Eyeing a possible career in business, Adam McGrath thought hard about which undergraduate university program could help him stand out from the crowd.
"There are so many great degrees and I wanted to see how I could get a competitive edge," says the 19-year-old Ajax, Ont., resident. "What would make me different from somebody else?"
He found the answer in a business program – believed to be unique in Canada for its mandatory provisions for study and work abroad – offered at the Scarborough campus of the University of Toronto.
A growing number of undergraduate business programs offer voluntary study abroad opportunities, but the specialist in management and international business at U of T-Scarborough goes further on several counts. Introduced last year, the four-year degree includes a mandatory component of study abroad (one semester) followed by a semester-long paid work placement in the same country. The program also includes a paid co-op work term in Canada and a requirement that students take four language courses to develop some minimum proficiency.
"We are really trying to reinvent business education at the undergraduate level," says David Zweig, chair of the management department at U of T-Scarborough, with a program emphasis on producing well-rounded graduates able to work in different cultures. Often overshadowed by U of T's high-profile MBA program at the Rotman School of Management, the Scarborough campus is the university's only location that offers paid co-op work experience for undergraduates while in school.
For 20 years, the Scarborough campus has offered a four-year bachelor of business administration that now takes in about 400 students a year, half of whom take co-op education. The management department's co-op office works with more than 350 employers to find local (and now international) paid work experience for students.
By contrast, U of T-Scarborough's new specialist undergraduate degree takes only a small cohort of academically-strong students who demonstrate leadership, problem-solving skills and an interest in international business global affairs.
As one measure of interest, the management department received more than 700 applicants last year for its initial intake of 40 students that included Mr. McGrath. Some dropped out, leaving a core group of 30 students. This year, 40 students made the cut from more than 800 applications.
Business student interest in overseas study is higher than that for the rest of students on campus. A modest 11 per cent of all university undergraduates study abroad, according to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.
At the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business in Vancouver, 35 per cent of third-year students opt to spend a semester abroad, up from 17 per cent in 2008. Last May, 40 Sauder students chose an international business option that includes a mandatory study abroad provision, compared with 51 in 2012.
By contrast, about 85 per cent of third-year commerce students at Queen's School of Business in Kingston voluntarily sign up for a semester-long academic exchange at an overseas business school. Queen's has exchange agreements with 60 universities in 30 countries, enabling a two-way flow of domestic and foreign students.
With support from Cansbridge Capital Corp., Queen's provides $600 a week to cover expenses for second- and third-year commerce students who, on their own, land a six- to 10-week paid summer internship in Asia.
At the University of Victoria's Gustavson School of Business, 73 per cent of fourth-year bachelor of commerce students go abroad for a semester. The school has more than 80 exchange agreements with sister institutions in more than 30 countries.
Study and work abroad options that last a few days or weeks have their critics.
In an interview with the Financial Times in September, management studies professor Henry Mintzberg of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal and a respected contrarian on graduate business education, scoffed at short-stay experiences. "Taking the inexperienced into situations they can barely understand is voyeurism," he told the newspaper.
U of T-Scarborough's Prof. Zweig says, "I don't disagree with a lot of what Prof. Mintzberg says about management education."
But he emphasizes the Scarborough program's strategy is to give students fresh out of high school time to develop business skills.
"We are not presuming they can become leaders tomorrow," says Prof. Zweig. "What we are doing is giving them the experience they need to develop their tool kit to become successful leaders eventually."
Mr. McGrath, now in second year, is about to apply for his first domestic co-op job. In early 2015, he heads to Singapore for a semester of business studies at the National University of Singapore followed by another semester working for a company yet to be named.
English is widely spoken in Singapore, but Mr. McGrath is studying French at school and learning Mandarin on the side.
His overseas experience is still a year away, but he is excited about the "cool" opportunity it offers to burnish his career prospects.
"I haven't travelled much outside North America," he says. "It [the overseas experience] will help me on my résumé and help me as a person growand come back with that confidence to face what is coming to me in the future, academically or in the workforce."