Study Abroad and Alumni Engagement Reinvented in the Covid-19 Era

Wei Loon Leong

Director, International Alumni Engagement at University at Buffalo, State University of New York

Learning Objectives

The presentation describes how the University at Buffalo School of Management Global Programs to China is reinvented in the COVID-19 era. The study abroad experience is expanded to include China, Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore despite travel restrictions. Alumni of the University in those countries are asked to help with projects and mentoring students in a virtual manner.

Key Takeaways:

  • Learn how to run a virtual study abroad program

  • Learn how to engage your constituents virtually and effectively despite a lack on in-person engagement

  • Learn how to be think outside the box and remain positive despite unprecedented challenges

"The fact that it's being virtual, we're able to expand the corporate projects to other countries besides China. "

Wei Loon Leong

Director, International Alumni Engagement at University at Buffalo, State University of New York


Hello, welcome to another presentation of a Quartz Network. My name is Wei Loon Leong, Director of International Alumni Engagement at the University of Buffalo State University of New York. Today, I’ll be sharing with you a Study Abroad Alumni Engagement Reinvented in the COVID-19 Era.

My role at the University of Buffalo is to enhance the student experience further institutional research and work together with our campus partners to seek philanthropic support from our alumni to advance the vision and mission of the university. University of Buffalo was founded in 1846. It is currently the public university, and it is the largest and most comprehensive campus in the 64 Campus SUNY system. It is a member of this Association of American Universities, a group of elite universities across North America. It is located in Buffalo, New York, western part of New York State to be exact, very close to the Canadian border where Niagara Falls is.

We have a student body of close to 32,000 students as of fall 2019. We have 2500 faculty, and we have a little over 6000 full time equivalent employees. Our alumni are over 273,000 resigning in 150 countries. We have more than 141,000 in New York state alone. For international alumni, we have 14 International chapters in Canada, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey, and UAE is our newest chapter, which was actually establish the summer doing COVID-19.

The following are actually our top five international chapters across the world. Historically, we have graduated over 10,000 graduates from China. We know there is a little over 3400 right now resigning in China. Singapore still remains as our largest chapter—we have close to 4500 Alumni residing in Singapore. That is because we have a partnership program in Singapore that has over 15 years old. We started EMBA program with a partner in Singapore in 1996. That actually began our journey to an undergraduate program, which currently has over 1800 students annually. We graduate about 400 students every year.

This is a map of all the international chapters that I’ve shared with you, closest to us being Canada, Mexico. Then, in the Middle East, we have Turkey, we have UAE, we have India. In China, we have Japan and Korea. Then, we have Taiwan, Hong Kong, we have Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.

Like I mentioned, I work very closely to enhance our student experience with all of our goal all of our campus partners in engaging our alumni. One of the partners that I work very closely with is actually the Global Programs team at a school management at the university. So what is Global Programs? Global Programs actually offer School of Management students study abroad opportunities in Africa, Asia, Central America, Europe, and North America. The destinations that we offer right now include Ghana, China, India, Costa Rica, Hungary, and cities in the US, including Boston, Silicon Valley, Austin, Texas, and the closest to us Niagara Falls right now.

For the China program, which I’m a part of, actually I am a co instructor of the course that brings students to China every year. We actually include Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong in this course and the trip every year. The course consists of a class in the fall semester. The class talks about international business practices. It also includes a corporate consulting project that the students will work with our project sponsors every semester. It is a 15 week course. The students will be working on consulting projects with our project partners that are real world projects that will actually help our project partners with some of the problems and challenges that it has.

In the winter break, which is right after new year January 1st, we depart for two weeks to Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. That will involve some leisure and corporate visits. So we do the sightseeing and the touristy things, but at the same time, we also include company visits to make sure that we expose our students to all the companies in China. They are hosted by our alumni residing in China as well. When they visit, they also present their consulting project presentation to our project sponsors in China, which is something that has been going on for a while now.

