By Casey Sutton
I was awkwardly juggling a water bottle, a notepad and a Dunkin Donuts styrofoam coffee cup as I scurried into the DLC room of the Yount building. Giacomo Paccione, the president of TSG, was just a few feet behind me. Even though we arrived at 8:50AM and believed we were ten minutes early to the start of the Board of Trustees meeting, it was apparent the meeting had been in session for quite some time. Anthony Dezilva, the Executive MBA representative to TSG, was already coolly seated behind his assigned name tent. Giacomo and I immediately joined him.
In just a few minutes Anthony, Giacomo and I were scheduled to give a presentation to the Board of Trustees on students’ sentiment at Thunderbird. As I flipped through my notes, I thought about my recent interactions with fellow students, and the previous night’s deliberation with Giacomo and Anthony regarding the message we wanted to convey to the BOT. The same plethora of questions that had riddled me for weeks abruptly flooded my mind: “What are students truly concerned about?” “What can be done to improve students’ Thunderbird experience?” “Given the current uncertainty, what is the best way for students to move forward?” Suddenly, a bright flash illuminated the dim room, and our PowerPoint presentation was cast onto the wall. As we stood and the microphone approached us, I was unexpectedly struck with an intense sense of calm. I knew that the following three-part report represented students’ sentiment to the best of our ability:
Part 1: Issues we see
Morale – Low student morale continues to be an issue carried over from last trimester. This change has manifested itself in various ways including a general sense of disengagement on campus, and a deflated sense of identity as a Thunderbird.
Poor Communication – Although communication between the school and students has increased since last trimester, there is a continued need for improvement.
Unclear Future for Students – Students want to know more about the path that lies ahead for their school. They want to be reassured that their degree will hold its value over the course of the next five, ten or 20 years.
Brand Persistence – It is not enough to keep the doors of the institution open. Thunderbird must find the right partner that will honor the legacy of the institution.
Part 2: What we’re doing
Improving Student Life – With student morale issues visible, TSG broke with tradition and organized a summer Regional Night and ThunderCares event. Both events proved extremely successful, and served as proof that the Thunderbird student spirit is rapidly rebounding.
“Your success is my success” – This umbrella initiative serves to empower students as uncertainty leaves some anxious about the future value of their degree. This plan seeks to unite MBA, MA/MS, Exec MBAs, and On-Demand students, as well as all alumni, staff and faculty, in order to maximize students’ Thunderbird experience. It looks to create mentorship and networking opportunities for current students, while also reminding them that their success is an asset to their classmates, and vice versa.
Peer Learning – This initiative falls perfectly under the umbrella of “Your success is my success” – it encourages student-led workshops where hard skills can be transferred among peers. This will ensure that students from around the world can share their knowledge and perpetuate the competitive edge that Thunderbirds enjoy in the global business environment.
Part 3: Our path forward
Shared Passion – We acknowledged that before anything else, we have to realize that everyone in the room still talking is a testament to the passion we share for Thunderbird. We highlighted that we are all fighting and hoping for the same thing: A future we can all be proud of… a future that inspires us! We also stressed that no matter what, we are all Thunderbirds. As Thunderbirds, we know that we can call on each other to discuss and resolve anything. We encouraged everyone to put aside entrenched biases and politics to work together. We stressed that the TSG, alumni, professors, and staff are in communication and aligned.
Past-Based Conversation: Looking in the rear view mirror at what Thunderbird was will never paint a favorable picture of any potential solution. We are where we are. What matters is the future we create from here. We must work together to create that future, and we encouraged the Board not to talk to us, but to talk with us.
The lights flickered on, and a brief Q&A followed. The presentation was well received. More than anything, the message we conveyed to the BOT was that Thunderbird students are united. We gave the Board a call to action: Choose a partner that honors our institution’s legacy, and that can ensure the Thunderbird brand persists. The reputation of our school was built by business mercenaries who could be dropped into any part of the world and produce results. Although the world has changed, this passion for international business has remained constant at Thunderbird. I am confident that this genetic difference between our institution and every other business school will be carried far into the future, and continue to produce successful global citizens.