When Ian Smedley left Vancouver International Airport in February, he had no idea the power of observation would be his biggest asset in the crowded streets of Singapore and its equally foreign boardrooms.
"You are outside of your comfort zone and in order to not make a fool of yourself you have to observe and be mindful of where you are. You can't just roll with what you know," says Mr. Smedley, a masters of business administration (MBA) student at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business.
But this was not a site-seeing venture.
International travel is now required for MBAs at Sauder as the first class of the school's new global immersion program, which demands that all graduate students travel to one of three regions – India, Denmark or the city-state of Singapore. On location for two weeks, they undertake group projects with on-the-ground businesses, collaborating with their MBA counterparts.
Through the haze of jet lag, culture shock and language barriers, the students tackle some of the largest manufacturing, commerce and societal challenges these countries face. The point is to get them immersed into real-life, big-business issues where their proposed solutions aren't given an A or an F – instead they get positive or critical feedback by politicians and global business leaders.
Mr. Smedley's group was saddled with the not-so-small task of proposing solutions for Singapore's aging population and the strain it puts on the country's health-care system. The hypothetical audience for the findings was the city-state's health minister.
Simultaneously in downtown Madurai, India, Sauder students such as Tom Quinlan were teamed up with Aurolab, the manufacturing side of the Aravind Eye Hospital. Half the group was asked to offer ideas on further Aurolab products, while others developed methods for Aravind to expand its presence in Africa.
"We were actually able to meet with executives and pitch ideas. It was great practice for us getting to pitch in front of decision makers, especially in a country like India which is growing so fast," Mr. Quinlan says.
The students say they gain context for global issues and the challenges the businesses face even though these problems are obviously not going to be solved in a less than a month.
"It's a lot," Mr. Quinlan says. "We were joking for a little while that two of the problems we tackled while in India were malnutrition and blindness. Yeah, just two little problems we tried to solve in a week."
The point of the global immersion projects is to give the students international business experience and maybe even a leg up in the highly competitive job market after they graduate. But are these projects too big to tackle in two weeks?
Christine Melton, president of the Aravind Eye Foundation and an ophthalmologist in New York, worked with the Sauder students in India and says the timeline is at breakneck speed.
"I think it's a bit short and I know there's the pressure of their other academic program and things that need to get done," Dr. Melton says. "To really get into an issue and to really get functional you need a little more time – definitely."
But Dr. Melton adds that international work is not only advantageous to the students, but a bonus for the businesses they work with as well.
"I mean, they are fresh young minds, they see things perhaps differently than a consultant. And the price is right, too," she jokes.
Sauder is one of the first schools in Canada to make this international work program a requirement for its students, but not all Canadian MBA programs agree that this is the best approach.
Michael Wybo, HEC Montréal's MBA program director, says he has no intentions of making global work projects mandatory because many of his students come here to learn about Canada's business practices.
"When you have a significant amount of international students in a program it's somewhat silly for them to go overseas," Prof. Wybo says. "For them, being over here is an international experience."
At HEC, students are given the option of working abroad and almost 60 per cent of the students take a three-week work-abroad trip. As an alternative, the school designed a program called Campus Canada, which establishes collaborative projects with Canadian companies.
"For them [international students] it's like going overseas, but doing it here," Mr. Wybo explains. "Because for them, understanding more about Canada is really what's important for advancing their careers."
But both Mr. Quinlan and Mr. Smedley say the compulsory nature of the two-week trip is advantageous.
"I think it makes a difference to make it a requirement because, you know, if it's a requirement there is going to be a lot more planning that goes into it," Mr. Smedley says. "Is it really a priority if everyone doesn't have to do it?"