This is a map of how our itinerary is. We start from Beijing. After four days in Beijing, we take the high speed train from Beijing to Shanghai, and we spend another five days in Shanghai. And after that, we take a flight to Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, we spend four days, and after that we return home to the US.

The following are some some pictures that we took,when we did our trip, when we were still able to travel as early as soon as this past January. So the students, they actually visit companies that are sponsors of the projects that I mentioned, and also some of the companies that are hosted by our alumni in China. One of them is Volkswagen. Volkswagen is actually a project sponsor as well. The students have been working on customer service plans for the electric vehicles in China for Volkswagen. So they’ve actually worked on this for two years now. They actually appreciate our work. So now they’ve actually implemented this customer service plan, which has our input from the from the students.

At all these cities that we visit, we make sure that besides visiting our alumni at their companies, we do host and alumni reception at the cities in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong. This is one in Beijing, and the high speed rail that takes about five hours from Beijing to Shanghai. The students thoroughly enjoy it. It goes on every speed of 350 kilometers per hour, and it’s on time. We prefer this mode of transportation rather than taking a flight, because flights are always prone to delays and weather disruptions.

In Shanghai, we visit companies, the same practice that we do in Beijing. This is a picture of visiting the Shanghai office of Rich Products. Rich Products as a global food products supplier with this global headquarters right here in Buffalo, New York. Their Asia Pacific headquarters is actually in Shanghai. So we actually visit the Shanghai office to present the presentation for the corporate consulting project that the students help them with.

In the past years, we have worked on new products for the China market. Also, looking at the feasibility of starting another production facility in the Asia Pacific region, and also looking at our strategies for for the business. Now, in Shanghai, we do the same thing as what we do in Beijing. We visit companies. This is a picture of the General Motors partner in China, which is Shanghai Automotive. The students get to see how some of the General Motor branded cars in China, in Shanghai are being made. This particular plant that we visited, the students managed to see the newest production line that manufactures the Cadillac STS in Shanghai.

In Shanghai, we have an all alumni event. We try to expose our students to the Chinese culture. In this case, because in January is very close to the Lunar New Year, it is a tradition for the Chinese to have Chinese Calligraphy for, well wishes, best wishes for decorating their homes. So in this case, at the alumni event, our students work with our alumni in Shanghai to come up with a set of calligraphy, and the students have had to present and pronounce the words. That gives them a few of the Chinese culture. Same thing, the students besides visiting some of the landmarks and touristy locations in Shanghai, we also have an alumni event in Shanghai for our students to get to know our alumni as well.

We move on to Hong Kong. This picture was actually taken at Asia headquarters for HSBC bank. HSBC Bank is a global bank. The presence in Hong Kong is pretty significant. This picture was taken at the HSBC building in on Hong Kong Island. Then, in Hong Kong Island, we actually have an alumni reception for our students to get to know our alumni as well.

So COVID-19 hits. COVID-19 has actually presented significant challenges for us in terms of travel to China. As much as we want and hope to travel to Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong for this coming winter break, but unfortunately, we’re not able to do so. Now, with most of the programs being moved to virtual, we actually moved our program this course to virtual as well. The fact that it’s being virtual, we’re able to expand the corporate projects to other countries besides China. We managed to extend it to Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, all under the support of our alumni and corporate partners in these countries.

Now, in Japan, the project is the consulting project that students are working on. It’s about product offering expansion. So the company is looking at expanding their product offering for their Japan market. The way it works out is we have our project sponsors in Japan offer the project to students and guide them. But at the same time, our alumni in Japan also project mentors to make sure that our students are doing the right thing. They are being coached and being offered advice on some of the business practices in Japan.

For Vietnam, it’s the same project from the same company. They’re looking at another expansion of their product offering in Vietnam. It is actually coordinated by a manager in the Shanghai office, which is the Asia Pacific headquarters. Our alumni in Japan and Vietnam are also mentoring of students on this on these projects.

