Many MBA students use winter break to recharge after a grueling fall semester, but some grab their passport and suitcase to learn overseas.
Business schools such as the Sloan School of Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Wisconsin—Madison offer one or two-week learning experiences in Africa or other continents during winter vacation. Students learn about marketing, supply chain management or other core business subjects from an international perspective. Most schools also have study abroad options in spring and summer.
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These trips can be critical for understanding cultural differences that may help a business student excel.
"I think they get to see firsthand a product that exists in one market and exists in this other market. At the surface it may seem that it's the same product being traded around the world, but you'll see that those cultural differences really do exist," says Sachin Tuli, a lecturer of international business at the University of Wisconsin business school.
The iPhone is an example of this, he says.
"There's different voltages for the adapter, there's different languages in the menus, there's different search engines that are a possibility. They don't use Twitter. The warranty is done differently," he says. "All these things that help bring to life these challenges for students that they may face in the business world."
During these trips, students typically meet with CEOs, participate in group projects and practice presentation skills, while also exploring a new city and learning a new language and culture.
MBA students considering a global career can use the trips to learn how business leaders outside of the U.S. think.
"You get to understand better how they view the world," says Anna Helm, a professor in the international business department at George Washington University.
Students interested in traveling overseas while in business school – for a few weeks or an entire semester – should brush up on the do's and don'ts of studying abroad. Business school professors and students who have made the trips offered the following advice.
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Do your research: Tuli has traveled to India, the United Arab Emirates and China, among other places, with students. One thing he often hears them say after a trip is, "I should have done more prep."
"The best thing students can do before these trips is spend time on their own researching," he says. Experts suggest students find out about their host country's cultural norms and business practices before the trip.
Tuli encourages students to find out if their schools subscribe to political risk reports, which he says is a common practice. These analyses describe a country's political and economic landscape and can be found in publications such as Business Monitor International or through companies such as The PRS Group, he says.
To become more aware of the culture, Helm of George Washington encourages students to read a book or watch movies from the host country. Tuli suggests students read websites such as CountryWatch or Global Road Warrior to learn about etiquette and other differences.
Research doesn't stop with customs and culture. Researching the companies and business opportunities available before travel can help a student's career.
"Understand your passion," says Marcos Ortiz, a graduate of the Sloan School of Management at MIT.
Ortiz, who works in marketing at Procter & Gamble Co., went to Kenya during winter break of his second year of business school. He had the opportunity to work in telecommunications, but consulting for the owner of several pharmacies in Nairobi was more in line with his interests, he says.
"I picked something that was closer to what I wanted," he said. "The work became very applicable to the kind of stuff that I'm doing right now."
Do be aware of how you're perceived: Students should be aware that while traveling they are giving an impression of what people are like from their country, experts say.