headshots of Callie Stervermer, Jennifer Lien Will, Quoc Vu, Shayla Thacker, and Stephen Drott

15 Years of International Experiences

Friday, April 21, 2023

By Gayla Marty

In 2008, the Carlson School took a bold step. It became the first University of Minnesota college, and one of the first public business schools in the U.S., to integrate an international experience into its curriculum.

Why? It’s life-changing. I’ve seen that impact up close. Students navigate cultural differences, see business through a different lens, and gain exposure to different ways of learning—all transferable experiences and skills. In the coming pages, read about a few experiences our students have had and their long-lasting impact.

While offering an international experience to nearly 2,000 undergraduates was a new challenge 15 years ago, then-Dean Alison Davis-Blake knew a requirement would enhance the educational experience for our students and differentiate us from competitors. A task force of stakeholders agreed, and employers told us international experience was a key asset in graduates.

Since then, more than 10,000 students have completed the international experience requirement. The Carlson Global Institute (CGI) has offered programs in 44 countries, with the most recent expansions in Ghana and Morocco. In addition, our staff have conducted intercultural training to enhance self-awareness, and worked closely on efforts of diversity, equity, and inclusion. With dedicated advising, focusing on student identities, mental health, and scholarship support, students participate in the best-fit experience for them. All of these efforts align with evidence-based research and leading scholarship on international education, including that of UMN Professor Josef Mestenhauser, as detailed in a recent book I co-edited with colleagues. (More about the Mestenhauser Book.)

Reflecting on almost two decades at CGI—and a career that’s led me to Japan, Bulgaria, Romania, Egypt, and the Republic of Georgia—it’s been an absolute pleasure to guide in the creation of a truly interdisciplinary, international education for students, faculty, and staff.

Ultimately, the greatest impact of the Carlson School’s international program is yet to come as our students and future leaders keep discovering—as did I—that international experiences show us there is far more to life than we imagined.

Anne D'Angelo
Assistant Dean, Carlson Global Institute


Jennifer Lien Will, '09 BSB

Semester at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST)

With a family in the world of business, Jennifer Lien Will started college wanting something different. She loved science. But pretty quickly, she realized that the Carlson School was a fit for her. Studying Chinese language, she majored in Supply Chain Management with a minor in International Business.

Jennifer Lien Will standing next to large sundial sculpture outside entrance of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
Jennifer Lien Will poses by the sundial “Circle of Time” sculpture, often called “Red Bird,” at the entrance of HKUST.

“I just knew I wanted an international experience,” she says, “and I wanted it to be business-based.” That led her to Hong Kong in 2008.

“It’s a beautiful campus, perched on a lush hillside overlooking the sea,” says Lien Will. She took a full load of classes that were taught in English and lived in the dormitory with students “from Austria, Canada, France, New Zealand, Hong Kong—all over.” Transit to the city made it easy to shop and eat out with friends. On her own, she ventured off campus to take yoga classes. “Even though the local language is Cantonese Chinese and I had been studying Mandarin, my language skills improved. I could read signs where my classmates couldn’t.”

Back in Minnesota, Lien Will completed her degree and went to work at Modern Manufacturing & Engineering, Inc., in Minneapolis, an aerospace engineering company where she is now controller. “In my job, I see how everything’s connected,” she says, a perspective supported through study abroad. She also credits her international experience with fostering her independence and problem-solving skills, appreciating people’s differences, and deepening her interest in the world.

“The travel experience, exposure to different cultures and education systems and perspectives, not to mention the lifelong friends I met, were priceless,” says Lien Will. “The only thing I would have done differently is study for two semesters instead of one.”



There are people all over the world doing different things and having different experiences that connect.
– Shayla Thacker, '16 BSB

Shayla Thacker, '16 BSB

Short-term programs in China, Australia, Brazil, and Cuba

Shayla Thacker posing next to vintage car
While in Cuba, Shayla Thacker saw classic American cars still on the roads.

“Going to China was my first time out of the Central Time Zone,” says Shayla Thacker. It was May 2014, the end of her sophomore year, majoring in Finance and Entrepreneurial Management. A year later, she took another course in Australia. And in 2016, she took a January course, Management of Innovation and Change, in Brazil. Then in March of that year, just before completing her degree, she could not pass up the chance to join the first Carlson School group to study in Cuba when travel there became possible.

