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Changing tides – embarking on the EMBA journey

Oksana Chikina, who hails from Uzbekistan, is an international development professional on a leave of absence from Population Services International (PSI), a U.S.-based non-governmental organization. Having spent the past 12 years living and working in 10 countries on four continents, she is spending a year as an international student attending the executive MBA program at Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. This is her first blog post in a continuing series.

Perhaps before delving into the details of the actual EMBA experiences, I need to answer the two questions that come up in every conversation: Why an EMBA? Why Canada?

The answer to the first question is simple. Having had rewarding professional and personal experiences in the conflict zones of Darfur in Sudan, disaster-affected Indonesia and Malawi, the warm heart of Africa, I came to see a dramatic shift in my industry. In order to survive, international development is pressured to innovate, become more effective, employ multiple bottom lines and, most importantly, engage and leverage the private sector.

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My master of public administration degree in international management had been useful in designing and managing the programs that would save lives, improve health and strengthen livelihoods in poor communities. Most of these projects, however, were not sustainable without external donor funding. There is nothing more frustrating than explaining to a young mother of three children who walked for 20 kilometres to get an insecticide-treated mosquito net that there is none left and no funds to procure more. And so, I decided to go back to school and learn how to set up and manage effective businesses and corporations, and to do it in the company of qualified and successful professionals.

The second question is more challenging. I was looking for a combination of world-class education, attractive lifestyle, competitive school with a global name and alumni network. After six months of analysis, consultations, interviews and tests, I was proudly admitted to Rotman a year ago.

Little did I know that this was, by far, the easiest part of the whole process. If you think that getting into an EMBA program is challenging (after all, one has to get a competitive GMAT score, go through a series of interviews and write essays), try to imagine obtaining a Canadian visa from Malawi while Canadian diplomats are on strike demanding a pay hike. I couldn't really have opted out or applied to schools in other countries at that point because it was June, the preparatory courses were starting in August, actual classes were to begin in September and I had already paid 10 per cent of a quite impressive tuition fee.

But eventually, having put together a giant jigsaw puzzle of professional assignments, visas and cross-continental moves, I landed in Toronto on Aug. 30.

My first words of wisdom for all international students – and EMBA students in particular – is to arrive as early before the program starts as possible and get hold of all program materials as soon as they are available. Make sure to attend all preprogram tutorials and get to know the campus.

Why? Because I did not. Having arrived two weeks before the classes started, having missed all tutorials and informal introductions, I had to face an avalanche of conflicting priorities. Should I read up on marketing and strategy, finance and accounting, or should I look for an apartment? Should I activate my student ID at the library or set up banking and cellphone accounts? Even though Canada is a very easy to navigate country and the University of Toronto's staff is incredibly welcoming, professional and efficient, I found the first two weeks quite overwhelming and stressful. And that was before the program even started.

The EMBA program at Rotman is 13 months, has four residential week-long modules and classes on campus every other weekend. Beginning in mid-September, a series of informal introductions were rapidly transformed into small group assignments, day-long classes, and, most importantly, formation of study groups that would be working together on assignments through the end of December.

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More questions have arisen.

What does it mean to discuss strategy not having had a cup of Tim Hortons coffee? Why at certain points did I feel like I was speaking Vietnamese? Why was my proven leadership and cross-cultural communication skills becoming paralyzing? All will be explained in my next post.

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