An American Student in Shanghai

Elizabeth O'Neill

Elizabeth O’Neill was approaching her fifteenth anniversary at the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), a leading international educational exchange not-for-profit based in the US. She had rose through the CIEE ranks from a Program Coordinator in London in 1995, to executive vice president of Work-based Public Diplomacy Programs, a job she managed from Portland, Maine. But as a poet – she holds a BA in Political Science from Michigan’s Hillsdale College – her only formal business education was a one-month, Senior Executive Program at Columbia University. “It was excellent, but way too short,” she recalls. She needed more.

So she set her sights on an MBA. Only, as soon as she decided to apply, CIEE offered her an opportunity she couldn’t refuse: a move to Shanghai, China. With long-term hopes to be CEO of an international, educational not-for-profit, she wasn’t prepared to put the breaks on her MBA hopes while in Asia. She and her husband moved to Shanghai at the end of January 2010, and she started the International EMBA program at the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in March. (CEIBS also offers what it refers to as the Chinese EMBA for Chinese speakers.)

Here is her story:

As part of senior management at CIEE, I felt I needed a much better grounding in core quantitative areas, such as managerial and financial accounting. I also wanted to improve my analytical, critical thinking and leadership skills. An Executive MBA (EMBA) seemed the logical choice, as it would allow me to further develop these skills, but at the same time interact and exchange ideas with other classmates with similar levels of experience. And from a practical standpoint, even if I wasn’t a bit older than the average MBA (which I am!), I did not want to quit a job I loved to become a full-time student.

I was looking at programs in the US before I was given the chance to develop the China market. I did not want to give up the idea of doing a business program, so I started to ask about programs in China. CEIBS was recommended as the leading program in Asia, and one with an excellent global reputation. I checked into their program, did some research online, spoke to an EMBA alumnus, and decided it was the right program.

Starting an EMBA within two months of arriving in China seemed daunting on the one hand, but actually has been the perfect environment to discuss my plans and challenges with a ready-made network of smart and talented people. Plus, Asia, and specifically China, is the place to be right now for business, so to do an EMBA in this context, and with a Chinese backdrop to many discussions, is a huge plus!

CEIBS has a beautiful campus – western architecture with a Chinese aesthetic. There is quite a bit of space for student and group work, although more small conference rooms would definitely be a plus. There is also a good gym, and basketball and badminton courts. The campus could definitely use a couple of additional cafes.

Our class meets once a month for four full days. In between, we have to complete pre-reading assignments for the upcoming course, and often finish a paper or other written work for the course we just completed. For the most part the CEIBS professors and administrators have done a good job ensuring the readings are relevant. Key sections of any textbooks are noted so that we can be as efficient and effective in our preparation as possible. Still, you often see me carrying an economics book or a set of case readings on business travel in order to keep up.

The courses are definitely demanding when you are also working full time, but I’ve come to CEIBS to push myself, and learn as much as possible. Ultimately, you get out of the course what you put in. The workload is manageable, but you have to be willing to dedicate some evenings and weekends to course readings and assignments, and be good at absorbing the relevant bits of information. It is impossible to read everything before each course.

My favorite class and professor is a tie between Managerial Accounting with professor Earl K. Stice (visiting from Brigham Young University), and Operations Management with Professor Philip Moscoso (visiting from IESE Business School). Both courses had an immediate impact on the way I look at my business and the decisions I am making at CIEE. Not coming from a financial background, Managerial Accounting gave me some excellent tools for gathering and analyzing information for better internal decision making. For Operations Management, the professor did an excellent job illustrating how operations can be a key source of competitive advantage, whether you are in manufacturing or in the service sector, like I am. Of course, the material alone is never what makes a class – both professors were excellent at sharing their knowledge and engaging the class, not just presenting their material. I’m looking forward to an upcoming class on the Chinese Economy given how central Chinese monetary and fiscal policy is to what’s happening around the world. I’m also looking forward to the Strategic Management class as a way of putting much of what we’ve learned into a broader framework.

My class is the only international EMBA class where almost all of the classes are taught in English. There are 60 of us, and we’re a mix of nationalities. I’ve been impressed by my classmates – they come from an interesting array of companies and industries, a great mix of skill sets, and lots of brainpower. Every one of them has a significant and “executive” role in his or her company – whatever that means in their particular context. But beyond their backgrounds, I’ve been impressed at how willing everyone is to share their expertise. Those with a financial background will give extra prep sessions to those of us without that knowledge, for example. One of our classmates has organized voluntary lunchtime sessions where class members share a presentation on their company so that we can learn more and network more effectively. They have great ideas, insights and experience doing business in China.

CEIBS has other, all–Chinese EMBA classes in Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen. The all-Chinese program is not different to mine to the extent that we all take the same core classes and have the same requirements; however, I enjoy the mix of nationalities represented in the international class. It adds a different flavor to our class discussions and interactions. As we move into taking electives in year two, we’ll be mixed together a bit more. This is good because networking within the wider EMBA cohort is an advantage as I try to build CIEE’s business in China.

I can already see the difference the course is making on the way I think. It’s not about suddenly being able to spout “business school speak.” It’s a subtle, but important shift in the way I analyze a problem, ask a question, or think about a larger strategic issue. My company is sponsoring me for this program and is very supportive. My CEO believes in the value of staff training and education – in particular for senior management. He knows that my participation on this course will ultimately pay dividends for the company as well. He’s a smart guy.

My least favorite aspect of the program is commuting out to Pudong from Puxi in Shanghai – it’s a long taxi ride, early in the morning to beat traffic – and a few of the late nights working on assignments


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