Last year, the students in the Executive MBA program at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business in Tempe decided they would travel to Seoul for their international practicum, scheduled for March 2020. But just as the first few students began arriving in Korea, it became clear that COVID-19 was spreading across Asia. All existing plans had to be scrapped.
While the school normally makes all its travel arrangements, administrators decided to hire The Austral Group—an educational services firm that organizes international travel—to map out an alternate trip. The company soon had arranged a completely new itinerary in Peru, far from the pandemic’s epicenter.
But Peru closed down its borders on March 16, and the school was forced to call off the trip the day before the entire class was set to depart. Since three students had traveled early, The Austral Group arranged for their flights out of the country, but not without squeezing in a sightseeing detour to Machu Picchu, the 15th-century Inca citadel.
With international trips on hold through the end of 2020, organizers begin plotting two itineraries for the spring of 2021. Traditional EMBA students would travel to Spain and Portugal, while students from the healthcare track would visit London and Geneva. But as COVID-19 continued to rage, the team had to devise an alternative: a virtual, dual-track international practicum that featured presentations from global business and healthcare leaders and that engaged students in interactive cultural activities. The event took place over five days in mid-March of 2021.
A Carefully Coordinated Event
Four key team members were involved in planning the in-person practicum and its virtual replacement. They included Alex Tapp and Vanessa Gonzales from The Austral Group; Amy Hillman, professor, Rusty Lyon Chair of Strategy, and former dean of the W.P. Carey School; and Alison Essary, a faculty associate who was leading the practicum for students in the Executive MBA healthcare track. Essary also is the Scrivner Family Director of the Research, Quality Improvement and Patient Safety Program, Academic Affairs, at HonorHealth in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Students in the virtual practicum had the option of attending from home or from a classroom on campus. Most EMBAs already had taken time off work, so the school booked hotel rooms in Phoenix so they could join their colleagues in the classroom; others participated over Zoom.
The 28 EMBA students met virtually with more than 30 business leaders and cultural experts who were based in Spain, Portugal, Ecuador, Ireland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The organizations represented included HP, Aon, Novartis, and other companies in the healthcare sector.
In all, Austral created 28 sessions and scheduled them carefully to accommodate the many time zones of participants. Students from both cohorts came together for the first day’s events, daily cultural activities, and daily work sessions on a business challenge that spanned the whole practicum. But throughout the week, the cohorts separated to attend industry-specific presentations related to their tracks.
For instance, presentations and panels for the traditional EMBA students focused on marketing megatrends, digital transformation and AI, fintech disruptions, global supply chain management, human resources recruiting and retention, sports management, and the tourism and hospitality industry.
Students from both cohorts came together for daily cultural activities but separated throughout the week to attend industry-specific presentations related to their tracks.
Mukund Vasudevan, a chemical engineer and business development manager for a Belgium-based chemical company, was particularly impressed by a talk from executives at a travel company based in Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands. Their presentation covered how they work to preserve the local environment in the Galápagos Islands by managing tourism and handling waste. COVID-19 “crashed the tourism industry globally,” says Vasudevan. “How did [travel companies] do in those times? You see a very different angle.”
Presentations in the healthcare track included topics such as Europe’s pharmaceutical industry, entrepreneurship and healthcare challenges, economics and financing, and the medical device industry.
For instance, Federico Steinberg discussed healthcare in the European Union. Steinberg is an economics professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid, a principal investigator at the Elcano Royal Institute, and special advisor to the High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission. Iain Hennessey—a pediatric surgeon at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in England and a healthcare technology consultant—shared insights on the future of the healthcare industry, patient-centric care, and the challenges of COVID-19.
Many students were able to instantly apply the knowledge speakers delivered in these sessions. For instance, Shane Speirs, a geriatrician with HealthyU Family Medicine in Phoenix, collaborated with some of his classmates who are employed at different healthcare systems in the city. His group studied the healthcare frameworks developed in Portugal and discussed how they could apply those systems in their organizations.
“We can use the knowledge we gained from our practicum to better support our older adults here in Phoenix,” says Speirs.
Participants also employed the skills they had gained during the EMBA program to tackle a real-life challenge during the practicum. Students were organized into eight-person teams that included members from the traditional and healthcare tracks. They worked with a Portuguese healthcare automation company to devise funding strategies to support the launch of a new project. Students presented their ideas on the last day of the event.
As he worked with his teammates, Vasudevan realized that a problem is more likely to be solved if a group of people share their different perspectives and offer a variety of solutions. He says, “You have a half-baked idea that you could turn around into a multimillion-dollar business if you have the right people on your team.”
Globe-Trotting in Tempe
Mixed in with the didactic sessions throughout the week were activities that exposed students to different countries and cultures. A chef who had trained at Le Cordon Bleu did a live cooking demonstration from Spain and shared her secrets for cooking traditional paella. A musician in Lisbon entertained students with a 30-minute live concert and presentation about the roots of Fado music, a genre of traditional Portuguese music that dates back to the 1820s.
Students virtually toured Madrid and Dublin, accompanied by personal guides who shared history, folklore, and timeless Spanish and Irish traditions. “The tour guides did a magical job explaining the culture, the history, and the landmarks,” says Essary.
While students were disappointed that the pandemic had eliminated the international travel portion of the practicum, many thought the online replacement was an even richer experience.
Students even had chances to savor the culinary delights of other countries. For example, The Austral Group arranged a tapas testing event by delivering individually prepared kits of fresh ingredients to the classroom and to the doorsteps of students attending from home. Before a session on British cheesemaking, The Austral Group sent students selections from Neil’s Yard Dairy in London, the world’s leading exporter of British farmhouse cheeses. The company also provided packages of delectable treats to students as they prepared to hear a Swiss chocolatier discuss the luxury product business. To prepare for a virtual tour of the Guinness brewery in Dublin, students purchased their beer in advance, then took part in a beer flight tasting after class.
Program organizers found other fun and creative ways to make the virtual experience feel like an in-person adventure. For instance, they played a video of airline stewards sharing social distancing and safety information, and they referred to the staff coordinators as the “Program Operations Flight Crew.” In addition, they sent each student a Guinness beer mug, travel pillow, and blanket—items any traveler might pick up on the road.
‘It Was Phenomenal’
While students were understandably disappointed that the pandemic had eliminated the international travel portion of the practicum—frequently considered the highlight of the EMBA program—many thought the online replacement was an even richer experience.
For instance, Ronny Horvath, managing director of a global consulting firm headquartered in Germany, noted that, with in-person visits, students lose a great deal of time as they fly to other countries and travel between various locations in their destination cities. This leaves them with only enough time to see an average of two presentations a day. By contrast, during the virtual practicum, his cohort could attend three or four presentations daily and still have time for a tasting.
Horvath also appreciated the lack of jet lag—and the chance to experience many different cultures. “They had us tasting cheese from England and chocolate from Switzerland,” he says. “I was born and raised in Germany, and I never tried this kind of fancy chocolate. Overall, they gave us a very interesting cultural feeling and a taste of how it would have been if we traveled. I think it was phenomenal.”
Hillman and Essary say The Austral Group’s support was essential for making the practicum successful, but they also credit the students for being so open to the unexpected change in format. Says Essary, “They went above and beyond, and they were just wonderful about going with the flow and being supportive of one another and faculty and staff.”