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emba diary

Oksana Chikina is an EMBA student at Rotman in Toronto.

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 the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. This is her third post in a series.

When I was considering an EMBA course, a large part of me expected the experience to be on the easier side. Think about it: classes every other weekend, four week-long residential modules when you live out of a hotel room and "hang out" with other executives who welcome a nice break from their daily job and family responsibilities. Plus the extra bonus of relaxing in Toronto where I, being an international student, would not be allowed to work for the first six months. In addition, I came out with high grades from programs in Uzbekistan, Japan and the United States … and so I imagined an EMBA to be a nice break from my very demanding career.

I was wrong. The EMBA at Rotman School of Management is designed to equip you with the knowledge equivalent to the output of a full-time two-year MBA course, plus significantly strengthened leadership skills. It's not an easy task to accomplish within 13 months of fragmented on-campus time. Therefore, just 20 per cent of learning happens in a classroom. Forty per cent is gained through team projects and the remaining 40 per cent through self-study. However, even the passing minimum grade is quite demanding.

Reality hit home during the first residential module in mid-September. It is not easy to go back to the classroom after a few years of employment. Reading, homework and just paying attention and absorbing new information in hour-and-a-half chunks was challenging. This is why the EMBA program at Rotman started with a residential week of day-long classes on campus.

New to corporate finance and accounting, I had to do quite a lot of reading before each class. In addition, we were given our first team and individual assignments to get a taste of what was awaiting ahead. These assignments were not hard, but they sent a loud and clear signal that the program would not be a walk in the park.

How hard is it to assess retailer Zara's positioning strategy based on a store visit, for example? Try doing it in a team of two other people with backgrounds and schedules drastically different from yours while co-ordinating times with 64 other people.

As strange as it sounds, being removed from day-to-day responsibilities (furniture hunting in my case, child care and contract negotiations – for my classmates) for a week, made a big difference. Living out of a hotel close to campus, we were able to get used to the new reality of being students. There was a lot of bonding at impromptu cocktail gatherings in the evenings as well as in power study sessions. You'd be surprised how much passion can come out of a discussion of one quite simple (as I know now) balance sheet.

And so the week was followed by biweekly weekend classes on-campus, constant streams of team and individual assignments and final exams. A unique feature of courses at Rotman is their integration with each other. There is simply no way to solve a marketing case without a solid understanding of concepts from finance and strategy courses, just as it is not possible to complete an accounting assignment without the application of strategic thinking.

Having spent the past three months wrestling with accounting calculations, participating in hours of team discussions and sitting through gruelling exams, I am amazed at how much I have actually learned within such a short period. I am also impressed with how wrong my initial expectations were and am extremely grateful for it. And this has just been the first term.