Travel is a popular component of MBA programs, and I recently completed one of the most memorable trips I've had as a student at Columbia Business School. Over my spring break, I traveled to East Africa as part of a Global Immersion Program class, an opportunity at CBS in which students travel to a particular region of study for a weeklong seminar. I chose East Africa over programs in Myanmar, Patagonia, and Vietnam, and I spent two weeks in Tanzania, Kenya, and Rwanda.
Why B-School Travel Is So Common
Thousands of MBA students travel during the course of their programs. Some students are on the road nearly every weekend, posting Instagrams in exotic places from the time they're accepted into business school until graduation. Others travel only once or twice during school. It's a highly personal choice, and one that, like most other things in business school, requires a balance of time and money.
Many MBA students want to work in international business when they graduate, and traveling allows them to network with companies in other countries and meet people from different cultures. Many trips, in particular the ones organized by schools, involve company visits where students can tour the world headquarters of various companies.
Other students travel for service projects, where they work with two or three of their peers for enterprises across the globe. CBS offers a program called Pangea Advisors, a pro-bono consulting initiative within the school's Social Enterprise Club, where students do social impact work. Most other schools have similar programs so that their students can bridge traditional classroom learning with real-world problem solving and client service.
Finally, others travel simply because they want to learn more about the world and realize, free from traditional workplace obligations, that they have a rare opportunity to gain a new perspective.
How Much Travel Is Right for You
While there's no right answer to this question, networking is often referenced as one of the reasons why MBAs travel during business school. It's true that MBA students globe-hop far more than their counterparts in medical or law school do, and networking certainly plays a role in that. In business, a person's network may lead to important career opportunities, so MBAs are more likely to pay for the opportunity to meet new people. On average, MBA candidates are also older and have more work experience than other graduate students do, so they have built up more in savings than many of their peers. Even trips that seem less academically relevant on the surface – like, say, a ski weekend in Vail – offer students a chance to strengthen the relationships they have with one another, with an eye toward connections that will outlast the two years of business school.
It's important to be intentional about choosing where, and even whether, to travel during school. Though networking opportunities may be travel motivators for some students, they're also justification to simply have a little fun, which is a good reason as long as each trip contributes toward your original goals for attending business school. Whether it's landing an international role, being exposed to new experiences, or forming invaluable connections, being intentional about travel opportunities ensures that the money spent is worth the investment.
In the end, I think it's best to think of business school travel as just one of the many tools available to MBAs. Business schools provide their students with tremendous resources, and traveling is one of the resources that gives us a low-risk and enjoyable way to learn a little more about the world around us.
My Own Experience: Visiting Tanzania, Kenya, and Rwanda
I wanted to use my travel opportunities in business school to learn about the economies of developing countries. Last year, I visited Cuba during my spring break as part of a different Global Immersion Program and saw firsthand how that country's political affiliations and public policies have impacted its economic viability. This year, I chose to visit East Africa for similar reasons. As someone who worked in government and politics before business school, I wanted to develop a more nuanced understanding of how economic policy and private enterprise work in concert in the developing world.
Most MBA program-led travel opportunities involve a mix of academics, business visits, and leisure time, and my trip was no different. In Kenya and Rwanda, my class met with business executives and government officials to learn about how those two nations have achieved high GDP growth following the global financial crisis. We visited Nairobi, Kenya's largest city and the financial capital of East Africa, and Kigali, Rwanda's largest city and one of the manufacturing hubs of the region. Finally, I headed to Tanzania to enjoy the beaches of Zanzibar and a safari in the Serengeti.
One additional reason I chose East Africa was to learn more about the use of M-Pesa. M-Pesa is a mobile payment system that millions of people in Kenya and Tanzania use for transactions. Many users consider it to be a technologically superior product to some of the mobile payment services we have in the U.S. I was curious to test the product myself and learn more about how it has driven financial inclusion in these two countries.
When my class was in Nairobi, we visited Safaricom, the mobile operator that created M-Pesa. We learned that Safaricom currently processes more than 10 million transactions daily, comprising 45 percent of Kenya's GDP. Many small businesses have started to use M-Pesa as well, something that has facilitated more economic development and inclusion in the region.
Reflecting on my trip now, I got exactly what I wanted out of it – I saw the tandem effects of business and economics while having a wonderful time in places I'd never been. I'm grateful that I was able to travel, learn, grow, and most importantly, spend time with great people on my spring break.