening,” Symonds said.

Other MBA travel experiences don’t even pretend to be educational, such as the ski trips that have become a fixture across business schools. And yet, many students consider the networking from these types of trips to be as valuable as any class or internship.

“You definitely solidify relationships and solidify bonds,” said Walsh, the Wharton student. “You might see (people) in class, but as soon as you travel with them it changes the dynamic of the relationship.”

In some instances, those relationships can develop into professional connections that lead to jobs or business opportunities later in careers.  

Real business exposure

Outside of networking, some programmes are designed to help students learn hands-on skills. Harvard Business School, for example, offers Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development (FIELD), which includes a consulting project that’s done by students for a company located in an emerging market. 

Vincent Ho-Tin-Noe, a 2013 graduate of Harvard Business School and a co-founder of consulting firm MBA Admissions Advisors, spent a week working for a consumer goods company in India. He and five classmates worked with the client's water filters division on a market analysis in support of selling purified water in the Mumbai area.

“My international experience [before school] was limited to Europe and North America, and Field gave me a chance to venture beyond markets I was familiar with,” Ho-Tin-Noe said. The trip gave him exposure to new markets, he said. As an added bonus, he stayed in India for two weeks after the project to travel and learn more about the culture. He said that some of his classmates landed internships or full-time jobs in the countries where they worked on projects.

Ho-Tin-Noe, a native of Paris, said the project was an opportunity to learn about the challenges Indian firms face and business models that would not be viable in North America or Europe.

Symonds, the admissions consultant, said even the “just-for-fun” trips can help broaden the horizons of the next generation of business leaders.

“There’s a lot of language around ‘think globally, act locally’,” he said. “I think that these international experiences can actually turn that language into a more vivid reality.”