MBA Alumni Get Second Chance at COVID-Canceled Trip
Graduates traveled to South Africa to experience ‘the human side of business’
The plane tickets were purchased. The itinerary, created. The excitement, undeniable.
Students in the Daniels College of Business Executive MBA program were all set to travel to South Africa, where Cohort 73 had voted to spend eight days experiencing a new culture, observing global business and learning more about themselves.
COVID-19 had other ideas.
EMBA Cohort 73 was told the global experience would have to wait three months. Then six months. Eventually, the trip was canceled. The cohort graduated.
The same happened to Cohort 74. And Cohort 75. Students, many of whom were drawn to the Daniels program for its signature travel component, now had to go without.
“It wasn’t a surprise. The fact that it was canceled was, I think, an expectation of the times we were living in,” said Mark Urich (MBA 2020), a member of Cohort 73. “Probably the biggest surprise was that they actually, two years later, brought the opportunity back to complete the program.”
In October, 20 alumni flew to Cape Town to finally experience the capstone they thought a pandemic had taken away.
For Amanda Cahal, director of MBA global programs, it was a way to provide her former students with an impactful, transformational learning experience—something alumni frequently cite as the best part of their DU education. But it was also about following through on a promise Daniels had made.
“It just felt really important to honor that commitment,” said Cahal, who has been on 36 trips with MBA students during her tenure. “It was more than two years after they graduated … [but] a lot of [former students] said they felt like they weren’t quite finished until they got to do this. That was a big part of the motivation, I think.”
Designing a trip for three different cohorts of alumni was different than any of the other international experiences Cahal had led in the past. Her task was something of a balancing act. For one thing, because everyone had already graduated, there was technically no need for grades or assignments. But, at the same time, the trip wasn’t intended to be a vacation, even though attendees had to take time off from their post-grad jobs.
Cahal got creative. She and Scott McLagan, a former professor who “came out of retirement” to join the trip, countered visits to local businesses, nonprofits and community organizations with beaches, cooking classes and wineries.
“We got a really cool sense of what South Africa is about—the people, the culture, where they’re trying to go, what they’ve learned from the past, how they’re trying to push forward,” said Julianne Cooper (MBA 2021), part of Cohort 75. “Without the stress of taking notes and writing a paper on it, we could be present and be in the moment and ask questions.”
Students were assigned optional readings before the trip began as a preview of what lay ahead. Just about everyone completed them, Cahal said, and was prepared to engage in meaningful discussion.
Still, Glenn Hogue (MBA 2021), a member of Cohort 74, didn’t quite know what to expect. The Army veteran had completed tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, but said he was stunned by what he encountered in Cape Town.
“I saw two worlds of Africa,” he said. “I saw the one that everyone sees, the glamour, the safari, the wineries, the beauty of it. And then you see the shantytowns where there is complete poverty.”
Visits through the city’s townships—dilapidated remnants of South Africa’s segregated apartheid society—left a lasting mark on Hogue, who grew up economically disadvantaged.
“It was kind of heartbreaking seeing it from that perspective because I could relate to it from my race standpoint,” said Hogue, who is African American. “It was heartbreaking to see that. They say apartheid is over, but it isn’t. It’s the same.”
Throughout the week, the group spoke with numerous organizations dedicated to improving the urban environment. At the social enterprise RLabs, they learned about innovative ways to reconstruct local communities. A stop at Velokhaya Life Cycling Academy provided a glimpse into a nonprofit empowering underserved children through sport.
On the farm of Justin Gomes, the group met Mama Yandi, founder and operations manager of Masiphumelele Creative Hub, which offers education as a pathway out of poverty for pre-schoolers and adults alike. The DU group was so moved by the nonprofit’s mission that alumni have committed to sponsoring 30 boys in one of its programs.
“I think for me, this trip really allowed me to feel more connected to what’s happening in the country instead of just being a tourist,” said Cooper, an experienced world traveler. “It was learning more about the places you visit and [their] different parts—good and bad. Being more culturally aware of things and understanding it from that standpoint.”
When the time came to say goodbye, each alum rose to make a toast at a farewell dinner, speaking from the heart about their eight-day adventure. Urich focused his words on the people with whom he shared the trip—both those he met in South Africa and those who traveled with him. He learned something valuable, he said, from seeing the dedication of community organizations and the passion Cahal showed leading their trip.
“To see it through her eyes made me passionate about her passion,” he said. “I think you can take that lesson in life. I don’t care what the subject is or what the issue is. You will appreciate and be a better person by embracing what someone else is so passionate about.”
The conclusion of the trip also brought Urich and his classmates a sort of natural resolution to the EMBA experience. Because of COVID, many students didn’t get to participate in formal Commencement ceremonies and had to celebrate in small, separated events.
The students may have framed their diplomas long ago, but Cahal left the country impressed with their continuous desire to learn and grow.
“They are running companies; many of them have great careers,” Cahal said. “And they walked away, I think, with this sense of: They have a footprint and their actions have a ripple effect on those around them and the teams they lead and the organizations they run—and they get to craft what that ripple effect is. They get to be purposeful about it and thoughtful about it. And a lot of them are going back saying, ‘How do I want to be as a leader, as a partner, as a friend, as just a human in the world?’”
So many of the alumni described the trip as “transformational,” Cahal said, a testament to their curiosity and engagement after a two-and-a-half-year pandemic. It had students, like Glenn Hogue, reflecting upon how the whole trip unfolded.
“Based on my experience in life, things happen, unfortunately. You just have to be able to deal with it and roll with it, and if you have the opportunity to pursue it later on, great,” he said. “Amanda said she was going to do this and I believed her. She did everything possible, moved mountains and she was able to get it done. I had faith that she would. She did what she said she was going to do.”