Collaborative Online International Learning, or COIL, brings together students and faculty from classes in universities around the world to work on a common project. And for the Fall 2020 semester, finance and international business professor Dante Suarez, Ph.D., took the perceived downsides of the pandemic—the asynchronous online classes, the lack of personal face-time with students, the limited scope of hands-on internships—and dug into the positives, opting to develop a creative COIL experience: bridging two classrooms, one in Texas and one in Mexico.
“In these pandemic times, it was up to me to create the kind of environment in which students still feel like they’re in a community,” Suarez says. “Even though the world is currently closed, students recognize they will eventually go out into a world that is wide open. I had to find a way for them to have the experiential component combined with the international component.”
During the first six weeks of the semester, Suarez’s classes focused on a partnership project with the North American Development Bank (NADB), a public institution created through NAFTA by the U.S. and Mexican governments to develop the border region. Suarez kicked off the partnership with the NADB by offering his student teams a choice: either they could take a comprehensive final at the end of the semester, or they could channel that extra work and energy into the experiential component of the course. Overwhelmingly, students chose the latter.
There’s no experience like the real world, Suarez emphasizes. “There are no silos,” he says. “The real world is interdisciplinary, often transdisciplinary, where artificial barriers between disciplines are blurred. This means we must take a holistic approach to all problems, informed by our backgrounds.”
The problem at the NADB? Working to determine ESG impact—the environmental, social, and governance factors—of a company in order to assess risk. Students participated in “mini-internships” where they helped NADB executives with complex tasks. Particularly for students majoring in finance, working with NADB helped them see the big picture of how the field does not exist in a vacuum, and that they can expect careers in which monetary, environmental, and social issues are permanently intertwined.
In order to institute a methodological approach to measure risks related with environmental and governance issues, one group calculated ESG impact on potential borrowers. Others considered the effects of securitizing companies’ assets via green bonds, and a third set analyzed the sustainable energy sector in the border region. Suarez notes that each of these projects needed to be viewed with an interdisciplinary lens in order to reach the best possible solutions, as all of the ESG impact factors—to cite just one example—come from different disciplinary backgrounds.
A presentation shows the environmental factors of a proposed business decision.
Four weeks and a dozen presentations later, the NADB was calling Suarez back for more. “I combined all of the presentations and executive summaries from the interns into a knowledge base for the company, so that people from different areas could tap into what the students had done,” Suarez says. “After seeing the presentations, Calixto wants everything!”
Calixto Mateos-Hanel is the managing director for the NADB and was part of the bank team who reviewed the Trinity students’ work. Having taught as an economics professor at the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (also known as TEC), one of Trinity’s sister schools, Mateos-Hanel knew what he was looking for from a group of students—and was blown away.
“By having the information the students gathered, we complement our understanding of these sectors and, in some cases, learn of additional opportunities to explore,” Mateos-Hael says. “This collaboration was of particular value this semester given the limitations the ongoing pandemic places upon gaining in-person professional and international experiences. We believe it is crucial for students to have the opportunity to work with professionals from an actual business or organization so they can have a better understanding of what to expect once they are ready to enter the workforce.”
Because of this partnership, some Trinity students are already entering the workforce—with their data and research, that is. Mateos-Hanel noted that the students’ findings and presentations were so helpful and professional that they may be woven into corporate presentations in the near future.
Tap in to Trinity Talent
“I have to admit, I’m kind of old-school,” says the professor who began internationalizing his classrooms more than two decades ago. Suarez has been instrumental in designing business and finance courses taught entirely in Spanish for the Culture and Languages Across the Curriculum program, in creating student service-learning opportunities with local nonprofit organizations, and in inviting students from Trinity’s sister institution, Monterrey Tec, to participate in the Stumberg Competition.
Suarez presents a lesson for Life Launch, a partnership program with the Battered Women’s Shelter to teach financial literacy, in April 2016.
