Studying Business Abroad

At the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Lee Kramer, director of the Wharton International Program (WIP) and student life, received an email from a former student. The student, who had participated in a 10-day Wharton trip to Australia, wrote:

“Just wanted to share some exciting news with you – I applied for a transfer to the Melbourne office of my company and it just went through. They’re expecting me in early August. I’m leaving the States very soon. I’ve had this in mind since our WIP trip to Australia, so it’s only fair that I thank you for giving me that opportunity and offering the financial aid that you did at the time. The WIP trip was one of the highlights of my time at Penn Wharton, and I’m happy the school will change the course of my life once again.”

Studying abroad has increasingly become a tool for students to get a leg up in the post-graduation job search. Language programs and internships abroad are replacing general education filler courses, and at some universities, business students are being steered toward options specifically designed to expand their understanding of global economics.


A 2013 report by the Institute of International Education (IIE) claims that American student participation in study abroad programs has more than tripled in the last two decades. It also reports that in recent years, over 20% of these participants have been business students. The high rate of business students going abroad is reflective of the emphasis many individual business schools place on global educations and of the effort that these schools make to incorporate career-boosting lessons into their students’ travels.

Study Abroad at the Wisconsin School of Business

While the IIE report documents that 9% of U.S. undergraduates study abroad before graduating, the Wisconsin School of Business reports that each year around one-third of their graduating bachelors of business administration students have studied abroad. According to Joseph Halaas, the business school’s director of international programs, participation is also higher among the undergraduate business majors than it is among other University of Wisconsin-Madison students.

International study programs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are fairly decentralized, with multiple study abroad offices across the campus for various departments. The Wisconsin School of Business alone has partnerships with 25 universities overseas and collaborates specifically with the business schools at most of these campuses.

The high rate of participation here may result from the school’s efforts to design study abroad curriculums that further a student’s progress toward his degree. Because of the business school-to-business school partnerships, many classes can be transferred over to fulfill degree requirements. In fact, business undergraduates focusing on international business are actually required to spend at least one semester abroad.

According to Halaas, studying abroad appears to increase a student’s chances of scoring future employment. Depending on where students go, and what their area of study is, Halaas said that studying abroad can definitely help students develop expertise in specific areas, making them more likely to have the skills or background for certain jobs. He also pointed out, however, that business experience and hard skills are not the only things studying abroad can do to help with the job hunt.

“What we see more is that employers really value the soft skills that students develop when they study abroad.  They’re more independent, they’re more confident,” Halaas said. “We work with students to help them articulate some of those skills that they develop when they’re overseas. They’re not necessarily related to understanding the global economy, but I think that, ‘Yeah, I lost my passport while I was abroad, and this is how I dealt with the problem,’ can really demonstrate I’m independent, I can think on my feet, I’m problem solving.”

Halaas said that when it comes to getting a leg up from studying abroad, it’s critical for students to understand that some of the skills they might not think are valuable to employers, are.

“The process of organizing your class schedule and applying for a visa and figuring out who’s going to sublet your apartment while you’re abroad – that’s a lot of things to handle independently, so there’s really a lot of skill sets that [students going abroad] develop that our employers tell us they value,” Halaas said. “I think realizing that the whole process is really skill development is important for students. Study abroad is a very colorful experience in of itself, but I think that also there’s a lot to be gained.”

The Wharton International Program

At the Wharton School, also acknowledges the educational and career benefits of an international experience. In fact, studying abroad is so encouraged that WIP, a 10-day, half-credit international course, was developed in 2005 to give students a tempting taste of it.

“The initial idea of the program was to encourage students to study abroad for a full semester,” Kramer said. “So this was a short-term experience to get students excited.”

He said the program was founded right around when the business school began really emphasizing global mindsets and trying to get students to think about the economy outside of the U.S. There are three 10-day courses each year, one during spring break and two in May after finals are over. Each course has a specific business focus, and though these focuses stay the same – social impact, retail, or simply general business – the locations change from year to year.

This year, the programs focused on social impact in South Africa; retail in Hong Kong and Macau, China; and general business in Turkey and Greece. The focuses determine the components of the program. For example, the social impact program in South Africa involved visits to socially responsible companies, service projects, university visits, and cultural excursions.

“If we’re going to a certain country, there may be a sub-theme that comes out as well,” Kramer said. “For example, Greece, when we went to Greece we went to a shipping company – shipping is huge in Greece, and it’s not an industry that our students are so familiar with. And there may be an opportunity in the future to visit a country that is doing a lot of tech or entrepreneurship. So there may be new themes that come out.”

Though WIP started with just a single trip per year, the program has grown steadily, and this past year, over 200 hundred students applied for the three 20-person trips. Due to high demand, Kramer said they will be taking more students per trip next year and are in discussion about upping the number of courses to four.

The popularity may be due, in part, to its brevity. Kramer said that WIP has evolved from a means of encouraging students to go abroad for longer periods to providing an opportunity for students who can’t.

“I think this program is great for student athletes and for campus leaders who can’t go abroad. It’s also great for students with rigorous curriculums – either they’re doing a dual degree or their curriculum just does not allow them to study abroad for a full semester. And then there are the students who just love Penn and Wharton so much that the thought of leaving for a semester is not an option,” Kramer said. “So this provides them with an international experience.”

According to Kramer, having some international experience is definitely encouraged for undergraduates, since Wharton really emphasizes training people to have global mindsets. He said that many WIP students have never previously left the country, and that learning about a new economy or culture can change their perspective on the world and on their lives.

About the email of thanks he received from his former Australia-bound student, Kramer said “It was a very powerful email, and I think it is true of a lot of the students that go on these programs. I remember we did a program to Ecuador and the Galapagos that was one of our social impact-themed programs, and one of the students at the end of the program changed her concentration. She then wanted to pursue a career in environmental science with a business angle to it.”

Though the program is short, Kramer reports that many students feel like it lasts a month or longer, because of the amount of things they do, observe, and participate in.

“The days are very long, we leave very early in the morning, we’re not back until the evening. We typically visit eight companies – though on the Turkey/Greece program we visited 12 companies. There’s not a lot of free time on the program,” Kramer said.

And jam-packing those 10 days appears to work. Upon their return, students are asked to evaluate the program. Overall, the trips score very highly in student evaluations, and Kramer said that many participants claim it was a life-changing experience and one of Wharton’s highlights.

The Wharton School offers its students a vast number of international study options, from Wharton-approved, semester-long business programs and Penn-approved general study abroad programs to international research opportunities and undergraduate business and finance club trips. WIP, with its short 10-day span, demonstrates how experience abroad in any quantity can influence students personally and professionally.

“I’ve heard from several students that because they listed an international experience on their resume, that though it may not have made the deal that they received, it was a talking point during their interview, and it made them a more robust candidate,” Kramer said. “It strengthens their education – learning about a different economy, country, culture. It gives them a different perspective on the world.”


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