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Though the fad has peaked, international business continues to be a popular area of study-even after students learn that the degree will not automatically translate into an overseas assignment.
"It's an area that gets a lot of interest, but sometimes not for the right reasons," says John Ward, lecturer in international business and marketing at the Saunders College of Business at Rochester Institute of Technology. He says some students regard studying international business chiefly as an opportunity to travel and get an expatriate assignment, but typically that does not happen right away. "It's still very popular, and once students figure out what is what, we get a lot of students transferring into it."
From undergraduates to executives in MBA programs, students nationwide continue to pursue degrees in international business. Areas of concentration run the gamut, from the global economy to international management. For some schools, the field of study is a magnet for foreign students, who often pay full tuition.
The Saunders College has 67 international business students at the undergraduate level, roughly 10 percent of its undergraduate population. In addition, eight non-Saunders students are pursuing international business as part of a dual major.
At the University of Rochester's Simon Business School, 15 to 20 percent of its 2014 class identified the international management concentration as a goal.
"A decade ago it was kind of a fad; almost everybody was trying to get into it, and many people that got into it didn't real-ly know what it was," says Donald Wil-son, associate dean for academic programs at the Saunders College. "It's settled down, but it's still a very popular area and I think it's just because students are realizing that it is a global world these days."
Schools structure their programs in different ways. Some offer a major, while others take the view that international business does not need to be a separate area of study and that a global perspective must be pervasive. When professors teach marketing according to the latter method, they spend time on global marketing as well.
At the nation's top business schools, international business has been integrated into the degree programs. First-year MBA students at the Harvard Business School, for instance, are required to study business, government and the international economy. Electives for further study include global strategic management and managing global health. At the University of Pennsylvania, the Wharton School's international program offers undergraduate students an opportunity to learn about another country's business environment and culture. Students earn course units that can be used toward their degrees.
Locally, the Simon School offers an MBA in international management, but it does not separate international business as a major.
"Most of our classes have international content in them because 40 percent of our faculty are foreign-born, about 50-plus percent of our MBA students are international students," says Ronald Hansen, senior associate dean for program development and William H. Meckling professor of business administration. "We had a long debate about that many years ago: (Do) we set up an 'international concentration,' where we have a lot of courses that are very specifically international?"
In the end, Hansen says, the school decided that with the exception of international finance, with its focus on subjects like exchange rates and arbitrage, most of the Simon School's courses had global content and did not require a separate concentration.
"The people that wanted to have it separated out wanted to spend a lot of time on institutional material: how do banks differ in France and the U.S., and things like that," he says.
Those who argued against it believed that management tools could be used in any context.
"The fundamental view of being a good problem solver is what we try to get across to our students, and that's independent of whether it's a national problem or an international problem," Hansen says.
He does acknowledge, however, that learning about how institutions operate in other countries has its merits. And he notes that through the school's foreign students and faculty, students are exposed to customs and social and business practices from around the world.
Adds Hansen: "We encourage our students to really have a strong discipline focus, whether it's marketing or finance or the like, and in general our attitude at Simon could be characterized as being not very concerned about institutional arrangements because those change. We don't chase the latest fads in education either."
At RIT, international business continues to be popular as an area of focus, Wilson says. But the university requires undergrads who want to major in international business to have a co-major, so they have expertise in a functional area of business, such as finance or accounting.
"I think it's a nice differentiator," Ward says of the international business focus. "Students can decide if they want to co-major with advertising or another area, and (the global focus) is showing a company that 'I'm really committed to this international space, and I'm really interested in that aspect.'"
This month RIT's executive MBA students flew to Santiago, Chile, visited companies in that country and learned about Chilean culture. The students this semester studied international finance and international management as well.
"Many times we get executives who have traveled abroad on vacations, but this is not the same as traveling and visiting corporations and getting exposure to business practices in that country," Wilson says. "We find that companies are telling us that this is what's needed. They can't have people that don't understand it's a global economy these days."
Says Ward, a former Eastman Kodak Co. executive: "I think what they see is a very different side to business on a global basis than they maybe have from their own companies. ... I noticed that; I came out of the business world myself, and I really learned a lot when I started to do these educational trips rather than just working at my own company and my own issues."
Misconceptions about getting a degree in international business abound, however. Most common is the expectation of getting a job in another country right after graduation. Some freshmen, Ward says, are confident that their love for travel will translate into a better understanding of international business and result in foreign assignments.
"You can't come in and not have any experience in an organization and expect them to ship you overseas," Wilson says.
Whether through a degree program or through courses infused with international content, exposure to the business world in other countries can give students an edge; it demonstrates a commitment to being global, experts say.
"We are very global with all our (overseas) campuses, and we feel that this is necessary," Wilson says, referring to RIT campuses and partner universities in Croatia, Kosovo, the Dominican Republic and Dubai. "I can't imagine a curriculum or a business program without a big (international) business component to it."
Smriti Jacob is associate editor at the Rochester Business Journal. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (585) 546-8303.
10/25/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email email@example.com.