Studying Abroad Brings Challenges and Opportunities for MBAs

study MBA abroad

This article is sponsored by Prodigy Finance.  

Learn more about Prodigy graduate student loans. 

Flora Huang couldn’t find the cleaning solution for her contact lens. Before leaving for France, she’d diligently packed plenty of clothes along with familiar blankets and sheets from home. When she ran out during her first days as an MBA student at INSEAD in Fontainebleau, she was sure replacing it would be simple. She was wrong.

After going to numerous stores near campus, she traveled to Melun, then Avon, navigating though large Carrefour stores (that carried just about everything else, it seemed) looking for contact lens solution. “Finally someone was able to tell me that contact lens solution could only be found at the pharmacy.”

For Huang, it was one of many study abroad-related adjustments that began the day she arrived. “[I remember the] first Sunday when I was starving and without food because I hadn’t planned for the fact that nothing would be open on Sunday. And, of course, as an American, learning to drive stick while navigating roundabouts and narrow roads was an adventure all on its own.”

Leaving the comforts of home to attend school is never easy, but international students face a special set of challenges. They are not just trading the familiar for the unknown. By choosing to study abroad, they have added cultural and language barriers to more commonplace concerns about finding housing and saying goodbye to friends and family.

Operating three campuses in France, Singapore, and Abu Dhabi, INSEAD is one of the world’s largest business schools. Every year it attracts over 1,000 students to its graduate business programs. In 2014, INSEAD’s MBA program hosted some 90 different nationalities. 

While Huang studied in France, Brazilian native Marisa Rodrigues earned her MBA in Singapore. Below, they discuss not only how they coped with the challenges of being an international student, but how their experiences prepared them for the rigors of the global marketplace with

Finding the best school as an international student

International students are rarely the stereotypically affluent scions of the rich and well-connected. They are often reliant on parental savings along with their own work and loan combinations. Many are first generation students who can’t depend on relatives for information about their own college experiences.

Succeeding in an MBA program begins with choosing the right business school. Crossing multiple time zones to visit your future campus is expensive, but it’s far cheaper than waiting until matriculation to learn your school is not what it claims to be. One Nepalese student learned this the hard way. Suresh left his country to study in England. After arriving at his school, he confessed to UK newspaper The Guardian that, “What they showed on the internet was completely different… The teachers were not good enough; there was no infrastructure or library. I just lost all of my will to study, along with the £5,000 that my parents invested in me.”

Although some MBA programs require onsite meetings or interviews, many conduct them in the applicant’s home country. This makes it essential that study abroad students don’t rely on the school’s website as their only source of information. You should also examine the school’s accreditation and ask detailed questions from peers and older members of your network familiar with its programs. Loan providers can also be of assistance. For example, Prodigy Finance, which underwrites many loans for INSEAD MBAs, only works with a select list of top-ranked schools.

After being admitted, international students face numerous challenges. Some are familiar to any student leaving home to attend college. Yet, even the most mundane concerns gain complexity when factoring in a campus that is hundreds or even thousands of miles from home.

How much does it cost to study abroad?

Financing a graduate education is never easy, but the global recession greatly reduced the amount of money available to international students hoping to finance their degree. Although this situation is improving, paying for a graduate degree to study abroad remains complicated. “If you require financial aid, getting a loan can be a challenge,” Huang admits. “At the time that I applied to INSEAD, it was not yet recognized by the US for the federal loan program, which meant that I would have to take a private loan with a much higher interest rate.  Prodigy was great because the interest rates were low and I was able to take the loan in euros.”

If you lack the deep pockets required to comfortably self-finance your graduate education, options open to candidates in the US and Europe range include loans administered in the country of origin, grants and scholarships from the school of your choice and assistance provided by employers. Unfortunately, as Rodrigues notes, “Students from developing countries find it difficult to finance their program [this way]. Credit is not as accessible and interest rates tend to be much higher.”

Tuition is not the only educational expense. Your day-to-day cost of living must be factored in as well. These vary a great deal depending upon the program’s location. Huang noticed that both top shelf wine and decent medical care cost less in France, but groceries were far more expensive. At INSEAD, tuition is €62,500 (around US$81,000) but estimated living expenses at its Fontainebleau campus add another €23,600 (US$30,500) to the cost of the 10-month program.  students contemplating a two-year program at home often prefer Europe’s one-year program ––which is why many students (like Huang) decide to study abroad.

She also points out a variable potential students might not have considered. “The most obvious challenge is the currency rate fluctuation,” she explains. “All of your earnings might be in a different currency than you pay in tuition... you have to manage the fact that how much things cost (from your perspective) might change day-to-day.  You need to manage when and how you convert your money into local currency.”

What will you do for money? Student visas usually restrict your opportunities to earn an income while you attend school but you may find it difficult to meet all your living expenses with savings and loans. As Middlesex University student Kala Opusunju told The Guardian, “There seemed to be no available jobs for students such as myself to work and earn extra pay. So I was solely dependent on the income which my parents sent me from Nigeria.”

