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A World Apart: Students Travel to China to Understand the Business, Cultural and Political Environment

Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013

Summer is a time for travelling, a time when the world gears up to spend a few days or weeks away from the normalcy of everyday life. Some travel to relax; some to discover; some, still, to get lost and be found. However, the benefits of travelling extend beyond relaxation and adventure. A fundamental aspect of travel is learning. This can take many forms, whether it is learning the geography of a new area, learning about the history of a small town, or learning about how another culture thrives. Santa Clara University embraces travel as a way to educate people, and professors, both in the Leavey School of Business and around campus, have developed courses that integrate travel into the curriculum.

One such professor, the Dean’s Executive Professor of Management John Toppel, has done just that. Seasoned in these educational trips, Professor Toppel embarked on his 4th trip with students this summer, taking a group of eight Santa Clara University students to Beijing and Shanghai. This is his 8th trip to China, a country with which he is very familiar, having lived there for a time. His past student trips include El Salvador, Turkey, and other areas in Asia. This 2-unit summer course consisted of five classroom meetings before the trip, where guest lecturers with expertise in China taught students about the business, cultural and political environment they would encounter.  

In June, just after the school year finished, Professor Toppel, his wife, and the eight students flew across the ocean to begin their journey. For two weeks, the group explored Beijing and Shanghai with a mix of cultural appreciation tours and business visits peppering their stay. “This trip was one of a kind,” said student Dan Connell. “I was able to gain both knowledge and experience in a unique way.” Throughout the trip, students were to keep a journal of their stay reflecting on their daily experiences, with a paper due at the end of the trip focusing on the contrast between their expectations and the reality they experienced in China.

The group visited businesses such as Porsche, SanDisk, and the U.S. Commerce Office, and popular places like Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall, and Yu Gardens.

The group at Porsche China. (L to R): Emily Kono, Brittany Ricketts, Makenzie Mueller, Suni Hamilton, unidentified woman, Michael Kirsch, Margaret Toppel, John Toppel, Alex Warner, Adam Ching, Daniel Connell.

The visit to Porsche China in Shanghai was the most memorable business visit for many students. Michael Kirsch, the Chief Operating Officer of Porsche China, turned their visit from a presentation into a very personal discussion with the small group. “As he was speaking to us,” said student Evan Chang, “his passion and belief in the company as a whole was most evident. To him, the car was not simply a transportation medium, but rather an embodiment of all that is Porsche.” Kirsch gave the group a tour and even let them in on a few secrets. “We asked what the biggest problem with Porsches in Shanghai was,” said Professor Toppel, “thinking it would be something related to the inability of Porsches to be driven at high speeds due to immense traffic. Mr. Kirsch’s answer, to everybody’s surprise, was the horn. Everybody honks their horns in Shanghai, but a Porsche horn is not meant to be used that much. So, to solve the problem, Porsche China switched out the original horns with sturdier Volkswagen horns.”

Similarly, their visit to SanDisk was very memorable. “We were taken on an unbelievable tour of the facilities and learned about chip making,” explained Professor Toppel. As part of the tour, the group had to don full “bunny suits” (for sanitation reasons) and were taken into the clean room where microchips are made. “I think microscopic data storage is an increasingly relevant industry as data continues to accumulate in the digital age,” Connell observed. 

The group in bunny suits at SanDisk. (Back Left): Guide Peter Long, Alex Warner, Evan Chang, Margaret Toppel, John Toppel, Adam Ching, Daniel Connell. (Front Left): Makenzie Mueller, Brittany Ricketts, Emily Kono, Suni Hamilton.

Along with touring various businesses, the group met with influential people working and living in China. One such visit was with Rob Schmitz. A regular reporter for American Public Media's "Marketplace" program, Schmitz has lived in China for years, and is fluent in Chinese language and culture. Blocking off much more of his time than expected or asked, Schmitz sat down with the group and talked with them about his experiences, providing insight about his career and the culture in China. This visit was a huge success among the students:

“After listening to NPR for over 2 years it was awesome to finally meet someone who worked there.  He was very passionate about his work; fearless in obtaining information and not afraid to get his hands dirty to seek out the facts.” – Evan Chang, Class of 2016

“We got to listen to a journalist who really knows what life is like in China and could put it in terms that we, as Americans, could relate to. He offered new perspectives and was very knowledgeable about Chinese culture.” – Makenzie Mueller, Class of 2016 

“Rob dug deep into the heart of China's social issues and problems, he didn't hold back. He delved into political corruption, social injustices, and educational flaws in China and gave perhaps the best account of China of anyone we met there. His experience as an NPR correspondent was unparalleled but he also had charisma and was easy to relate to.” – Dan Connell, Class of 2015

The group with Rob Schmitz. (L to R): Makenzie Mueller, Alex Warner, Evan Chang, Adam Ching, Daniel Connell, Rob Schmitz, Suni Hamilton, Brittany Ricketts, Emily Kono, John Toppel, Margaret Toppel.

While the business visits were a focus of this educational trip, experiencing the culture of China was a priority as well. A mix of planned cultural explorations and free time allowed the students to experience life in the country and provided a context for understanding the environment in which businesses work. “I thought that both the Yu Gardens and the Great Wall were so interesting. I felt like I had stepped into a piece of history and can just imagine the manpower and intelligence it took to build both,” remarked student Makenzie Mueller.

The group in Tienanmen Square. (Back left): Evan Chang, Adam Ching, Daniel Connell, Alex Warner, John Toppel, Emily Kono, Brittany Ricketts, Margaret Toppel. (Front left): Makenzie Mueller, Suni Hamilton.

“In our free time, we explored as many parts of Beijing and Shanghai as we could, entering every store, tasting all the food we came across, and just enjoying our time there,” commented Chang. “Being able to experience the day-to-day culture was amazing.”

With the objectives of understanding and experiencing the business, cultural and political environment of China, learning business practices by interacting with managers, employees and government officials in China, and promoting intercultural awareness and communication skills, this Undergraduate China Business Global Experience course was a success, exposing students to a different culture and immersing them in both Chinese and international business.

“Every day there was an abundance of information for us to learn,” said Chang. “Being the only person in my family not to have gone back to China, it meant a lot to be able to experience, firsthand, the culture of my heritage.”

Updated September 3, 2013. 


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