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MSA students relish trips abroad

Eileen Duffy | Tuesday, January 23, 2007

When Bridget Meacham checked her e-mail last fall and learned there were three spots available for Notre Dame Master of Science in Accountancy (MSA) students to travel to Asia – and they’d simply be granted to the first three people to apply – she didn’t hesitate.

Meacham joined a group of 34 graduate business students on a two-week trip to Suzhou and Shanghai, China, an experience she called “absolutely phenomenal.”

“Right now, China is the center of innovation. It’s revolutionizing manufacturing. It has an impact on so many sectors that are either rising or declining,” she said. “To understand what’s going on in the business world right now, it’s crucial to understand what’s going on in China.”

Meacham is one of the many graduate students in the Mendoza College of Business who choose to study abroad in one of three locations each year: Brussels and Paris, Suzhou and Shanghai, and Santiago, Chile.

For Notre Dame’s graduate students of business, each semester is divided into two seven-week modules (as they’re termed), with a two-week break in-between. While the Brussels/Paris and China trips take place during the break, the Chile program lasts for an entire seven-week module.

Dating to 2001, Chile is the oldest international study opportunity in the Graduate School of Business, and is offered only in module two of the fall. The Brussels/Paris and China programs are in their second years. And while students may travel to China in either semester, the Brussels/Paris trip only occurs in the spring.

Graduate study abroad is clearly not as extensive – both in duration and in variety of locales – as undergraduate, but any kind of international study is viewed as an invaluable resource for young professionals in what is becoming an increasingly global economy.

Mendoza Assistant Dean Samuel Gaglio, who directs International Programs for graduate business students, thinks that when it comes to landing a job, a candidate who has studied abroad is “more complete, more marketable.”

“You can’t get enough experience in the international market,” he said. “When making decisions in the business world, the more knowledge about how other companies and other economies operate, the more valuable you’ll be.”

Notre Dame’s business graduate students are taking advantage of the abroad opportunities – over 70 percent of a graduating class participates in one of the international programs offered.

So while other schools like Yale University have recently moved to require their MBA students to study abroad, Gaglio doesn’t think that’s necessary at Notre Dame.

“I would prefer to send students who are interested,” he said, “rather than students who are required.”

While Meacham acknowledges the positive impact her China experience has had on her, she also fears mandatory study abroad could damage Mendoza’s appeal.

“Just the sheer economic burden it could put on some people … I think that would be a limiting factor for some people and make them choose a different MBA program,” she said. “A lot of MBA students walk away from jobs, have families. It’s a sacrifice for some of them to go on this trip.”

But for students who are interested and qualified, there’s no need to worry – Gaglio admitted that currently, the programs admit all applicants in good standing.

China is the most popular program, with 74 students scheduled to travel to the Far East this spring. Gaglio thinks one of the finest parts of the program is the opportunity for participants to see the “new China.”

“We have this perspective of what communist China is about,” he said. “New China is exciting. It’s like … the Wild West of economy. [The Chinese are] exploring; they’re entrepreneurs; they’re having a great time. It’s not the China we all think we know.”

For Meacham, spending time conversing with Chinese peers was the highlight of the trip (she still keeps in touch with some she met). They wanted to put their country’s best face forward to the Americans, but unfortunately, Meacham noted, behind that front hid a few problems.

“They were bragging about Suzhou. They were showing us all this great new construction, like apartments, and talking about how expensive they were,” she said. “But when we went on the canal tour there, we saw abject poverty, by our standards – that was the normal standard of living. We felt awkward looking at these people.”

She was also distressed about the lack of concern for the environment she saw, and with rapid expansion of industrialization and skyrocketing motor vehicle sales, she’s worried it’s going to get worse.

In any case, Meacham’s study abroad experience taught her that perhaps her homeland isn’t the center of the world – which is especially crucial for her, since the company she’ll be starting at in August, FTI Consulting, just bought a branch in China.

“I would say the most important thing was kind of opening my eyes to see that ten, sixteen years down the road, the United States may not be the leader in world economics,” she said. “… For the Chinese, a lot of their interactions are about appearance. If you don’t know the correct way to greet or address someone, you’re not going to be able to survive in the everyday business environment.”

Gaglio said he and his colleagues are looking into more locations for graduate business students to study abroad, and India will likely be the next program established.