One could have argued that Mark Thomas went too far with this project.
Lisa Rajigah, a Ph.D. student in instructional technology, seems to have the camel under control. Bonnie Villarreal, a MAcc student, is along for the ride.
While it’s true that Thomas, the director of Field Studies, seems to have unrestrained confidence in the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business students he works with, sometimes he lines up some unusually challenging projects for them.
He called this job “international business in the extreme.” This Field Studies project had a team of students traveling to Egypt to help the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) prepare trainers who would be coming into Cairo from dozens of countries. The trainers would be expected, in turn, to train those they work with on proper USAID accounting procedures.
Students from the Huntsman School of Business teamed up with students from the Instructional Technology and Science Learning Department in the Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services at USU.
Joanne Bentley is an assistant professor of instructional technology who specializes in accounting for individual and cultural differences in instruction. She mentored the students at USU and traveled with them to Egypt to run the evaluation of the project.
“It was a great opportunity for students from two colleges to come together and work as a team,” Bentley said. “Their strengths complemented each other, and they learned that working together they could accomplish some remarkable things – more than they could have individually.”
It was a project that would require not just an understanding of a single new culture but sensitivity to many different cultures. It also required mastery of the specialized governmental accounting subject matter that was to be taught.
“It’s ten times harder to do a project like this in an international setting than it would be to do it in the United States,” Thomas said. “That’s part of the fun and part of the learning and also part of what it means to be in a global business.”
Students who participate in Field Studies projects are hired by companies to solve problems for them, and the reputation of the program is on the line each time a new project is tackled. Thomas said while the students know it will be a learning experience, they set their standards high and meet expectations.
James Hinkle, MBA Student
“Like a top consulting firm, we deliver and meet the needs of our clients,” he said.
Thomas and Dr. Bentley weren’t the only ones who had faith in USU students to deliver. Jed Barton, a Huntsman School of Business alumnus, turned to Field Studies after he couldn’t find the type of expertise he needed elsewhere, Thomas said.
“This is an Aggie who believes in Utah State,” Thomas said of Barton, a USAID controller who graduated in 1982 with a bachelor’s degree in marketing.
Dr. Bentley and Thomas put together an exceptional interdepartmental team to meet the challenge. Two sub-teams were formed, each made up of both business and instructional technology students.
Often students will pursue a graduate degree after spending a few years in the workforce.
Mark Thomas and Joanne Bentley, faculty members.
“We had people on the teams who have been out in the industry for several years,” Thomas said. “These were impressive teams. They were hustlers.”
The students spent six weeks on campus developing the materials they would use to train the trainers. They worked to be sure none of their illustrations or language would be offensive to those they were training. But before they could begin they had to first learn the subject matter.
“It was a self-taught crash course in USAID accounting,” said Bonnie Villarreal, a MAcc student. “When we received the materials, before we could do anything, we had to teach ourselves.”
Rosalie Gricius, an MBA student, said that for three weeks they just read to gain a better understanding of USAID accounting practices. The business students were in Egypt for a week and a half and the other students were there for three weeks.
And despite all of the students’ preparations, they still faced obstacles. Shortly after arriving in Egypt, the students were asked to completely revamp half the PowerPoint presentations they had created. They were told the slides, which were in outline form, didn’t include enough content. Those who would be using the presentations, they earned, had very little teaching experience and planned to rely more on the content of the slides themselves than had been previously expected.
A USAID trainer teaches.
While they had been planning to spend their time doing research, evaluating their program and offering the trainers tips on how to use their student-friendly materials, their focus suddenly shifted toward revamping and developing more content-heavy materials that would help the trainers get up to speed on what they would be expected to teach.
Dr. Bentley said it wasn’t until near the end of their visit they had a chance to work with instructors and teach them how to effectively train others. She had predicted – even before they left the country – there would be surprises that would bring out the best in the teams.
“International projects are a wonderful opportunity to be surprised – nothing works out just the way you think it will,” Bentley said. “To be opened to a new view of the world and be transformed by it, that’s what this is about. It’s about personal transformation. You have to be adaptable under pressure, because there will always be surprises.”
The students ended up developing more than 1,200 pages of instructional materials and hundreds of PowerPoint slides for two different specialized accounting courses.
“It was an enormous task,” Villarreal said. “You had one presentation on cash reconciliation, one on how the United States government budget works. We had another one on how you actually process an obligation through the software. These were very detailed, process-oriented presentations, and there were nearly 70 of them.”
The students said the work exposed them to the type of challenges one might face working for a company that deals with multiple cultures and communication barriers. It also taught them how to work as a team.
“We learned to work in a group with different disciplines and how to recognize people’s individual skills and effectively use them,” said James Hinkle, an MBA student. “We learned to work as a team even though we came from various backgrounds.”
Thomas is not surprised that the students rose to the call and delivered. He said the materials they developed are now being used in South Africa, Thailand, Hungary and El Salvador.
“You deserve an A,” he told them in their last meeting. “I am terribly proud of what you have done. I will brag about you for a long, long time.”
Lisa Rajigah gets an earful from a camel.
For more pictures of the Field Studies experience in Egypt click here.