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The Lauder MA/MBA Joint Degree Program: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the MBA

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For prospective students looking to enter an MBA program, the University of Pennsylvania offers a unique option that expands the traditional master’s in business into a global learning experience, preparing graduates for enterprise in a diverse and connected world. The Joseph H. Lauder Institute of Management & International Studies two-year joint degree program (Lauder MA/MBA Joint Degree) offers an MBA from the Wharton School in concert with a master’s in international studies from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts & Sciences.Lauder MA/MBA Joint Degree

Students pursuing a business degree receive more than the standard education in finance and management. In class and in the field, the curriculum is grounded in a cultural, political, historical, and economic context that, in the words of Kenric Tsethlikai, Managing Director of The Lauder Institute, “Moves beyond the professional foundation of standalone MBA, in interdisciplinary perspective, politics, society, and in practice.”

Curriculum at Lauder

First developed in 1983, the program has substantially evolved. Dr. Maria Lozada-Cerna is the Director of Lauder Language and Culture Programs, Head of the Language and Cultures Faculty, and Director of the Spanish Program. She remembers how, “the Curriculum was language class requirements, two core courses in Lauder, and more focused on language and culture.” While the goal was to prepare leaders interested in working in countries around the world, at the time, many of those markets like Russia, China, and Brazil were not yet open.

“Back then, going global meant an American company or a European company going to other parts of the world,” recalls Dr. Regina Abrami, Director of the Lauder Global Program and Head of the Lauder International Studies Faculty.

In 2015, the curriculum moved from more nationally-based programs that were indirectly connected to a more integrated, regional approach with more economic, political, and historical perspectives than a cultural and linguistic perspective. “You cannot isolate a specific country without the entire context of the region,” says Dr. Lozada-Cerna.

Lauder MA/MBA Joint DegreeThe Global Track, introduced in 2012 and designed by Dr. Regina Abrami, targeted students who already met the baseline language requirements, but still wanted the contextual and interdisciplinary work they would not get in a traditional MBA program.

All students at Lauder are bilingual and, in most cases, are multilingual, as advanced knowledge of another language is required as part of admission. Students can select from six programs of concentration: Africa, East and Southeast Asia, Europe, Latin America, South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, and the Global Track.

Students begin the program each year in May with a month of coursework in Philadelphia followed by an eight-week summer immersion. For the region-focused programs, three weeks are spent traveling to meet community and business leaders, interacting with the local communities, and participating in lectures, group exercises, and corporate and non-corporate visits. The remaining five weeks are devoted to developing language and culture proficiency through field-based language tasks, academic lectures, and more community interaction.

The Global Track and Global Knowledge Lab

For students taking the Global Track, their summer immersion is what the program calls a “multi-country introduction to leading issues in global business, international politics, cross-border transactions, and intercultural communication.” Intercultural activities, corporate visits, field exercises, and engagement are integrated with classroom lectures to expose students to the issues they will study for the next two years. Students travel to at least five countries, with destinations changing year to year based on program needs.

In addition to the MBA courses and the Penn SAS courses required to complete the degree, students take courses unique to the Lauder program on leadership, regional analysis, law, economics, and geopolitics. The Global Knowledge Lab replaces a traditional thesis with a group and individual research paper that students work on throughout their program, allowing them to demonstrate mastery in cutting-edge topics affecting economic policy, NGOs, and other stakeholders in the global business community.

By necessity, the program has needed to evolve to stay ahead of global developments. Graduates of the program are, like the program itself, adept at maneuvering through changing political and economic landscapes. The rapid globalization of the late 1990s and early 2000s has seen a significant reversal in populist and nationalist reactionary movements. “We have retrenchments into national or border-specific outlooks on the world,” says Tsethlikai, “and I think the curriculum has been reflecting that.”

Students’ Perspectives of the Lauder MA/MBA Joint Degree

Samaria O’Brien, a second-year MBA candidate, completed her undergraduate degree at Norte Dame and worked with Accenture and Disney before being accepted to the Lauder program. An Italian citizen born in Monaco, O’Brien confesses to a fascination with global affairs and pursued this interest as far back as high school where she completed an International Baccalaureate program. “When I discovered the Lauder program, it seemed like a perfect fit. I was set on attending business school to pivot to a career in finance, but also didn’t want to lose out on humanities classes.”

