Campus & Community

Innovative HBS ‘immersion’ programs flourish

7 min read

Students plunge into the culture of China, New Orleans, and Cambridge, Mass.

One of the most enduring questions in school is not about the timeless concerns, like the origin of the universe. It’s about passing time: What did you do on your vacation?

That simple (and fraught) question applies even to Harvard Business School (HBS), which for nearly a hundred years has been peopled by future captains of industry, in big companies and entrepreneurial ventures.

For 15 years or more, student-organized “treks” – short trips to exotic locales, mostly during the January intercession – have been part of the tradition of HBS learning, leavened with fun.

This year, there were a dozen or more traditional treks, including sojourns to South Africa, New Zealand, Pakistan, India, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.

But this year there was also something new: “immersion” programs, formally sponsored by HBS. They combined seeing new sights with classroom work and the company of professors. There were three of these pioneering programs during the January intercession – one to China, one to New Orleans, and a third that stayed in Cambridge to explore health care issues.

Even before the immersion programs began, the idea of them was popular: The sign-up list for the China trip was 200 names long.

But space was limited. Sixty-five students were chosen by computerized lottery to travel to China with three faculty members and one staffer.

“Even for me as an organizer, it was an incredibly eye-opening experience,” said James Lee ’08, the Taiwan guide who had not seen mainland China for a decade. “None of [what you read] does justice to what’s happening on the ground.”

Alejandro Paiuk ’07 climbed the Great Wall, shivered in Tiananmen Square for a group photo, and – by his count – ate 21 group meals, attended five panels and two case study sessions at two universities, and went on 10 company and government visits.

But the exhausting trip (six cities in 10 days) was also full of surprises. “So many of the people you talked to were proud of China’s diversity” – over 50 ethnic groups, a dozen languages, and business markets as various as China’s 22 provinces, said Paiuk. “That was extremely impressive to me.”

HBS senior associate dean Richard H.K. Vietor, the Senator John Heinz Professor of Environmental Management, has been to China many times. But traveling there with students in January opened his eyes even wider, he said.

“This trip put us into a microeconomic world” of real estate agents, investment bankers, and entrepreneurs, said Vietor, and gave a ground-level view of China’s “incredible growth.”

The group toured a vast, hypermodern Sinopec petroleum complex outside of Shanghai – the largest in the world, where an ethylene “cracker” turns out a million tons of the feedstock chemical a year.

In Huawei, the group saw a modern digital switch company, where in a multistory warehouse robots whiz along tracks at 30 mph, 24 hours a day, to retrieve pallets of materials or finished goods.

From Hong Qiao International Airport outside Shanghai, Vietor said, it took the group’s bus 50 minutes to get downtown, sometimes traversing cloverleaf roads stacked five or six levels high.

In New Orleans, 40 students, four faculty, four staffers, and a consultant explored the devastation – and opportunities – of the city that in 2005 tangled with Hurricane Katrina.

They worked with Habitat for Humanity, brainstormed affordable housing alternatives, counseled students from flood-wrecked Dillard University, helped out in public schools, and added to a business plan for a Tulane University education initiative.

“I can’t think of an area in the United States that needs more help,” said Anthony D’Avella ’07 who spent part of the 10-day visit hanging new siding on a flood-damaged house. “It’s a real education for students: Get out of your classroom.”

Daniel Hong ’07 went on a two-week student trek last year to Japan and Korea. This year, he found New Orleans both grounding and inspiring – a place with business opportunities as well as “just opportunities to be involved.”

The visit also gave him a sense of the resilience of cities. “I was prepared to see complete devastation,” said Hong, who wants to extend his relationship with New Orleans beyond graduation. “But people were out. There was a sense of commerce. There was hope.”

“There’s hope and there’s hurt,” said Sarah Tudryn ’08, who plans on taking her business skills into the public education sphere. The New Orleans immersion was part of a larger lesson on leadership, she said, which requires a “diversity of experiences.”

The third immersion program – with 54 students, four faculty, and five staffers – investigated how health care policy and practices intersect with the business world. Twenty health care professionals from local hospitals and firms acted as lecturers, panelists, and demonstrators.

“The program was billed as an opportunity for nontechnical students to gain an understanding of the science and business forces in the health care marketplace,” wrote Paul Conrad ’08 in an e-mail. “In my opinion it was this and a great deal more.”

Cara Sterling, director of HBS’s Healthcare Initiative and an event organizer, said early poll results on the five-day health care immersion were positive. “We’re likely to do it again,” she said.

Classroom work was the order of business at least half of the time. There were lectures on the science of cancer, cancer treatments, the principles of surgery, the origins of obesity, cardiovascular disorders, medical errors, mental illness, central nervous system disorders, and ethics.

There was an afternoon tour of the Novartis Institute for Biomedical Research, where students got a crash course in virtual chemistry, robotic drug testing, pharmaceutical research, and drug manufacturing techniques.

At Beth-Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s Carl J. Shapiro Simulation and Skills Center, HBS students watched a simulated cardiac arrest, inserted a breathing tube into a dummy, and practiced the fine-motor skills needed in laparoscopic surgery.

Overall, the 9-to-5 days during the immersion session “went longer than a school day,” said Jordyne Wu ’08. The onetime investment banker would like to see the health care immersion program expand into continuing education units, workshops on Friday afternoons or weekends – and programs that put medical, science, engineering, and business students together more.

Medical science needs funding savvy from MBAs, she said – and MBAs need medicine’s fund of ideas.

Among students who attended the health care immersion, high on the list of favorite sessions was the one featuring professor of cell biology Judah Folkman, Andrus Professor of Pediatric Surgery at Harvard Medical School. His work on the blood supply of tumors has in the past three decades revolutionized cancer treatments.

Richard Hamermesh, the MBA Class of 1961 Professor of Management Practice, used a case study about Folkman – with Folkman in attendance – to illustrate the value of risk-taking and collaborative management.

In 1981, Folkman took a 50 percent pay cut to pursue his then-disparaged research, and eventually established a network of 12 laboratories where innovation rules.

“The very best scientists won’t do what you ask,” said Folkman of his preference for hiring independent-minded staffers. He called science “the business of changing beliefs” – and suggested to the array of future MBAs that prospering in the business of science often requires ignoring accepted opinions.

“It’s awful hard to be funded by your peers – they’re only experts in the past,” said Folkman. “There are no experts of the future.”

There’s plenty of opportunity in both science and business, he said. Of the 25,000 known diseases, there are cures for only 800.

Said Beth Kozman ’08, a onetime venture capitalist who used to evaluate health care investments: “The (immersion) program really showed to us how many problems there are currently in our health care system – and how MBA students can help.”

All three immersion courses required a “preimmersion” seminar during the fall. Postimmersion seminars are being scheduled.

Vietor can envision a day when HBS sponsors immersion programs in India, the Middle East, Latin America, Russia, and elsewhere. Immersion programs are a great way to learn, he said.

“Students rated all the [immersion] programs very highly,” said Joseph L. Badaracco Jr., director of the MBA program and the John Shad Professor of Business Ethics. “The likelihood is that we will do them again.”