Four international experiences may seem like a lot, but Thacker points out it was only eight weeks total.

“I like that the Carlson Global Institute programs are different durations, so they’re flexible for people’s needs and course requirements,” she says. Hers were all in her major, three with the same faculty member, the late Steve Spruth, in Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship.

Shanty homes on side of mountain with fog in the background
A favela, or shanty town, in Brazil.

Thacker is impressed by the rich experiences designed by the Carlson School faculty. In Brazil, for example, Spruth arranged visits to a Cargill innovation center and a multimedia giant that produces telenovelas. Her class also spent time in the town of Paraty, once a location for manual cassava processing and slave trading, as well as in a vast shanty town, or favela, witnessing the reality of Brazil’s wealth gap—one of the largest in the world.

“That was a touching experience because I come from a low-income family,” Thacker says. “In the United States, we have public education through high school and pay for college, and in Brazil, it’s generally the opposite. I realized that if I had been born in Brazil, I probably wouldn’t have gone to college.”

Thacker’s experience was also enriched by the Carlson School’s buddy program, which pairs U.S. and international students. Some of the students she met in China became friends back in Minnesota, and she met students from Brazil in Minnesota before she traveled there herself.

After graduation, Thacker took a full-time position at U.S. Bank. In 2019, she joined SRS Acquiom and is now on the Loan Agency Relationship Management Team.

“My career has been touching loans and lending,” she says. “I’ve always been a person who looks at things from a big perspective—how does my job relate to the company as a whole? How does the company fit in the industry? Study abroad helps you in that way. There are people all over the world doing different things and having different experiences that connect.”

I was 18 and thought I knew how the world operated!
– Quoc Vu, '17 BSB

Quoc Vu, '17 BSB

Semester at University of Otago in New Zealand

Medicine was on Quoc Vu’s mind. Born and raised in Minnesota, he volunteered one summer during high school with Doctors Without Borders at an orphanage in his cultural homeland of Vietnam. “My parents wanted me to understand the privileges I had growing up here,” he says. In 11th grade, he started taking classes at the University of Minnesota through the Post-Secondary Educational Options program. He aimed to start medical school by the time he was 20.

Quoc Vu standing outside Hobbiton movie set.
Quoc Vu lives out his Tolkien dreams by visiting the Hobbiton movie set in New Zealand where The Lord of the Rings was filmed.

With a double major in Pre-Med Neuroscience and Management Information Systems, Vu kept a packed schedule full of student groups and activities, too. By the time he chose an international experience for his Carlson School major, he had already traveled to 21 countries. “Naïve” is how he describes himself then: “I was 18 and thought I knew how the world operated!” When his sophomore spring semester ended in Minnesota, he immediately started his junior year at the University of Otago, sometimes called the Harvard of New Zealand. He readily admits his choice was influenced by his love of nature and J. R. R. Tolkien fantasy novels, plus the opportunity to reconnect with friends he’d met in earlier travels.

That summer—winter in New Zealand—Vu was the only University of Minnesota student at the University of Otago. He declared International Business as his major but took only one class in the subject. All the rest were New Zealand-specific courses that immersed Vu in other ways of seeing the world. “Their sense of community and respect for the environment—everyone cared about those two things,” says Vu. “I spent a total of 34 days living outside.”

He stayed through January, when his visa expired. And when he got home, his aspirations had shifted. “I realized medicine might not be the ceiling anymore and there was more to life than having ‘MD’ at the end of my name,” he says. “It wasn’t a healthy way to live, and I should be exploring other avenues to make myself happy. There wasn’t one course that made me realize that. Studying abroad changed my life.”

After graduation, Vu went to work as an analyst for UnitedHealth Group. Three years ago, he joined West Monroe in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he is a healthcare and life science consultant. He’s been admitted to medical school and hasn’t ruled it out, but he enjoys the hands-on nature and challenge of consulting. And yes, he’s continued to travel as often as he can.

Being able to understand other cultures’ perspectives of how things work intrigued me.
– Stephen Drott, '19 MBA

Stephen Drott, '19 MBA

Master's level programs in Europe, the Middle East, South America, and Asia

Stephen Drott posing for camera with Taj Mahal in background
Stephen Drott smiles while touring the Taj Mahal in Agra, India.

