Prepare for Life: Thunderbird’s BEC Program

By Emma Livingston, Co-Editor

“Thunderbird for me is a life-changing decision,” said Bhavana Raina (MGM ’17, India). “I wanted to be a part of Thunderbird for the past four years. I had it at the back of my mind, but immediately you can’t take a decision to quit your working career when you’re doing well. It’s a decision of life, when you decide that you are going to put everything on the side and once again start with studies. For me it was a very passionate choice. I wanted to come to the US. I am from advertising background, sales, so I wanted to work in the US as well. Thunderbird has given me the platform. For me it’s a great decision.”

Bhavana Raina

For Bhavana, as well as many other international students who take the life-changing decision to come to Thunderbird, the first stop on their educational journey is Business English Communications (BEC), a 6 to 12 week course aimed at boosting their business English comprehension and preparing them for the rigorous Thunderbird course work. Originally designed as a straight-forward ESL class (when it was called Pre-MBA), the course took a more business orientation when Professor Steven Gemmiti took over as Academic Director in 2011, after teaching in the program since 2001. “What we heard from students,” he said, “is that they didn’t feel prepared for classes once they entered the business program.”

The new BEC program is continuously evolving, adjusted with each iteration based on feedback from program alums, and in its current form consists of four classes:

  1. Academic and Business Writing Skills
  2. Business Presentation Skills
  3. American Business and Cross Cultural Communication – A class that teaches about classroom expectations and business culture in the US.
  4. Critical Thinking Through Case Studies – Teaches students how to read and analyze a business case and how to cope with graduate school work load.
Analyzing case studies (photo courtesy of
Analyzing case studies (photo courtesy of

While students find value in each of the classes, the case studies class stood out as an extremely useful preparation for Thunderbird graduate studies. Jorge Cespedes (MBA ’15, Peru), who went through the program in Summer, 2014 said, “With Steve Gemmiti, you passed through every single paragraph, every single word of that business case. You had to understand what’s happening.”

Bhavana, who went through BEC in Fall, 2015 said, “We did a lot of business cases in BEC and my experience was it was a good transition back into studies after so many years of working.” She also found that the intensive training in reading and analyzing business cases helped her in one of her first classes in which the midterm exam consisted solely of writing about case studies.

The classroom experience is just as engaging as the course content in the BEC program. “People come in with different backgrounds,” says Professor Gemmiti. “Just as an example, the last iteration we did in the Fall, we had a 25 year old woman from China and a 43 year old gentleman from Nigeria. Absolutely brilliant the disparity between them and the difference in their background. To have the differing experiences in the classroom changes the way the discussions go. I’ve been here 15 years and I’ve never had the same arguments in class repeated. There’s always a different perspective. So it’s equally a learning process for myself. I really have to be engaged.”

Buffalo Chip Saloon in Cave Creek (photo courtesy of
Buffalo Chip Saloon in Cave Creek (photo courtesy of

In addition, the BEC course gives students the opportunity to learn about American and Arizonan culture outside the classroom. Professor Gemmiti takes students to First Tuesday / Last Thursday sessions to practice their networking skills. He has taken them to the Heard Museum to learn about Native American culture. And, in what has become one of the most talked about rituals of the BEC program, he takes students to a cowboy bar, Buffalo Chips Saloon, in Cave Creek (which, unfortunately, burned down this past winter). “You hear so much about the cowboy culture here, why not take them to a cowboy bar?” Professor Gemmiti explained. “Every Friday it has an open rodeo. To go see live bull riding…it is every stereotype you can imagine. You have people decked out in chaps, cowboy hats…The people are really accepting of all cultures that come in. They do the whole Star Spangled Banner, they do a religious prayer…you couldn’t ask for something better.”

Although the BEC program is required only for international students who receive a TOEFL score of less than 100, Professor Gemmiti, as well as many Thunderbird students, believe that the BEC program has value for any non-native English speaker, and even for native speakers as well.

Mohamed Vall (MBA ’16, Mauritania), who did not go through the BEC program, was impressed at how well-prepared BEC alums were for their graduate school studies. “Because I didn’t take BEC,” he says, “the first module was super difficult for me. I never studied in English, just passed the TOEFL.” He found the learning curve for his English language graduate level business classes to be extremely high, compared with classmates who had gone through the rigorous BEC training.

Now that Thunderbird has been acquired by ASU, what is the future of the BEC program? For now, the program is staying on the Thunderbird campus with Professor Gemmiti as the academic director. Although all the Thunderbird faculty have been replaced by professors from ASU’s Global Launch program, Professor Gemmiti says, “I’ve tried to choose new faculty that have the idea that the end product is really what you’re driving at.” He says that as of now, the BEC program is specifically tailored to students entering the Thunderbird program. “The reason it is successful is because it’s niche market differentiated. These are people coming into an International Master’s program and the curriculum we use is specifically geared toward that.” However, “We want to see other offshoots of this grow.”

To sum up the end goal he has in mind for the program, Professor Gemmiti said, “We just want the program to be as strong as possible so that the people who go through it will have a better opportunity of finding their dream job at the end of it.”

For Jorge Cespedes, the BEC program fulfilled this expectation, and more. “It prepared me for life,” he said. “For my entire life. After the BEC, I said I’m now going to be an MBA no matter what. I’m ready to succeed in life.”

BEC Class of Summer, 2014 (photo courtesy of Jorge Cespedes)
BEC Class of Summer, 2014 (photo courtesy of Jorge Cespedes)

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