By Cyndee Fontana-Ott
When COVID-19 disrupted international travel, Fresno Pacific University’s MBA program faced a unique academic challenge.
The 20-month curriculum with a global emphasis requires students to take an international group trip. It’s an opportunity to learn about business in the context of different economies, politics, religion and culture, for example.
But that in-person journey couldn’t happen during a pandemic. So Michelle Bradford, Psy.D., MBA program director and business professor, helped brainstorm a solution with the School of Business travel partner, WorldStrides.
Rather than tour physically, the 31 students in the 2019 and 2020 MBA cohorts travelled virtually to five countries in early April. “This was a way we could make sure that students had the international experience while still being safe from the pandemic,” Bradford says.
The students themselves came from several locations. Some were local to Fresno, with a few from the Visalia area, a couple from the San Jose/Sacramento and a few international students. One student moved to Minnesota during their studies, and one patched in from India.
The trip kicked off with a team-building exercise—a Gold Rush escape room that challenged teams of students to work together virtually (pictured). Adjusting daily for diverse time zones, the students then set off via Zoom to Peru, Malaysia, Spain, Singapore and Morocco.
The multi-hour visits generally included a tour or other cultural activity and sessions with business owners and executives. In part, students explored a local market in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, chatted with the founder of Photoslurp in Spain and connected in Morocco with the founder of a non-profit dedicated to improving women’s lives.
While there is no perfect substitute for in-person travel, the week-long virtual program was a meaningful alternative. “At first I was wondering how we would get the feeling of being there, the experience of being there,” says Alejandra Garibay, an MBA student and director of fiscal services at Los Banos Unified School District. “But as we started getting into the actual countries, it was nice seeing what each one was able to bring. I did learn from that.”
Others felt much the same, and Bradford says that “in general, everyone was pleasantly surprised at what a great experience it turned out to be.”
Both she and Katie Fleener, Ph.D., dean of Fresno Pacific’s School of Business, say international travel is a critical component of the MBA program. “We want our students to gain the global perspective when it comes to business,” Bradford says.
“It really opens up their world view, too. They study all the business concepts that you would need in an MBA program, but having conversations and meeting leaders and listening to issues specific to a country really broadens their perspective," she adds.
Before the pandemic, MBA students typically spent about 10 days in two different countries. “The last several years, the students have gone to Singapore and Malaysia,” Fleener says. “We try to visit a couple of countries that will have very different economic structures. We want some compare and contrast there.”
Singapore, for example, has a hyper-developed economy while Malaysia is a developing country. “One of the reasons they have gone (to Malaysia) in the past is to experience how religion plays a role in economics, like the Islamic banking system,” Bradford says.
Since the traditional trip was off the table for the two cohorts of students, Bradford and Fleener worked with WorldStrides to create and structure the virtual alternative. “We spent time discussing what we wanted the experience to look like for our students,” Bradford says. “It took more than a few months to figure that out.”
There was one obvious plus to the new format—the opportunity to visit more places on the map. “We’re limited when we actually go in person,” Fleener says. “This way, they got to visit five different countries and within that, they were able to visit five different businesses in those countries.”
In Singapore, for example, students met with executives of 3M, took in a company presentation and participated in a challenge focused on the issues facing cross-functional business teams in international operations. In Peru, students spent time with Aquiles Chulluncuy, chief executive officer of La Naranja Media, whose topics included company strategies during COVID-19 and the intersection of business and culture in that country.
In Morocco, they met Nora Fitzgerald Belahcen, founding president of the nonprofit Amal Association that works to empower and uplift disadvantaged women through restaurant training and job placement.
That social impact session ties into Fresno Pacific’s Christian values and the idea of service to the community in business. The visit with Belahcen resonated deeply with Garibay, who called it her favorite part of the trip.
“It was inspiring to see her helping others and teaching them how to make a career,” she says. “It made me see that you could create a business” with social impact.
Throughout the travel, students learned how business and strategic planning can be influenced by a myriad of real-world issues in another country. “You have to consider all of these other factors that might not necessarily be laid out specifically in a textbook,” Bradford says, naming culture, politics and religion as some examples.
“They hear first-hand from people who are fully functioning in a certain industry and in a certain country about what the risks are, what the issues are,” she says. “I think it really helps them look at things differently when it comes to business processing.”
The virtual trip also placed an emphasis on culture, including activities such as a master class in flamenco dancing (Spain) and a tea appreciation workshop (Singapore). Those sessions were supplemented by a care package sent to students in advance that featured snacks and other items from each country, including castanets (for flamenco) and green, white, flower and oolong teas (for the appreciation workshop).
On their own, students were invited to explore other places and activities beyond the structured program. Those virtual opportunities included city tours, monuments, food markets, museums, temples and mosques.
“Every single day there were huge takeaways from the sessions,” Bradford says of weeklong virtual trip. “It was pretty impactful.”
Costs to students were adjusted along with the travel requirement. Depending upon the countries visited, MBA students generally pay between $1,500 and $2,500 for international travel. Students in the 2019 cohort, who originally paid for an in-person trip, received refunds while students in the 2020 cohort were not charged for a field experience.
While the hope is that international travel may safely resume next year, Fleener and Bradford are considering whether the Zoom version might have a place in the program. They know some prospective students won’t enter the MBA program because they can’t travel due to work, family or other considerations, and other students may have passport issues that prevent participation.
But the global aspect is important as Fresno Pacific’s MBA program pushes students to think far beyond Fresno and the Central Valley in terms of business and opportunity.
“We are challenging our students to make sure they are thinking globally in whatever they do with their business,” Fleener says. “They can have an impact.”
More about the 41-credit MBA program at fresno.edu/programs-majors/graduate/mba