For Singapore, even though we haven’t been traveling to Singapore in the past, including Japan and Vietnam, we managed to have a project that our alumni is sponsoring as well. The project that the students are working on for Singapore involves a post COVID-19 business strategy for recruitment. It is a project that our alumni is sponsoring. He is a Senior Consultant as a recruitment services firm in Singapore. So this project is sponsored. We also have alumni in Singapore mentoring our students on giving them advice and thoughts on how to really make this project has success.

In the course of this course as it’s being offered virtually over Zoom this semester, we also include class presentation by guest speakers and alumni from China, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam. So overall, we are expanding this course to not just a China course, but also more so of a East Asia course where students are actually learning more about East Asian countries in one class. So the students are engaging in real world, very hands on consulting projects, which not only they learn a lot about business practices and solving problems, it is also a very good resume builder for our students.

In this case, our alumni engaged with our students, and they’re benefiting from some of the innovative solutions from our MBA students. They are students who have gone through a lot of corporate strategy courses, critical thinking, data analytics, and whatnot. So these students are able to provide solutions that sometimes our alumni or our product sponsors are not able to think of because they’re in the company themselves. It’s always helpful to have a third party to look at it on a neutral and third party insight manner, and our project sponsors should definitely appreciate help.

When it comes to company project sponsors, the project sponsor for Japan and Vietnam project this year, and also in the past years, is the company headquartered here in Buffalo. They are actually benefiting from the support provided by our students. So we are engaging, not just our alumni, we are engaging our community here. We’re helping companies in the community, and these students are learning at the same time, being able to help these companies solve their challenges and their problems.

So what are the keys to success? The keys to success is to constantly be innovative. Resilient is very key. Never be afraid to ask. The pandemic hit in March. Our whole university has to transition to virtual VA within a shorter amount of time. Over the summer, we have to adjust how this course is being delivered. Because in the past prior to COVID, we were delivering the class in person, and we were able to travel to China in the winter break.

Now with all these challenges with travel, and also in person classes, we have to pivot very rapidly and reimagine and reinvent how the course is being delivered. So we have to really be resilient, innovative, and at the same time, not not give up. We have to seek opportunities during challenging times. We have to be collaborative, and think outside the box. This course was planned together over the course of the summer. But at the same time, we always work with different project sponsors ad alumni, seek their feedback, ask them for help, ask them for for input, ask them for feedback on how we could deliver this course and involve them in the process.

The other key very important key here is alumni. Alumni is a gem. I cannot emphasize more of this. An alumni, on the Quartz Network, I understand that osts that will involve chief marketing officers and also colleagues from the corporate war. Don’t overlook alumni. Alumni, whether they can be recent graduates of your management development courses or former employees, the most important thing is to leverage the relationship, manage the relationship well, and they will be more than happy to help. They are a very significant group of people who are always raising their hands, asking for ways to really help you. So never overlooked alumni and their value. At the same time, you know, make sure that they are involved in the process so much so that they feel ownership and being a part of this wonderful journey that you’re overseeing.

During this time, be entrepreneurial. Never give up. Be always on the lookout for opportunities. The pandemic is a good way to challenge yourself. Also, be curious and also take risks. Risk is always out there. You just manage it well, making sure that you work with other partners across the your field, and also across the world. Again, I can’t overemphasize the value of alumni in this journey. This is how our experience at the University of Buffalo is. We have managed to reinvent how the study abroad experiences is. It is the Study Abroad term technically. The first time someone thinks of study abroad, it is travel.

With what is happening now, travel is a challenge, but we’re still managing the academic experience of our students really well. For the students, in this case, it is going through one course and learning about all these East Asian countries. Even though they may not be able to travel right now, but they are learning ahead of time, and they are able to learn more than one country right now with the hope of being able to travel, live, or work in these countries in the future.

I want to thank Quartz Network for the invitation to share with you my thoughts. I welcome your feedback and your input. My contact information is at the first slide. I look forward to hearing from you, and be able to help if you have any questions and thoughts you would like me to help. Have a good day. Bye bye.

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