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Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

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On a recent study tour to Latin America, one of the assignments for MBA student Jess Singh and her classmates was to advise an international family planning organization on fresh ways to promote condom use among Brazilian youth.

For Ms. Singh and her fellow students from the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, the two-week trip to Brazil, Peru and Argentina last month allowed them to apply classroom learning to a real-world business problem and experience the challenges of operating in a global environment.

"It is quite clear that the leaders of the future are going to have to be able to speak to, and have real experiences, working in different markets," says Ms. Singh, who graduates from Rotman's 32-month morning MBA program this summer. A member of the talent strategies team at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, she aspires to add international experience to her banking résumé.

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For Rotman and other globally-recognized Canadian business schools, embedding international experiences into the MBA curriculum has become an essential feature of their programs. How they do so, however, varies by institution.

With 350 students in its full-time MBA, Rotman offers multiple options for voluntary participation in study tours that are usually scheduled during breaks in formal classes. Ms. Singh, for example, earlier took part in a study trip to China.

By comparison, with a smaller cohort of about 80 students, McGill University's Desautels Faculty of Management in Montreal redesigned its MBA in 2012 to add a study tour as a mandatory six-credit component of the 57-credit program.

"International is part of our DNA at McGill and the faculty of management," says Alfred Jaeger, academic director of the MBA and professional MBA programs at Desautels, citing the global profile of students and faculty. This spring, the MBA class heads to Tokyo for two weeks where Dr. Jaeger says students "will get a sense of the dynamics of Japan and the culture of Japan and will be able to compare that to Canada and their home culture and be much more functional in a global environment."

For many students, he says, "the trip is an eye-opener."

He says the mandatory international experience aims to develop a "worldly mindset" – one of five must-have attributes of modern managers named by Desautels management guru Henry Mintzberg.

At Rotman, where the MBA class is more than 50 per cent international, fostering a "global mindset" is also a top priority for Rotman dean Tiff Macklem. "Business problems, society's biggest problems transcend borders and you really need to be able to think globally and at the same time act locally," he says. "You need to understand how to do business and you need to understand the local culture."

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That philosophy underpins Rotman's relationship that began three years ago with DKT International, a non-profit organization that promotes family planning, HIV/AIDs prevention and safe abortions in more than 30 countries. Though a non-profit, DKT generates income for global activities through profit-making subsidiaries that manufacture and sell contraceptives and related products.

Last September, as part of their assignment, Rotman students teamed to solve four business challenges posed by DKT and offered recommendations to executives (and Dr. Macklem) at a wrap-up event in Sao Paulo in January.

DKT International Brazil/South America program director Daniel Marun, says that working with Rotman students enabled his organization to glean insights from informed outsiders on the non-profit's game plan.

"We expected to receive inputs from those not involved in the business on a day-to-day basis and that would make us look differently at the problems we had," says Mr. Marun, speaking from Sao Paulo. "It was very enriching."

One recommendation from the Rotman students, says Ms. Singh, was to broaden DKT's marketing campaign on condom use to include women as partners in pregnancy protection. While DKT installs condom dispensers in washrooms for men, the Rotman students suggested doing the same in lavatories for women.

"Instead of focusing and targeting [only] men, let us not forget it is also a woman's choice and they should be empowered to have a real conversation about what is good for them," says Ms. Singh.

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She says the opportunity to work last semester with DKT officials in Skype conference calls and other interactions simulated what it's like to operate in a global business environment. "It teaches you the delicate balance of managing time zones and communicating across borders and languages," she says. "We experienced first-hand [the challenge of] keeping the message whole and not losing its essence."

Unlike her China trip, where Ms. Singh and her classmates were given a hard-core financial problem to solve, she says the Latin America tour gave her a perspective on the bottom-line pressures on a global non-profit with an ambitious mission. "It was nice to work on something that had real social impact," she says. "It gave us the opportunity to improve the lives of students."

Rotman currently offers several study tours, including to the Middle East, India and Silicon Valley, with additional destinations under consideration, according to Dr. Macklem. "The more you give students an opportunity to practice and use the [in-class] skills, the deeper the learning," he says.

With her two overseas trips, Ms. Singh took full advantage of Rotman's foreign study options. She urges prospective business students not to pass up an opportunity to work, even briefly, in international settings where cultural, business and political practices differ from Canada.

"I have told those considering any business program that they should not leave without at least some sort of global experience before they walk out the doors [of a business school]," she says.

Follow Jennifer Lewington and Business School News by subscribing to an RSS feed here or via Twitter @JenLewington.

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Contact Jennifer at jlewington@bell.net

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