“There’s a very rich array of different students who are crossing paths in these courses,” Suarez says, noting that he often sees students from economics, mathematical finance, international studies, and modern languages enrolled in International Finance. “The capability of speaking, reading, and writing well—here is where you really see the difference in a liberal arts education. You might not see the difference immediately, but very quickly a corporation or organization sees the liberal arts graduate as someone they need presenting, writing, and representing us.”
Trinity student representation at the North American Development Bank is just one example of the importance of hands-on experience when blending professional programs and the liberal arts. Trinity University also has an international partnership with BBVA Compass in which post-baccalaureate students hold 6-month internships at the BBVA Group Global Headquarters in Madrid, Spain, and with Tunghai University in Taiwan, where two graduates work in the English department and concurrently study Chinese for one year.
Peter Cavazos, who was vice president for corporate banking at BBVA Compass when the partnership was established, noted for a 2017 article that “BBVA internships give students the relatively unique experience of being a member of a global workforce, and the return for BBVA is in helping nurture the talent of tomorrow’s leaders. Through these internships, we expect that Trinity students will become both global citizens and global professionals.”
Bob Scherer, dean of the Trinity University School of Business, echoes Cavazos’ sentiment. “The liberal arts education provides the depth and the breadth our students need to be successful for lifelong learning and professional development,” Scherer says of the School. “Our way of doing business takes the personalized approach: preparing students to communicate well, be critical thinkers, and be good team players as well as individual leaders.”
Teams of student entrepreneurs from Monterrey Tec were invited to practice their pitches during Trinity’s Louis H. Stumberg New Venture Competition in March 2017.
“The School of Business and the liberal arts should be mixed in together—that overlap is so beneficial for both sides,” Suarez says. “Liberal arts students with a strong business background or Arts, Letters, and Enterprise certification make their degrees that much more valuable. For School of Business students, a broad background in the liberal arts makes them highly competitive candidates in their careers.”
Suarez would know: His research focuses heavily on synchronizing disciplines and methodologies into a common way of thinking and problem solving. He harkens back to the ESG model, noting that one can’t fully understand how an organization thrives “without understanding the environment or the social component of the company’s impact, and without understanding the psychology of the individuals who form that company and how they interact with each other to create a more just and ethical environment.”
Eating the World
Re-COIL, back to Finance 3361. After the NADB project, Suarez spent the remainder of the fall semester in partnership with Tec international business professor Agata Michalska Haduch and her course, “Desarrollo de Proyectos Regionales (Development of Regional Projects).” Together, they created 18 international teams, each consisting of students from Trinity and from Tec. The teams developed an international business plan for an import/export company or expansion into a Latin American market, and they presented these plans at the end of the semester.
A presentation shows the technological and legal factors of a proposed business decision.
“A lot of our students want to eat the world. They are eager not only to learn, but to learn more. This attitude is prevalent in both universities,” Suarez says of Trinity and Tec. “The entrepreneurial spirit permeates at Monterrey Tec, and our students benefit from seeing students eager to apply their knowledge in a real business setting. In turn, the Tec students benefit from our theoretical understanding of financial markets, rooted in our liberal arts mindset.”
Evinced countless times with Monterrey Tec—and now, for the first time with the North American Development Bank—international partnerships in the School of Business are here to stay, whether via Zoom or via trips across the border. “When you think about the effects that COVID-19 is going to have on the world—I think that these effects will be permanent,” Suarez says. “We will see work environments that are extremely different from what we had even a year ago.”
For Suarez, and for countless other professors at Trinity who have worked hard this semester to keep the international component a core part of their classrooms, well—it’s about time. “The genie is out of the bottle,” he says. “Students have imagined working for a company where one person in their department is in Miami, another one in Malaysia, another one in Shanghai, and another one in Paris. The opportunity to work with each other in class in this way is helping them develop a new component of oral-visual communication, a now-permanent staple of how communication happens.”