Overseas assignments take business students out of their comfort zones

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Kristen Dunlap.

In Cordoba, Spain, Kristen Dunlap learns how to immerse herself in a new culture. She is working as a consultant on a project for Dobuss, a firm that provides a wide range of services such as search engine optimization, web development and social media expertise. The company needs help expanding into untouched markets outside Spain.

Her typical day starts by commuting to the job site by bus and walking, modes of transportation more prevalent in Spanish culture than in the car-laden, jam-packed streets of America. The Virginia Commonwealth University student works with her classmates from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Around noon, she takes a late breakfast or an early lunch, another slight change of norm in her routine. More times than not she orders a tostada with jamon and tomato puree, a common local favorite.

After work, the city shuts down momentarily. A majority of people get off at 2 or 3 p.m. Dunlap doesn’t mind the allotted time from around 4–8 p.m. to catch up on sleep. Back home, people would still be working.

The city collectively awakens and loosens up around 8 p.m. The night starts very late, with dinner at 10. The American students meet with their Spanish counterparts for a night of roaming the city and exploring cuisine and nightlife. Dunlap often finds herself going to Mercado Victoria, a food court establishment with great bar and club attachments.

This is her life for two weeks. She is expected to work hard and provide a solution for her project but the culture is considerably more relaxed and less demanding than she’s used to. Most of all, it’s different and it’s just the experience she needs for her life and career. She must learn how to gracefully navigate out of her comfort zone.

“One of the greatest aspects of the trip was getting an opportunity to utilize and enhance my Spanish-speaking ability,” Dunlap said. “Being immersed in a completely Spanish-speaking culture forced me to come out of my comfort zone and survive.”

Dunlap, a full-time Altria employee, is a graduate student at the VCU School of Business. She was in Cordoba as part of the school’s International Consulting Program. The seven-week program, now in its third year as a full summer course, sends 10 to 15 students — as well as two VCU faculty members who serve as chaperones — to international partner universities to work as business consultants. The businesses are diverse in size and scope, and each has unique problems that need to be solved. However, the aim of the program is not for the students to be dependent on the client and learn from them. Instead, students are expected to take control and provide innovative ideas.

I will be able to adapt to big challenges and understand the efforts of conducting business overseas and domestically.

“I feel that the international experience that I have obtained will benefit me so much in my career,” said Breanna Hawkins, a senior marketing major who also went to Cordoba. “I will be able to adapt to big challenges and understand the efforts of conducting business overseas and domestically.”

Her classmates agreed.

“I think the ICP is one of VCU’s most treasured gems that offers students a life-changing experience,” Dunlap said.

The course covers several topics, including language training, social skills, greetings and managing the culture and economy of the host country. The seven weeks are broken into two main stages: four weeks in Richmond where students receive formal classroom training and consulting practice with a Richmond-based client, and roughly two weeks overseas where students engage in live consulting with their clients. For the final week, students return to Richmond to write a reflection paper on their experiences.

Though the domestic work is still a crucial aspect of the program, it is abroad where the students gain an experience that will forever affect their careers positively. David Gallagher, CEO of Dominion Payroll and a proud VCU Business alumnus, served both as a client for the students in Richmond and as an adviser in Prague.

“What was cool was you could certainly tell that not all of the kids were from the American school, but that added a really great creative flair to the way the presentation was delivered,” Gallagher said. “The kids delivered their pitch and [the management team] just loved it. And it sounded and felt international.”

As consultants to Dominion Payroll, a provider of human resource products and services, the students concentrated on two projects.

“One was an evaluation of new locations across the country,” Gallagher said. “They helped me narrow down to three different locations that we would branch off and add new offices to. The other was an evaluation of a product that we were considering and they vetted the pros and cons, cost and the benefits of that product. They provided very thorough, very detailed analysis.”

International Consulting Program students in Prague.
International Consulting Program students in Prague.

As established as some of the program’s clients may be, they still look for help from the bright-minded, solution-oriented VCU students, said Suzanne Makarem, associate professor in the School of Business, who also mentored students in Prague.

“For some clients, the most challenging part is understanding the industry in which they operate and its technicalities,” Makarem said. “Basically, the student teams act as business consultants for their respective clients.”

Makarem and other faculty members have an important role in giving students a slight push when needed.

“As mentors, we help answer questions when students reach challenging roadblocks,” she said. “Our main goal, however, is for the students to feel supported throughout the process.”


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