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  • Ben Moreland checks in from South America

    Illinois MBA Associate Director of Admissions & International Recruiting Ben Moreland
    Illinois MBA Associate Director of Admissions & International Recruiting Ben Moreland

    Greetings from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil! This is my last stop during a two-week recruiting tour that took me through four countries and five cities throughout South America, including Bogota, Colombia; Lima, Peru; Santiago, Chile; and Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It has been a great experience. The cities are in some of the most naturally beautiful places on earth, the food has been great, and the people have been extremely friendly!

    In addition to talking to over 100 prospective MBA students, I have had plenty of time to talk to admissions officers from other MBA programs as well as some great alumni of the Illinois. My thanks go out to Sandra, Roby, Ana, Leonardo, and Frederico for hosting me during the trip. You have all shown me what makes the people of the Illinois MBA special: your friendliness and your tremendous hospitality. In fact, it was while sharing a cab ride with Ana after an alumni gathering in So Paulo that I was able to pinpoint what uniquely defines the student experience in the Illinois MBA. Strangely enough, there was a prospective student (I believe it was in Lima) who came to my table and said, "I can go online to read about your program, your ranking, what program strengths it offers, but I want to find out about the unique culture about your program. What defines the student experience at Illinois?" It was an unusual question, and one that I feel I did not answer fully in the moment, but it was the best question that anyone could have asked me, because it got me to thinking.

    To all the prospective students who took the time to meet with me and for anyone else reading this blog post, I hope my comments can answer this question about what defines the student experience at Illinois.

    A small town with a big heart (i.e. the U of I campus)

    One of the common questions I receive when traveling internationally is Where is Urbana-Champaign? I always start with, "Do you know where Chicago is?" And almost always, their eyes light up with recognition. Then I respond, "We're about two hours south of Chicago (by car)".

    I always wonder what our prospective students think when they find out we're not in a major U.S. city. Are they discouraged or intrigued to hear more about a new place? So directly thereafter, I quickly go into an explanation of how even though Urbana-Champaign has a modest 120,000 local residents, and the large university, directly in the center of the community, has over 40,000 students. I mention that we have no traffic, a low cost of living, and a vibrant campus life. Sometimes, though, I feel like Im apologizing to these eager individuals about not being located directly in one of the business centers of the U.S. Our website sells the fact that we are conveniently located between three major U.S. cities - Chicago, Indianapolis, and St. Louis - sometimes more than our town itself. But really, if you talk to our students and alumni, the location of our campus is no reason to apologize. In fact, after talking to Ana in that cab ride in So Paulo, I realize that the smaller size of Urbana-Champaign is what makes our students' experiences truly memorable. Its what makes them miss their lives as MBA students once they pursue their business careers in some of the great cities throughout the world. So allow me to explain further.

    In talking to representatives from MBA programs in larger cities, I have discovered that their students' living arrangements tend to be spread out across the city. Many of these students have to commute long distances to get to campus. Furthermore, when it comes to their free time, students are more likely to spread out across the city in smaller numbers to take part in any number of activities available there. When you think of your student life at a big city school, you will start to realize that you define that experience largely on the city in which you live and study.

    The key difference that I have found by talking to our students and our alumni is that they will more likely define their Illinois MBA experience by the people they shared their two years with. Don't get me wrong, they will also comment on some of the advantages that I previously mentioned about our town - no traffic, low cost of living, a feeling of safety, etc. - but you could easily translate these descriptors as a nice way of saying that it was a boring experience. However, if you talk to our students and alumni, you'll realize that it is anything but boring. For many people, I have heard them describe it as the best time of their life. Let me explain better why our students would say this.

    Our students do just about everything together

    When you're in a small program (100-125 students per class) in a smaller-sized city, you tend to make plans as a group. And on top of that, it's convenient to do so. You're never more than a 15-minute drive or bus ride to where most of your classmates live or socialize. Therefore, it's rare that you would decline going to a social event because its too far away from where you live. A lot of times, you can simply walk to wherever your classmates have decided to get together. I've enjoyed seeing the Facebook posts from our new MBA students this year as they have organized social events, including activities such as soccer (football), American football, and ultimate Frisbee. I even saw someone posting to invite their classmates to take a martial arts class together. Some of our joint degree students have even invited their business classmates to join events with students from their joint program such as law, human resources, or engineering. When your social life is centered around your classmates, you will get to know everyone very well, and they will get to know you. That is why our students tend to define their experience by the people they studied with.

