Among the questions in the minds of students preparing to study abroad might be, "How can I squeeze in a side trip to the Taj Mahal?" or "Will I be able to master London's imposing Underground?" But before senior Vincent Ruiz- Ponce left for Central Europe he was wondering, "How can Poles and Hungarians be convinced to feed their dogs small crunchy round bits instead of what's left over from dinner?"
Last spring, Ruiz-Ponce, a marketing and international business major, took part in the course "Corporate Strategy in Central & Eastern Europe," an innovative undergraduate pilot program that combined two Carlson School hallmarks: international education and experiential learning.
"For the first time, we offered a live international consulting project to undergraduates," explains senior lecturer David Bartlett, who led the course in collaboration with the Carlson School's Office of International Programs and the Cargill company. The class was tasked with researching the company's prospects to expand pet food operations in the emerging economies of Central and Eastern Europe. "Cargill wanted to explore growth potential for its pet food business, so we proposed doing an analysis for them," says Bartlett, whose own academic research and professional concentration are focused on the region.
Eighteen Carlson students dove into the project. First, they spent seven weeks in Minnesota learning about Cargill's animal nutrition division, including briefings from leadership and a tour of a local R&D facility. Through lectures and presentations, they also gained perspective on the histories, economies, cultures, and politics of countries in the former Eastern Bloc, particularly Poland and Hungary, where the field portion of the course would be held.
"Once we got to Europe, the project started to come together quickly," recalls Kendra Pexa, '10. The group met with Cargill's local management team, and also received input from graduate students from the Warsaw School of Economics. "That was really cool," says Pexa of the chance to interact with fellow international business students. "They had great insight into consumer behavior. Plus, we formed friendships with them."
Visits to Cargill manufacturing plants in rural reaches helped set the experience apart from more traditional learning abroad programs. "Part of the plant in Hungary had been idle. Our job was to find out if it made sense to start that plant up again to produce pet food," Pexa explains. "The hands-on aspects of the course were what made it so valuable."
"I wasn't planning on going anywhere that semester," recalls Ruiz- Ponce, who had two prior learning abroad experiences in China and South America. "But the opportunity to work with Cargill on a consulting project let me explore what it would be like to work with a large company in an international context, which is what I want to be part of in the future."
Covering the Costs
So, what did he think? "I am in love with the prospect of doing business in other countries. The U and donors have given me a great background," says Ruiz-Ponce, who has received scholarship support for each of his three international experiences.
Pexa also received a scholarship to help cover overseas program fees. "The cost for a two-week program can be equivalent to almost half a semester of college," she points out. "With the new international requirement for Carlson undergrads, cost cannot be a deciding factor. But the school and donors are doing a great job of providing funding. The requirement is definitely a good thing."
Donor John Hartmann, '84 B.S.B., '87 J.D., agrees. "The world is small and it's getting smaller. The more experience you have internationally, the better off you're going to be down the road." Hartmann has pledged $5,000 a year for the next five years to help defray study abroad costs for two Carlson students annually. "It's a good way to help broaden their horizons. I was happy to do it," says the Chicago-based litigator.
Better than a Textbook
The final report to Cargill was valuable as a way to check and validate the company's assumptions--a result that is common in professional consulting. "The opportunity to collaborate with these engaged students on the Eastern European pet food study gave us an independent analysis of our current assumptions about the business we are involved in today, as well as future opportunities," said Frank Ziacik, go-to-market leader for Cargill Animal Nutrition.
For their part, the students gained much more than college credit; they came home with a unique combination of practical business know-how and worldly wisdom. "They learned more from this project than they could have learned from a dozen international strategy courses," says Bartlett.
Such knowledge is what Pexa found most valuable: "Working in an emerging market like Eastern Europe can be challenging. There was a lot of ambiguity that we learned to get comfortable with. It really tested our ability to solve problems and find a way forward."
"International experiences push you both personally and academically," adds Ruiz-Ponce. "You learn about your subject area--business or whatever--but you also learn what you stand for. You become a stronger, more confident person."