Student visas

Every country has different entry requirements for work and student visas – from medical evaluations to background checks. “As you can imagine, getting the student visa was not the most straightforward process and there wasn’t too much guidance out there,” Huang remembered. “I was lucky enough to find a student blog from a previous INSEAD student from the US that laid out the process and really helped make things easier for me.”

For those applying for an MBA student visa, Huang offers the following advice: “find someone of your nationality who has already been through the process and can guide you through it. That could be either someone from a previous class or someone from your class who has already done it.”

Studying in France and Singapore

When international MBA students seek out a place to live, this is complicated by distance. For most MBA students, on-campus housing is not an option. INSEAD, like most MBA programs, does not provide long-term housing for students. In urban areas, proximal accommodation is often the most expensive. Unfortunately, opting for less expensive housing can add hours of daily commute to your school experience. Not only will this increase your stress levels, but it will also reduce your motivation to attend late evening networking events – particularly if it requires nighttime travel through neighborhoods in which you do not feel comfortable.

Huang found a cost saving measure that also reduced one of the most common ailments afflicting international students: homesickness. Living with roommates became about more than just cost sharing. “I started to feel homesick because some of my favorite foods weren’t readily available; sometimes you just miss a good burger!” she remembered. “My housemates and I started a tradition of going to the closest McDonald’s (which wasn’t really that close) the night before finals started each period. Another thing that we did was host a Thanksgiving dinner at our house. We managed to have quite the feast! You’ll notice that all of the things I mentioned were things that I did with my housemates; it helps to find a group of people to be your family away from your family with whom you can make these new traditions.”

For Rodrigues, the school’s networking functions and socializing with fellow international students eased the transition. “I think one aspect that was very different was about meeting people that have had the same kind of experiences as I had. Once you live abroad for some years moving from one country to another it is not easy to find people who understand your choices. Any new place will bring unique challenges but being able to share your fears and thoughts with people that also have an international profile helps alleviate the anxiety that comes with the so-called ‘liability of foreignness’.”

Culture shock and language barriers

Both women faced endured some culture shock when it comes to customer service. “Things that would be basic in the US like getting a cell phone or having internet installed at home were long, drawn out processes that required all sorts of paperwork and multiple trips to the store and unapologetic sales people,” recalls Huang. “Getting a taxi was nearly impossible; I recall one time when we called a local taxi driver and he said that he simply didn’t feel like working that day.”

Language barriers can make even the most mundane experience fraught with tension. Experienced travelers recommend patience and a sense of humor as the best defense. As Huang notes, you have to remember, “You are a guest in their country.” Although her French was rusty, she says, “Contrary to what you may have heard, I found the French to be very appreciative of any effort to speak their language – even if not done well or with a perfect accent.”

Dining out in Singapore, Rodrigues remembers ordering dim sum with a group of 10. Instead of separate dishes, each order was combined. The plate even included desert and the bill. This was a problem. “Among us a Brazilian girl was allergic to seafood, an Israeli guy did not eat pork and an Indian colleague was vegetarian. I approached the waiter and asked him to help me sort out the food that looked pretty much alike. The waiter showed me the bill in Chinese and pronounced the name at the same time he pointed to the different layers of dim sums. I told him that was not really helping. He apologized and left. The solution we found was to let me and another guy who would eat anything try the different dim sums and give our verdict on what was the filling.”

Rodrigues feels that the best way to prepare for culture shock or language barriers is to “Adapt and understand that yours is not the only way to get things done. Try to learn as much as you can about the language and culture of the place where you are going to live. If possible, talk to people that have been there before and ask for their input and advice.”

Global careers

For Huang and Rodrigues, studying abroad had a lasting effect on their careers and even their approach to life. Today, Huang is an executive director for motion picture planning at Paramount Pictures. Working for a company whose films open across the world is a natural fit. “Both the world view that is taught at INSEAD and the experience of living abroad have been invaluable in my present position. I work with territory managers from all over the world and have a greater appreciation for the fact that their priorities might not be the same as ours here in the US, and that the priorities and interests of their movie-going population are different as well.” 

As Rodrigues explains, “The experience of being an international student challenged me out of my comfort zone many times and now I am much more comfortable talking to people I never met before, for instance. Once you live abroad you have to adapt and understand that yours is not the only way to get things done. At the end of the day it all comes down to how you face adversity. People with a lot of international experience tend to focus more on the positive sides and give less importance to what is not so nice.”

Perhaps this optimistic, broadminded viewpoint, nearly as much as what they learned in the classroom, can be considered one of the true benefits of studying abroad for international students like Huang and Rodrigues.

This article is sponsored Prodigy Finance.  

Written by John Bankston

Content writer John began his career as an investigative reporter and is a prolific educational writer alongside his work for us, authoring over 100 nonfiction books for children and young adults since 2000.

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Studying abroad at INSEAD is an incredible experience... this is why! enjoy :-) #INSEADMAKEITCOUNT
Hi there...Excellent blog..Helpful up to a greater extent..Looking forward to many such posts again..Thanks..!!