Q&A: Students work and research for local companies
International business majors have joined with local companies to research how they can work together to expand business into foreign markets while preparing students for the real-life business world.
Tom Roehl, a Western professor of international business, has been teaching the course for over a decade. He has led students in over 100 projects for local companies, according to an article published in Alaska Airlines Inflight Magazine.
The course forces students to combine all of their materials and sources to handle a complex issue that may take them in unexpected directions, Roehl said.
“It is a parallel to the liberal arts for writing a senior paper,” Roehl said. “You do something on your own that is not something somebody is dictating. You pick it and execute it.”
Seniors Lora Sonnen and Wilson Doldier, took the course fall quarter 2015.
Sonnen is an international business and Spanish double major. Her group researched the feasibility of adding a passenger-rail stop in Blaine, Washington to the current Amtrak Cascade route. They worked directly with the City of Blaine Public Works Department.
Doldier is an international business and marketing double major. His group worked on testing and researching international markets for Faithlife, a bible software company located in downtown Bellingham.
Doldier specifically researched Russian markets because he is fluent in the language. Other group members researched Italian and Arabic markets.
Q: How did this project differ from other projects in your college career?
Doldier: When we presented our final presentation it was very informal. It wasn’t just standing up in front [and presenting.] We had a discussion with them and it felt a lot more natural, like something you would actually do in the real world.
Sonnen: I think [it differed because] it was so open-ended. They gave you a topic and just told you to run with it. There’s no rubric and no real guidelines. We basically create the project and the final product ourselves. It’s much more realistic in terms of what we are going to be doing after we graduate. Our bosses are not going to ask for a 20-page report with these elements so much as saying ‘solve this problem’ and you have to figure out a way to do that and present it in a way that the client appreciates.
Q: What did you find most difficult about the project?
D: There wasn’t really an outline. We didn’t have a lot of direction from [Roehl.] It was mostly from our advisor at Faithlife. We had to figure out that outline and structure for our presentation ourselves. It was good because it forced us to think outside the box, but it was much more difficult than normal presentations where the professor gives you steps and directions to follow for how they want it to go.
S: I think it comes back to not having many guidelines. I have spent my whole college career having a very specific end-product and goal in mind. [I am used to] having a process and a professor monitoring me along the way. Professor Roehl definitely helped and checked in along the way, but we were by no means babysat. It was difficult, but also fun.
Q: What/how was your experience working with a real company/organization?
D: It was very good. They were always very encouraging and encouraging and helped us along the way. I don’t know how it was working with other companies, but for us it worked out very well.
S: It was great. We worked with Ravyn Whitewolf, who is the City of Blaine public works director. She helped us navigate some of the bureaucracy that comes with working with a city government and all the different agencies that they are attached with and have to work with.
Q: What were some of the significant things you learned from this project?
D: Other than just taking away real world experience, I think the communication aspect of it [was important.] We had to realize we were communicating with professionals the whole time. In meetings we had to know how to conduct ourselves in a professional manner and have our stuff laid out before we met.
It gave it a more serious aspect of business and acting professionally. In presenting, even though it was a lot less formal, it was much more serious because it is something that the company is actually considering doing.
[For that reason,] you end up taking the project a lot more seriously than you would a project in a business class that at the end of the day the professor is just going to throw it out.
S: I think one of the most important take-aways was learning how to utilize the people and resources around me. Learning to make contacts was definitely a huge take-away.
Q: Why is this relevant to your education and the business world today?
D: I see myself being in the business world some day and I know that everything I did [in that class] was 100 percent applicable to what I am going to be doing. It is a good start and provides some good insight for what I have to look forward to, how to conduct myself and what kind of research needs to be done.
S: It factors into what we are going to be doing after we graduate. The project was so open-ended and our communication with the client was very much on us. We were given a lot more responsibility than is typically given in a classroom setting and because of that I think the skills we gained are going to translate very well to the sort of projects we have to complete in the business world when we graduate.
Q: How did doing this project change your views on the business world?
D: [The project] kind of opened my eyes as to the fact that I don’t think a lot of classes do enough to prepare students enough for the real world in terms of business etiquette and preparation. Capstone classes can do a good job, but a lot of other classes don’t go in depth and in detail on how to conduct yourself.
S: It was a change working in the public sector. That was a new experience for me and I think learning about all the bureaucracy was eye opening. It was something I hadn’t really considered before working in the public sector and learning how all those connections work. I honestly didn’t realize how many steps you have to go through in a public job to get anything done.
Q: How are you going to use this experience in the future?
D: Preparation. I am going to be a lot more prepared in anything I do. Comparing the first time we met with Faithlife and the last time we met, it was a whole different kind of meeting in terms of what we came to the table with and what we were ready to do and talk about with them. I think for any situation, whether it is an interview or your first project, if you come more prepared it will be a lot easier for you.
S: I will utilize my contacts more after this experience. I’ve realized how helpful it can be to reach out to people and how responsive they are. Also the ability to take initiative on my own and get things done without having a professor prodding you along the way.