Online MBA students visit Panama, complete consulting project with architecture and construction company

by | Dec 11, 2023

The trip offered students a chance to explore a different country, different culture and different way of doing business while helping them think globally.
UMSL Online MBA students sit in front of a large Panama sign
Students in UMSL's Online MBA program visited Panama this semester to get a firsthand look at how business is conducted in the Central American country. They completed a consulting project with Panamanian architecture firm Espacio LAR. (Photos courtesy of Online MBA program)
Online MBA students visit Panama, complete consulting project with architecture and construction company

by | Dec 11, 2023

The trip offered students a chance to explore a different country, different culture and different way of doing business while helping them think globally.

Matt Todd didn’t realize he’d be traveling to Panama to get a firsthand taste of international business when he enrolled in the Online MBA program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

He only learned about the trip during orientation for the members of his cohort in August of 2022, but it’s safe to say he’d been looking forward to the experience ever since.

“I had no idea it existed,” he said. “I was like, ‘What? There’s a trip?’ They told me it was optional and that I could stay back. I said, ‘No, no, there’s a trip!’ That was a happy bonus for me, and I’m very glad they incorporated it.”

Todd, a software project manager at Bausch + Lomb, and the other members of his cohort flew to Panama City at the beginning of October and spent a week there, meeting with local business officials, touring the Panama Canal and taking a boat ride to an Emberá village where they got to interact with members of the indigenous tribe and experience their culture.

Online MBA students doing a walking tour through Panama City

Online MBA students take a walking tour in the historic part of Panama City.

Much of the trip was devoted to consulting with the owner of Espacio LAR, an architecture and construction company specializing in building houses and commercial spaces using a prefabricated modular architecture that aims to be high-style and sustainable. The project was a central part of their capstone course “Strategy Formulation and Implementation,” taught by John Palmer, an associate teaching professor in the Department of Global Management and Leadership. The three-hour course is one of the final requirements before they complete their degrees later this month.

“Espacio LAR gave us three challenges, and we’ve been writing our final report that summarizes those,” said John Pimmel, another member of the cohort who took part in the trip and who serves as the director of partnerships and strategic planning at The Little Bit Foundation.

Each of the students signed agreements preventing them from discussing the details of internal business operations, but they generally enjoyed having to dive into problems that they hadn’t thought about before, investigate the issues involved and come up with solutions.

“I do social work right now, supervising a team in St. Louis for the state of Missouri, so that is where a lot of my work and my focus has been for the last eight years,” said Caitlyn Roth, an adult protective community supervisor with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. “Doing a business consulting plan has been very much outside of my wheelhouse. It was definitely eye-opening, seeing what the company was asking for and what we could deliver in a finished looking project.”

Online MBA students tour the Panama Canal

The students toured the Panama Canal and heard about the critical role it plays in global trade.

The project was intended to give students the chance to apply the lessons they’d learned over the past 16 months.

“Working with the customer was obviously really, really cool,” Todd said. “It’s one of those things where there’s a school assignment, there’s papers to write, there’s things that you do and it’s all kind of in the theoretical, but then when you go down there, it’s like, ‘No, this is this guy’s business. He’s asking for advice.’ It just became a lot more real. It wasn’t a paper we were writing. It was his business, his future. It was really a neat opportunity.”

It wasn’t the only highlight from the cohort’s week in Panama. They met with officials from the American Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Panama and visited the offices of Copa Airlines, the country’s flag carrier, to gain insight into how businesses operate.

Panama has gained a reputation for producing some of the world’s best coffee, and they visited a roaster for Café Unido, which has coffee shops throughout Panama City as well as two locations in Washington, D.C. They learned a bit about the history of the company and sampled a variety of different coffee, including Geisha, dubbed the “World’s Most Exotic Coffee,” which retails for $12 per cup in its Washington shops.

For some students, the most memorable experience was their visit to the Emberá village, which they accessed by canoe boats traveling on the Chagres River.

UMSL Online MBA students visit an Embera village in Panama

The Online MBA students spent a day in an Emberá village, learning about the culture of the indigenous tribe.

“Going to see where they’re living and have them cook for us and getting to hang out for four or five hours in the jungle, where they have guard dogs to protect against Panthers and other large cats that happen to live in the area – that was, by far, one of my favorite things,” Roth said. “Doing some research going into Panama, I knew that that was something that I wanted to do if we were going to have free time – which we didn’t really have any free time because they planned our time eight or nine hours a day. I knew that there were definitely some opportunities to engage with the people there a little bit more and just how much they needed assistance in trying to preserve their way of life but also giving their children the best educational opportunities that they could.”

As Roth and her classmates learned, the nearest high school was about an hour away and had to be accessed by boat and bus. But the UMSL group brought some school supplies to share with the villagers and raised a little bit of money that was donated to the tribe.

Francesca Ferrari, UMSL’s director of graduate business programs, has been coordinating international business trips like this for almost a decade, beginning with students in the PMBA program – a precursor to the Online MBA. She’s led groups to Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Cuba, Costa Rica, Peru and now Panama.

“It gives the students the opportunity to explore a different country, different culture, different way to do business,” Ferrari said. “It helps them think globally. The students were very excited because part of the process was to learn about the country, not just the company. They needed to do a lot of research before working on the specific business issue that they were trying to help the company to solve.”

Opal Jones, a graduate of the PMBA program and the president and CEO of the nonprofit DOORWAYS, was one of several alums to join them on the trip to Panama.

“I’ve had the good fortune a few times now when Francesca’s reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, do you want to go on this trip with us?’” Jones said. “I always say yes if I can swing it because it’s just so much fun. It’s also a learning experience, first and foremost, getting to understand business and commerce and how the economy works in these other countries to which we might not normally be attuned. And also understanding their relationship to the U.S. – from that international perspective. It’s been wonderful.”

She’s also appreciated the chance to interact with the students, to learn about them, the industries they work in, what made them return to school and where they want to go next in their careers.

The students in Panama were also still learning about each other. Though they’ve been taking online courses together the past 16 months, they’d only had one or two chances to meet in person, including their orientation, before meeting at St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

But they were amazed how at ease they felt spending nearly all their time together throughout the week.

“I like the asynchronous format, but it was nice to spend some time with some of my classmates, outside of the screen,” Pimmel said. “We got to have some drinks and conversations, hear where everybody’s from and what they’re doing, why they’re there. So, I thought that was great.”

They completed their final report in late November and are eagerly awaiting commencement at the end of this week.

“I’m very happy with the program – what I’ve learned, what I’ve been able to grow in,” Todd said. “It’s been immensely valuable. I’m no longer at the company I started at. I’m at a different company, so I’m kind of starting fresh there, but they did like that I was pursuing my MBA. I think it’s going to be a boon regardless of where I go from here.”

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Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik

Eye on UMSL: The flavor of homecoming
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Senior business major Jalen Walker-Wright gets a cup of southwest chili from Vanessa Loyd and Erin Schaeffer during last Thursday’s homecoming Chili Feed.

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