After months of studying, 13 undergraduate and graduate students gathered supplies for their final exam: passports, plane tickets, and traveler’s guides to Peru.

In a first-of-its-kind course, “International Business in Latin America” offered an in-depth analysis of international business management and strategies. With a focus on business practices and the business environment in Latin American countries, the class also had the enticement of experiential learning at semester’s end: a weeklong trip to Lima and Cusco.

In Peru, the students met with businesses ranging from a nonprofit empowering local weavers to an international company producing automotive glass for luxury car manufacturers. The firsthand experiences, they said, were a powerful insight into strategies pursued by local and multinational corporations, the role culture plays in business, and issues around globalization and the political economy.

“Not only did I learn a lot on the many subjects covered in international business during the semester, but the hands-on experience of traveling together and experiencing a new business environment and culture firsthand was invaluable,” said Anders Lundberg, who is working toward a Master of Business Administration. “If given the opportunity I would certainly want to do something like this again.”

Four months later, with Peru’s borders closed and much of the United States under stay-at-home orders, memories of the January trip are still vivid in participants’ minds.

For business administration major Montserrat Enriquez, she can taste ceviche, aji de gallina, and picarones she and her classmates cooked during an experience to make a three-course meal. And she fondly remembers meeting the women employees of a small store in the remote town of Ollantaytambo, where they are learning leadership skills to start their own weaving businesses, and the thrill one night as she and her classmates explored the streets and spotted a business that had been the focus of an article they read earlier in the semester.

“The food was great but the people were even better. One of my favorite parts of this trip was getting the opportunity to meet companies and ask them questions. It was very informative and a personable way to understand international business,” said Enriquez. “I was shocked to see how many big companies get their supply from Peru. Since Peru is a growing economy, I can only imagine what the future has in store for them. Hopefully, in a couple of years, I can visit again and see their growth.”

The course was the brainchild of professor Mitch Casselman, who led a similar program at St. John’s University in New York for several years. There, as director of its Center for Global Business Stewardship, he led an inaugural trip to Chile and then to Ecuador, Uruguay, Argentina, and other countries. By the time he came to Chico State three years ago, 120 students were participating each year.

It took some time to launch a similar program at Chico State, but he now sees the class as a robust expansion on faculty-led study abroad programs.

“There is no question in my mind that they learned more in that week than in the entire semester,” said Casselman. “To actually see what is going on, they get a lot out of it. They don’t even realize they are learning, and they are learning a lot.”

Students pose with cut-out letters that spell "LIMA"
Exploring Lima’s history, culture, and businesses brought the lessons of the entire semester together.

The fall 2019 course was largely conducted online with several face-to-face meetings before the culminating trip in January 2020. Casselman chose the South American destination because it’s a stable and safe country for students to visit and it has an emerging economy with a thriving global market. If that wasn’t enough to tempt students, Casselman said with a laugh, it is home to Machu Picchu, one of the seven wonders of the modern world.

In between their business visits, eating ceviche, sampling pisco, and petting alpacas, the students enjoyed a trek to tour the ancient ruins. Standing together at 7, 972 feet, Casselman filmed himself speaking to what he hopes is the next group to enroll in this course: “This could be yours.”

Many students described the trip as “the experience of a lifetime.”

“Being able to meet with a variety of companies and with a variety of departments within each company helped us to apply the knowledge we learned throughout the semester in a very accessible way,” said business administration major Claire McAlister. “I feel that I will be able to apply more of the information learned within this course because we got to go to the country of focus and ask questions of the people working in the business environment.”

Casselman’s vision is that this initial course can expand to have other regional focuses. As a Hispanic-Serving Institution, Chico State is primed to focus on the population centers in Central and South America as they relate to business and many other disciplines, too.

Some of the students had not traveled outside the United States before, so that experience alone proved to be a rich and educational adventure. Whether working together to navigate a Spanish menu or dealing with luggage losses due to last-minute flight changes, “it does help them overcome any hesitation they may have in traveling overseas.”

He hopes the experience and the course will make them engaged citizens of the world. They know better how to interact with business colleagues from other cultures and are growing an interest in working in another country. For Casselman, it is critical to provide these experiences as, even before COVID-19, the United States seemed to be closing itself off from the world.

“I would love for the trip to spark a students’ interest so they at least have interest in working for a company in the United States with a global reach,” he said. “It’s hard for me to fathom a business that does not have an international reach of some sort.”

The idea of expanding his horizons and going where your career takes you is what prompted his own passion to explore the world. One of his first jobs asked him to go to Hong Kong, when he had never left the country before. Today, he’s been to dozens of countries for work and for pleasure, lived in Australia to earn his PhD in Melbourne, and taught in Italy for seven summers.

“If I can create that experience for students and they end up working in international business, they will think, ‘This is like that trip,’” he said.

He especially enjoys watching the lifelong friendships he knows students were building. Quite simply, they were happy and having fun, and in doing so, they were paying attention and connected with what they were learning—whether intentionally or more subconsciously.

“My biggest takeaway was that being out of my comfort zone can be a great way to challenge myself, and that is exactly what happened,” Enriquez said. “I trusted the process and I enjoyed meeting everyone who went on this trip and the people we met along the way.”