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Thunderbird global affairs program harnesses historic events of 2020

In Arizona State University’s first academic program based entirely at its Washington, D.C., location, an innovative graduate curriculum is giving the initial cohort deep insights into how to address the 21st century’s most complex leadership challenges.

Thunderbird School of Global Management offers its Executive Master of Arts in Global Affairs and Management (EMAGAM) at the Ambassador Barbara Barrett and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Washington Center at Arizona State University, a few blocks from the White House.

The EMAGAM, for midcareer and senior professionals in business, government and civil society, prepares graduates for leadership positions within their existing organizations or to make a bold move in their careers by switching organizations or even sectors entirely. The 2020 faculty includes eminent practitioners and scholars such as Anne-Marie Slaughter, Roland Kupers, Ann Florini and Landry Signé, who are tying deep dives in their areas of specialization with real-world problems that graduates will have to navigate at the helm of transnational organizations.

“Between the Fourth Industrial Revolution, climate change, and population growth, the 21st century is poised to see massive, complex disruptions that pose serious threats to our global civilization’s ability to prosper,” Thunderbird’s Director General and Dean Sanjeev Khagram said.

“Layered on top of that, COVID-19 has revealed a global need for expertise in managing systemic hazards. Our EMAGAM is designed to leverage everything the nation’s capital has to offer to teach just this type of expertise. Now the sweeping changes and accelerators of 2020 are providing even more amazing learning opportunities for this inaugural group of students who will graduate in December into a world that has rapidly evolved since they started the one-year program,” Khagram said.

Leveraging the disruptions of early 2020

Thunderbird launched the program in January before the coronavirus pandemic had been declared, and since the very first week, the faculty has adapted course instruction to integrate current events into the learning experience. As world history unfolded around the students, their classes quickly evolved to absorb the nuances behind the headlines into discussions and applied learning exercises, harnessing the powerful examples at hand. For instance, the EMAGAM curriculum explores global trends, establishing a framework for understanding how such patterns play out. Within this context, Thunderbird’s eminent professors leveraged their expertise to demonstrate how the virus was impacting societies and global organizations, breaking down the tough decisions faced by executives, policymakers, and other leaders.

In the program’s opening week, Florini introduced the idea of the systemic hazards posed by exponential change, a significant factor at play when pandemics spread. As the public health and economic situation has evolved, the class has returned to the pandemic and its fallout as a living case study full of actionable lessons.

“This master’s program helps me to think beyond. It empowers me to anticipate the scenarios I’ll have to face in the near future,” said Luciana Pereira, a midcareer professional from Brazil. “It’s teaching me how to prepare myself to take advantage of what is coming.”

One class with Slaughter on global networks led to additional instruction on the dynamics that unfolded between nations as the pandemic spread over the spring and summer and global businesses and governments alike struggled to adapt.

The students then reached out to Kupers for a special session on using a complex systems framework to analyze management challenges posed by the pandemic. Kupers held a deep dive into how a better understanding of complex network functions can inform policies that harness global networks for the common good. One student then used the concepts and methodologies he had learned to synthesize a pandemic management system for his government. A state minister who benefitted from the EMAGAM student’s synthesis then wrote a letter of gratitude to Thunderbird’s dean explaining how his country used the student’s synthesis in their approach to managing the pandemic.

By offering an analysis grounded in the complex environments in which transnational enterprises operate, the faculty outlined connections to the sudden upheavals this year has seen. The value of these connections is not lost on the students who will graduate from the new program in December 2020. Students say the lessons learned can be applied in any crisis.

“The courses are filling in some gaps in my own professional knowledge and matching my experience and knowledge to the very real challenges of the day,” participant Michael Nelson said. “This is a forward-looking program for professionals with a solid base who need to challenge their current ways of working and reframe their perceptions in order to achieve their goals at the next career level."

Capitalizing on historic learning opportunities all year long

The program culminates in the global leadership and strategy capstone course taught by Signé, which enables students to apply what they’ve mastered by addressing a specific real-world problem. The capstone pulls together the full set of 21st-century management capabilities required to excel at the top of a global organization.

“This group really impressed me and I know they will be ready to do big things when they graduate in December. Our first EMAGAM cohort is delivering as much value as the curriculum and faculty,” Signé said. “Everyone learns from everyone else, and it’s quite a spectrum of accomplished professionals in this program. Thunderbird achieves this feat by celebrating the inclusivity of its community and we proudly partner with multiple diversity initiatives to bring scholarships and fellowships to our students. These financial opportunities also come with access to Thunderbird’s worldwide network of professional relationships as well as career recruitment resources.”

Thunderbird’s inaugural EMAGAM marks the first time that residents of the capital area have earned an ASU degree fully based at the Washington location, and the yearlong program is turning out to be a fitting offering for an expectation-defying year.

“Doing this executive master’s in 2020 has been such an added value for me as a lifelong learner,” participant James Ersaw said. “I worked full time here in the Washington area through a global pandemic and civil unrest while I made lifelong friends who are tomorrow's global leaders. I wouldn't change a thing.”  

Mamadou Diallo appreciated getting more than he bargained for.

“I knew the faculty had rich experience in sustainable development but I was pleasantly surprised how they created an environment where the students see themselves as family,” Diallo said.

Violet Skeva said her investment was paying off well ahead of December’s graduation for the program’s first class.

“The professors and the curriculum have combined to transform my whole way of thinking about how global trends can be harnessed to benefit local communities,” Skeva said. “I can apply what I’m learning in my career right now.”