THE MELTING POT STILL HAS A FEW LUMPSSchools get mixed grades for smoothing foreign students' way--and fostering a global experience for Americans
Sunwook Kong was a little anxious when he showed up at Purdue University's Krannert Graduate School of Management from Seoul, South Korea, last fall. A media planner with little business experience, he was uncomfortable with his English and desperately feared speaking out in class--a hallmark of the U.S. B-school. ''Koreans are accustomed to the kind of education that forces students to learn by heart,'' says Kong.
Thanks to his study team, he didn't have much of a choice. Kong's group--African-American Jevon Gordon; Jatuphat Tangkaravakoon, a Thai national; Chinese-American Steven H. Tsang; and Shawn A. Vij, an American born in India, forced Kong to do the writing and presentation part of a statistics project. The experience got Kong over his fear and helped galvanize the group. Now, they're not only effective study buddies, they're close pals. This Christmas, they're planning a trip to Asia to visit the homes of Tangkaravakoon and Kong. ''They were friends outside of class,'' says Kong. ''They showed me kindness.''
''ABRASIVE.'' If only all foreign B-school students could say their experience had such a happy ending. Sure, nearly every B-school has gone global, hanging flags for each country represented, offering sushi and couscous nights, Latin dance parties, and study trips to Africa and China. But even as most have embraced classroom diversity as the best way to teach global management, deans at many B-schools have been negligent in making the reality live up to the promise for many students. Foreign students often still find themselves isolated academically and socially. Many also have trouble finding a job. And some domestic students, too, aren't getting the global interaction and deep cultural understanding they thought they paid for.
Start with the most obvious difficulty: The culture of most U.S. business schools remains strongly American, both in the classroom and out. Many foreign students aren't used to a system that requires class participation and direct communication. ''At the beginning, I found the more outgoing nature of people in the U.S. abrasive,'' says Eammonn T. O'Sullivan, an Irish member of the class of 1998 at Dartmouth's Amos Tuck B-school. ''I was uncomfortable being very up-front, saying, for example, I want to work with you in your study group.'' With team-based projects an increasingly important part of coursework--and of each student's grade--this reticence can be a problem.
Moreover, B-school places a huge premium on keg parties and ski trips to provide students the opportunity to make connections that will endure in the workplace. That's a very different idea of school than most non-Americans have. And it's not always clear that it's important to show up for happy hour, even if you're a teetotaler. Because many of the international students are married, any free moment is likely to be spent at home with one's spouse, particularly if that person is new to the country and doesn't have his or her own social network. ''It wasn't impressed on [international students] that much of the MBA experience was a social aspect,'' says Sheung L. Li, a recent graduate of Stanford University's B-school born in Hong Kong but raised in the U.S. ''There is a very aggressive social schedule here, and that's something most of the East Asian crowd stays out of.''
Such cultural misunderstandings can sometimes have serious consequences. At Harvard University's B-school, a case involving a Chinese student accused of plagiarism caused schoolwide tension in 1996-97 when the student defended himself in a mass E-mail message. He asserted that the problem was a cultural one and that he only did what was considered normal at home. After lengthy deliberation by the school, the student was expelled.
HIRING BLOCK. Finding a job, a key reason for going to B-school, is another challenge for international students. Placement offices tend to be set up for U.S.-based corporate recruiting, with few opportunities for students who wish to go back to their home countries. ''If schools are claiming that 33% of the student body is international,'' says Piyush Dogra, a recent graduate of Northwestern's J.L. Kellogg School of Management originally from India, ''definitely, 33% of the resources are not being spent to cater to their needs.'' Things are even tougher for those who wish to stay. Many U.S. companies, fearful of red tape, either won't hire non-U.S. nationals or will hire them only if they agree to work in their home countries. Andersen Consulting, for example, one of the largest hirers of new MBAs, recruits at more than 100 B-schools--but formally holds presentations for noncitizens at only eight of them.
There's a flip side to the international equation--the unmet expectations and growing frustration felt by American students. When students from abroad aren't encouraged to become active members of the class, Americans, too, are robbed of the window into other cultures that they've been told will be a key element of their education. ''Domestic students made all the contributions to class discussion,'' says Tessa J. Jackson, a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley's Haas School. ''So you don't know how business is conducted in Europe or the Pacific Rim.'' Jackson also laments the lack of international faculty at a school that heavily markets itself as global. ''It's like a company where you have diversity at the bottom level and none in upper management,'' Jackson says.
Some U.S. students also resented slowing down for those with language difficulties and felt they bore an unfair burden in team projects. Says Rodney M. Laurenz, a 1998 graduate of Michigan State University's Eli Broad B-school: ''On a team of six, there were generally two or three international students. You could assume that one couldn't do any reading or writing. You couldn't really learn from your peers.''
At Michigan State, the problem was exacerbated because the school got more acceptances than it had planned on from Asia, particularly mainland China. That created a few large subgroups of students who rarely interacted with others. ''Socially and culturally, it was a real disappointment,'' says Orhan M. Ovacik, a recent Turkish-American graduate. ''You hope to make contacts with people who are like-minded and will be in the global diaspora. But [this class was] cliquish and clannish.'' Dean James B. Henry admits that the school overshot. This year, the international percentage has dropped to 33% from 39%, and interviews are now required for all students, both to help test English skills in the case of foreigners, and, more generally, to get a better read on an applicant's personality.
Many schools, cognizant of the frustration felt by both foreign and domestic students, are trying to become more responsive. At New York University's Stern School of Business, students with visa problems have access to lawyers kept on retainer by the university. Washington University's John M. Olin B-school, Tuck, and the University of Texas at Austin have recently hired full-time staffers to work exclusively on global placement. And for incoming foreign students with $3,000 to spare, the Economics Institute, a Colorado-based nonprofit, offered for the first time this past summer a five-week crash course called ''Language & Culture of U.S. MBA Programs.'' Among the topics: the case-study method and how to join a team.
BONDING OPTION. In the classroom, assigned study teams are becoming more common as a way to force people to work together. At the University of Rochester's William E. Simon B-school, which boasts an international population approaching 50%, teams have been so successful that General Electric Co. gave the school a $220,000 grant to study how teams learn. Even at the individualistic University of Chicago, all students now have the option to take their classes together in a cohort for the first quarter. More than half are doing so in the current semester.
Students, too, are coming up with schemes for getting people to interact at a deeper level. At Columbia University's B-school, student peer advisers are matched with international students to help solve problems ranging from getting a Social Security number to finding the best place for a good Filipino lunch. At Purdue, the school is moving to catch up with others by organizing an Asian Business Club to provide, in Vij's words, ''a comfort zone.'' And the Wharton Graduate Assn. (WGA) has launched a program this year called the Wharton World Tour, in which five regions of the world will be highlighted for one week at a time. In addition to cultural demonstrations, there will be a regional finance conference, a series of case studies, and extra classes. Each week will be sponsored by a company--preferably one with job links in the area. ''When you see it coming to the classrooms,'' says WGA President and second-year student Cesar R. Conde, ''people say, 'O.K., this is for real.''' The message: Living in a global village is easy. Becoming an integral part of one is anything but.
By Jennifer Reingold in New York
Updated Oct. 8, 1998 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1998, Bloomberg L.P.