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Traditions and Change Define MBA Orientations

The University of Michigan challenges would-be MBAs to prepare meals for 85 people. The University of Texas offers “boot camps” to help incoming MBA students bone up on accounting and finance. Elsewhere, students are welcomed with ropes courses and case studies, clambakes and lectures, expert panels and talent shows, plus the requisite sprinkling of mixers.

When it comes to orientation for MBA programs, business schools turn on the afterburners to keep new students energized, engaged, and amused. While “fun” is an operative term throughout most orientations, they all have a serious set of purposes. The idea is to help a disparate group of people bond quickly and learn the cultural quirks of the place they now call home. At the same time, intense projects help students gear up mentally for their programs’ intellectual challenges.

This year, for example, prospective MBA students at the Yale University School of Management had hardly unpacked their bags before they were swept into a newly created component of orientation, the Audubon Street Project. Briefed about a vacant storefront in New Haven’s culture and arts district, student teams were given 24 hours to outline a concept for how the space might be used. Apart from having to be economically viable, the plans also needed to reflect Yale’s mission of educating leaders for business and society, as well as the university’s desire to have a positive impact on the New Haven community.  

According to Joel Podolny, dean of the School of Management, Yale’s MBA orientation seeks to help students “understand in a deep way important aspects of the school—our mission of educating leaders for business and society, aspects of our culture, and the way in which the school is connected to our local community and then the broader community.” In starting the Audubon Street Project this year, Podolny says, the school “wanted to create a set of exercises that would make the connection to mission and community even more explicit.”

Discussions of community values are part of Yale’s orientation, and this year students also reflected on Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and movies about successful leaders among Yale’s alumni—activities that Podolny says are designed to encourage students to “start thinking about the connections between who they are as individuals, what they value, and the implications that has, not just for how they lead, but how others respond to how they lead.”

The McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas designed its MBA Orientation to connect students entering the program with “the people, technology, and resources essential for success,” according to Rob Meyer in the school’s communications office. The experience gives students a head-start on classes and introduces them to the McCombs culture. The idea is to help a generic student transition into the school—and transform into a first-year Texas MBA student.

Another example comes at the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona, where MBA orientation includes an exercise that’s reminiscent of the Iron Chef competition. Student teams are given surprise ingredients to blend—tastefully—in a cooking challenge. According to spokesperson Liz Warren-Pederson, however, that team-building assignment is just a precursor. The rubber really hits the road, she says, in a pre-session class on leadership that symbolizes the true start of the MBA pursuit.

Photo ops aside, orientations typically include a lot of serious work. A case in point comes at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, which purposely has moved to make orientation more curriculum-based and in line with classroom work. Recently, for example, MBA students ended their second day of orientation with an entrepreneurship competition. Professors from the school’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship challenged class teams to develop a business idea addressing a social problem. Teams had 30 minutes to map their ideas, then two minutes to pitch their concept. Students tackled problems that ranged from affordable child care and maternal health in Africa to environmental pollution and local hunger. Peers voted by show of hands whether the business seemed worthy of funding, and professors provided on-the-spot feedback on both the pitch and the idea’s viability. New students, of course, got a critical first lesson in social entrepreneurship.

Business schools also tailor parts of orientation to underscore particular messages. At Emory University, for example, the MBA orientation at the Goizueta Business School includes a full day devoted to diversity. This year, according to Alicia E. Sierra, Goizueta’s director of diversity and community initiatives, first-year students worked through two diversity-related case studies and exercises to help them assess personal beliefs and cultural perspectives. A panel of executives spoke with the new students about diversity’s strategic importance in their companies. Sierra expects that Emory will continue to enhance the diversity part of its MBA orientation.

Back in New Haven, Yale worked this year to tailor certain orientation experiences, reports Sheri Scully, director of student and academic services. The school provides what Scully describes as separate “orientations-within-orientation” for international students, partners of full-time students, and exchange students.

Similarly, the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University offered "international orientation" for incoming MBA students from other countries. Catering to part-time MBA students, the J. Mack Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University is now in its third year of scheduling multiple orientations to accommodate working professionals. The university complements first-time orientation with a program called MBA Advantages—short professional development workshops, offered throughout the year, on topics ranging from finance to emotional intelligence. “We have seen great things from this early start and connectivity,” says Diane M. Fennig, director of graduate student services—including, she reports, a positive effect on yield.

“In the past we have tended to segment the different parts of orientation,” Yale’s Joel Podolny says. This year, however, he says the school worked hard to “integrate and weave through all the activities the focus on the distinct mission of the school, our aspirations for the students as future graduates, as well as what we believe is a very distinct model of effective leadership.” The result, he says, is that when students move beyond orientation into the classroom, “we believe we have given them a framework or a context for how to start applying that skills development to their meaningful aspirations.”

For her part, Sherri Scully considers orientation complete if students “come to the first day of class ready to learn. We have answered every questions, we’ve done what we can do to help them bond, and they are truly ready to learn.”

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