As a dual citizen of the U.K. and U.S., Stephen Drott had plenty of cross-cultural exposure when he came to the Carlson School for an MBA in 2015. That background led him to create a unique international experience at the Carlson School.

“Starting the MBA, very quickly I knew I wanted to do at least one study abroad program,” says Drott. “Being able to understand other cultures’ perspectives of how things work intrigued me.”

Drott enrolled in a program that took him to Poland, Austria, and parts of Eastern Europe in the summer of 2016. He loved it.

“The program was so well organized,” he remembers. “I got back and thought, ‘I have to do more of this.’”

One of the benefits of the Part-Time MBA for Drott was being able to craft it to include study abroad courses as the cornerstone of his experience at the Carlson School. “It was the opportunity to immerse myself and take advantage of the quality team at CGI, to travel the world, and to apply the knowledge in my job,” he says.

Stephen Drott sitting on flat rock with lake and mountain in background.
Drott takes in the sights of Patagonia during his international experience to Argentina and Chile.

For the next three years, he did exactly that. Between semesters on campus, he traveled abroad for four, two-week courses: First to Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Oman, where diversification away from oil was the focus; second to Argentina and Chile, centered on reliance on natural resources and how to think differently in chaotic economic environments; third to China, Hong Kong, and Shanghai to gain understanding of financial markets, banks, and the nuances of a government-led economy; and then to India.

“India is such an important country in the world and a country on the rise,” says Drott. “Our professor, Mani Subramani, was so passionate about India and had fantastic contacts, in government and industry.”

In May 2019, Drott walked in his graduation ceremony, then hopped on a plane to Stockholm, Sweden, to finish up his studies with the Carlson School’s Medical Industry Leadership Institute.

It’s all helped Drott become a more well-rounded person and appreciate other cultures, he says. He got to know other Carlson School students, with whom he remains in touch. And the academic curiosity of the faculty on the programs Drott counts as incredibly rewarding.

“These were the pinnacles of my education,” he says. “They uncovered the ethos and the nuances of how things work, and perspective on this small planet we call home.”

I wanted something that would give me a different perspective.
– Callie Stevermer, '23 BSB

Callie Stevermer, '23 BSB

Semester at Warsaw School of Economics (SGH) in Poland

Callie Stevermer standing in an empty town square with a large Christmas tree in the background.
Callie Stevermer shares a thank you note on her phone while taking in Old Town Market Place in Warsaw.

Growing up on a farm in Blue Earth, Minnesota, Callie Stevermer played the violin and loved Tchaikovsky and Chopin. So when it came time for the Management Information Systems (MIS) student to choose an international experience, she picked Warsaw, Poland.

“I wanted something that would give me a different perspective,” says Stevermer. “I’ve always been a big fan of Slavic cultures and like how the languages sound.”

Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, Poland at night.
The Palace of Culture and Science, a notable landmark in Warsaw, is the second tallest building in the country.

For fall semester 2022, she took eight classes at the Warsaw School of Economics (SGH), including project management, e-banking, and international relations. She learned how Poland is the 10th largest economy by GDP in the European Union, that 85 percent of Warsaw was demolished in World War II, and that the country is developing rapidly. She began to learn Polish, too.

“Polish language is really hard and you can’t guess what a word is—I kept accidentally buying desserts for dinner!” she laughs. “Speaking Polish is really appreciated and makes people smile.” Stevermer also had the eye-opening experience of living on the border of war. Half the residents in her dormitory were Ukrainian refugees. “Poles are so dedicated to relief,” she says. “Untiring effort is what I witnessed in Warsaw.”

As one of the few Americans in the city, Stevermer didn’t have a “comfort zone” to process her experiences, especially the low points. She began to make friends from Germany, France, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and beyond. With a circle of friends, things improved.

Cultural lessons also helped. Her experience has made her appreciate even more the GLOBE student organization that connects U.S. and international students at the Carlson School.

“Now I understand more of what GLOBE does and can do,” she says. This spring, as GLOBE’s vice president for event planning on the executive board, she plans to incorporate ideas based on activities she learned in Warsaw.

Stevermer looks forward to her job after graduation as an internal auditor with Nestlé, too. “It’s 60 percent travel,” she says. “I’m really pumped!”

Spring 2023 alumni magazine cover

This article appeared in the Spring 2023 alumni magazine

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Spring 2023 table of contents