    There's a lot of school pride

    When you have a big university in the midst of a small city, the university is the big show for everything from sporting events to rock concerts to art museums to special speakers. The people who live in the surrounding areas know that the university is the lifeblood of the town, and everyone - students and locals alike - come to campus for these "cultural" events. For those of you who have never gone to an American football game or the ubiquitous Tailgate Party, you don't know what youre missing until you've experienced it for yourself. You don't even have to like the game of football to enjoy these spectacles. With tens of thousands of people dressed in orange shirts, enjoying pre-game/post-game food and beverages, playing "bags" or "cornhole" or "flippy cup", you can't help but to enjoy yourself. Then during the games themselves, you have one of the best marching bands in the world, playing music to excite the crowd, you have fireworks going off, and, on occasion, fighter jets flying overhead just before kickoff. And hopefully, with our football team starting out with three straight wins this year, our students will also get to celebrate a lot of touchdowns and victories. Sharing these big events with your classmates causes you to feel a part of the larger campus community and results in the common description that our alumni bleed orange and blue (our school colors).

    Oh yeah, there's also the academics!!!

    Perhaps by leading off with the social aspects of the MBA program, I have caused you to overlook the central aspect of your MBA experience: the classroom. Let's not forget all the hard work it takes to be a successful MBA student. J

    Here are some of the things that make the academic experience at Illinois memorable!

    Where everybody knows your name

    So the way the first semester in our MBA program works is that you and all your classmates take all the same courses together. In the second semester, half the courses are required for everyone. We divide the class up into two sections, so that you take the same set of 5 classes with the same 50-60 people for 8 weeks at a time. At the end of 8 weeks, half of the people from each section go over to the other section, giving you 25-30 new classmates with which to study. This repeats itself in the third and fourth 8 weeks of the first year as well. By the end of that first year, you will know almost every one of your classmates on a first-name basis, and they will know you as well. Let's not forget the professors also. Your first-year professors all live in or around the Urbana-Champaign community. They are part of the community, and they will know you by your first name as well. There are not many MBA programs that can say the same thing. As mentioned before, when you live in a big city, your professors also may live a long distance from campus. This makes the Illinois professors much more accessible to you as students.

    Diversity finds a home

    People are usually surprised to learn that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has the second-largest international student population among U.S. universities. The MBA program is no exception. Approximately 40% of our students have international citizenship. And it is that way by design. We take pride in the fact that classroom and team discussions at Illinois are always enriched by the diversity represented in our student body. And it's not just about the number of international students, either. We make it our goal to have as many countries represented in the incoming class as possible. For the Class of 2013, we brought in international students representing 25 countries. We have done our research, and among similar-sized programs located in the Midwest, we are easily the most diverse based on number of countries represented. Beyond this, we also assign you to work in groups of 5-6 people for each of those 8-week modules. We assign the groups for the first semester, because we make sure that each group is a microcosm of the entire class, with students representing various countries as well as academic and professional backgrounds. This presents its challenges, but mostly it gives you an opportunity to learn about how culture influences business practice. In that previously mentioned discussion with Ana, she reminisced about how everyone's approach to getting work done was different. She mentioned how American students tend to get right down to business, representing the ideology of "work hard first, then play hard". She mentioned a second-year class where she was in a group with majority students from another country. She was taken aback when she observed a heated argument, thinking that everyone was going to leave on bad terms, but once the team meeting was done and the issue resolved, everybody was best of friends. These experiences with her classmates gave her unique insights on how to be successful in business in other countries, and she said they are lessons she never would have learned if she had pursued her MBA in her home country.

    I hope my lengthy blog post has provided you with insights that you could not have gained by simply perusing our website. I encourage you to go and look at our curriculum, our extracurricular opportunities, and the information we have posted about the local community, because those opportunities are extremely important to your MBA experience. What I hoped to capture through these comments, though, is what ties all Illinois MBA students and alumni together. Urbana-Champaign is a great community, and our students come away with a rich academic and social experience. If you want to learn more directly from our MBA students, I encourage you to contact our Student Ambassadors as well.

    To all those individuals I met during my trip to South America, it was a pleasure meeting you, and I hope to see your application in the coming year or two.

    All the best for your future success!


    Ben Moreland

    Associate Director of Admissions & International Recruiting

    Illinois MBA