The Lauder MA/MBA Joint Degree offered that well-rounded curriculum she was hoping to receive. O’Brien’s French fluency led her to the European track, where she is flexing her language skills in business settings. “Overall, Lauder presents an exciting program focused on research, language, and global issues that is the perfect complement to my finance major at Wharton.”

Bernardo Garcia Gonzales Rubio, also in his second year, graduated from Tecnológico de Monterrey and first went to Miami as a consultant with Finalta. In search of something more “operational,” he moved to San Francisco to work with Uber before deciding to get his MBA. He had colleagues who had been through Lauder who spoke about the program’s community aspect, which Garcia feels is enhanced by the shared experience of an international background that the students have. The prospect of a challenging academic program intrigued him, as did the traveling component. “I studied engineering, which is extremely technical, now I’m doing business. Most people who come to business school have specific needs; they either want to go for a specific job, or they want to do a startup, but it’s all business, business, business. It’s great, I love it, but I also wanted to get the other part. I feel there’s a lot of personal growth in studying social differences, economics, politics, and trying to look at what’s going on outside of my bubble.”

Kartik Das is a 2019 graduate of the program now working with Amazon at their Seattle headquarters. He credits Lauder with guiding him to his chosen career. “My ambitions going into the program were to primarily explore career avenues in the public and the private sector. The catered program and teaching modules helped me in my application for organizations such as the World Bank for my summer internship, as well as a stint in the think tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies at Washington, D.C. I eventually however, ended up picking a career in a fast-moving tech company in my second year. I made this switch having realized that I would be keen to explore the tech space a bit more as technology was at the heart of all change.”

What’s Different About the Lauder MA/MBA Joint Degree?

All MBA programs advocate a global perspective and incorporate international studies into their curriculums; it would be unthinkable not to. What makes the Lauder MA/MBA Joint Degree program special?

“A lot of MBA programs offer international aspects. The difference is the international studies MA, a humanities degree. It’s a huge difference—it’s not a professional degree. The Lauder Institute makes sure the student has a humanities social science education.” For Dr. Lozada-Cerna, the well-rounded, inter-cultural approach is vital for the ideal graduate to succeed in business.

In the current climate of shifting geopolitical influence and an economy weighed down by the pandemic, graduates entering the business world need to be able to navigate challenges that haven’t been seen in a generation. The Lauder Program can boast that their graduates have the tools necessary to do so successfully. “Right now, a lot of business schools and other places are talking about how they need to think about resilience and how we teach resilience and learn resilience,” says Dr. Abrami. “Well, the Global Program has been doing it from the beginning.”

“I believe the Lauder opportunity opened up new ways of thinking,” Das reflects. “Being able to embrace different views on policy, healthcare, alternative forms of energy, and infrastructure challenges was truly valuable. In today’s pandemic context, traits picked up at school such as resilience, interdependence on each other, community goals and finding solutions in abstract and demanding situations has been extremely helpful.”

Garcia finds value in looking at what he was doing before Lauder and how his education will influence his future work. “I was working in a team based in an office in San Francisco, a very international team, working with people from all backgrounds and cultures. I was learning how to deal with all of that—how is business conducted in this country, what is standard practice—while on the job. But adding that layer of context of what’s going on in the region, what’s going on in this specific country. I understand the background of the people I am working with; I understand their most recent history. I am able to get this more holistic understanding of what’s going on elsewhere.”

What every student entering the Lauder program can find, regardless of the track they have chosen, is community. The small class size bonds over travel, immersion, and the challenge of the program.

“The community is extremely tight-knit, and Lauder students serve as a strong support network for each other,” says O’Brien.

“It’s a deliberately small program,” Dr. Abrami explains. “A tight community that allows students past and present to maintain connections in ways that are not impossible had they just gone to get an MBA. I think because we have them in all these intense moments, the intense summer immersion, the intense classes, it sort of fosters the bonds a lot quicker.”

Alumni have created a website where they can stay connected and provide support for each other, which has been especially crucial in the context of recent events. Alumni schedule social events, organize fundraisers, and are in the process of building a job board.

The Lauder MA/MBA Joint Degree program has impacted the global business community not just through offering an innovative approach to business education, but through the graduates that the program produces. Lauder alumni communicate, interact, and address international enterprise in a way only those who have an interdisciplinary, context-focused experience can.

Christina Griffith
Christina Griffith is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. She specializes in covering education, science, and history, and has experience in research and interviews, magazine content, and web content writing.