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The Thunderbird Mystique

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On Friday, I graduated with an MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management. This palm and cactus desert oasis has challenged, frustrated, and at times even vexed me. Like most of my cohort, I feel a mix of emotions upon leaving -- the things I wanted to study more, the case studies I will re-read, what it took to get here, and the friends from the over 60 countries on campus that I will miss.

When I first decided to attend Thunderbird, I was looking for an environment akin to the one I was leaving. The school is often called the "United Nations of business," a perfect moniker, considering I had just left the UN's Department of Public Information. I was a press officer for the General Assembly, covering speeches of global leaders. At Thunderbird, I would be exposed to other world leaders, but they would be from the world of business.

Coming to Arizona was not an obvious choice, especially since I already went to graduate school at Columbia and live in New York. There are also countless top MBA programs in the region, which would be much simpler to attend, without the strain of commuting, time or expense.

But the mission of the school intrigued me, as well as a top ranking in its specialty of international business. Alums from around the world spoke of the "Thunderbird mystique," which is something I did not really understand until I got to campus. The heart and soul is found within the open spirit, curiosity and global mindset of the students. A sample of my fellow MBAs included an Iraqi diplomat, a Nigerian doctor, an Indian wealth manager, a Chinese banker, and more. Other friends I met were from Macedonia, Nepal, Ecuador, Russia, France, Lebanon, South Sudan, and more. They would regale me with tales: "I am going to work in Shanghai this summer" or "I just came back from Tunisia," and "Did you hear I am moving to South Africa?"

And yes, there were Americans too -- but unique in their ability to cross cultural boundaries. They were also global explorers. I was blessed with a diversity of nationality, cultures, thought, industry and life experience. More importantly, my super smart cohort challenged me to look at the world from unusual angles.

We are in America; most schools have diversity. But Thunderbird offered something else that is difficult to explain: a community with a fierce loyalty to the ideals of creating sustainable prosperity around the world, and an openness to study, learn about, and instantly travel to do business in far-flung corners of the globe -- in cities and places many have never heard of. After all, as one of the school's early leaders put it: "Borders frequented by trade seldom need soldiers."

What always struck me was the instant bond between Thunderbirds, no matter what country in the world they were from. They had an outward love of humanity that I had rarely seen outside places like the UN. Thunderbird was like a religion -- T-birds, as we are called, ate, drank, breathed and dreamed about all things international. It was not simply about a desire to do global business; it was about a passion for building bridges between countries.

It has been an amazing ride; however, shortly after I arrived, the school hit roadblocks that threatened its existence. I have never been clear on exactly how the fiscal problems began, but it was obviously very serious. Several academic institutions proposed partnerships that would save the school. It has been a challenge.

As the year wore on, independent groups of alums and faculty from all over the world decamped to propose alternatives. They unleashed an avalanche of online petitions, proposals, and PR. Word crisscrossed the globe. Wealthy alums offered to help finance a bail out. Suffice it to say, the tremendous uproar on all sides -- for and against the proposed (but now dead) Laureate alliance -- led to only one conclusion: the international outcry meant that obviously something irreplaceable was at stake, and it was not simply the loss of an MBA program.

After almost two years here, an international curriculum developed over seven decades, and overseas trips to China, Brazil, and UAE, I understand what is at risk: the loss of an ideal and the prospect of losing the global DNA and spirit that lives by them. Such a death would be tragic.

A few nights earlier, my classmate consoled me, saying that the "Thunderbird mystique" will live on, the school will move forward, for better or worse. As he put it: "You see, it is not the institution that will hold the school together, it is the students here that will remain forever in our hearts. I am a better person for having been here."

As I sat Friday, with hundreds of my fellow T-birds, I know that he is right. I also knew this might be the last time I will see many of these friends. They will return to their home countries and leave for places in the four corners of the globe. I've spent the last two years steeped in the ideals of creating global prosperity that have made Thunderbird renowned. I am eternally grateful.