From the way we work to our lifestyle choices, the coronavirus pandemic dramatically changed many of our lives as we took the opportunity to reflect, focus on what matters and consider the future.
For many Irish based overseas, the thought of living under restrictive conditions thousands of miles from loved ones was enough to motivate a return home. Often this meant leaving behind careers and joining the 45 per cent of Irish professionals planning to change jobs due to the pandemic.
UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School saw an opportunity to empower and develop accomplished career switchers and returning emigrants to play a leading role in Ireland's post-pandemic recovery.
In 2021, the country's leading business school created four new annual Supporting Ireland's Recovery Scholarships, which cover 50 per cent of the cost of the internationally-recognised, on-campus full-time MBA for Irish citizens resident in the country or returning from abroad.
Welcoming home Irish talent
Experienced English language teacher, Paul McMahon, was among those searching for inspiration during this challenging time. "I graduated with a first-class degree in journalism in 2012 but decided to work as an English teacher for a year in China. One year turned into a career that took me as far afield as Russia and Saudi Arabia," he explains.
Sitting in his apartment in Saudi during the country's strict lockdown in March 2021, "too hot to do anything apart from contemplating," he says, Paul began researching options to return to Ireland to study.
Trade development professional Kim McNair was in Hong Kong when the outbreak began. As regional manager for The Irish Diaspora Loan Fund (IDLF), he had spent the previous 12 months supporting non-EU/EEA citizens to invest in Ireland in return for long-term residency under the Irish Immigrant Investor Programme (IIP). However, Kim hadn't expected his return to happen so quickly. "The pandemic compounded the political issues in Hong Kong, and brought with it new economic challenges," he reflects.
"I'd always wanted to do an MBA. My career exposes me to many different sectors, and I knew the Smurfit MBA would enhance my capacity to adapt to working across these industries," he explains. "I also saw it as an ideal opportunity to fill in gaps in my undergraduate education and experience, such as building my financial skills and developing my leadership potential. The scholarship was a blessing and allowed me to apply for the programme, probably a year or two before I expected to be in a position to do it."
Paul had applied to join another UCD programme when one of the school's expert recruiters recognised that his experience would lend itself better to the Smurfit MBA.
"I've earned a lot of qualifications in English language teaching, but I knew I could only go so far with it," he acknowledges. "In the Smurfit MBA, I saw the opportunity to experience something transformational that would open up so many new opportunities back home in Ireland and further afield. But without the scholarship, I could not have even thought about making the leap."
Building international and domestic networks
However, before they could take advantage of the opportunity, Paul and Kim had to pass either the Executive Assessment (EA) or the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT). Both notoriously challenging, these management education entrance qualifications assess competencies such as critical thinking, verbal reasoning and data interpretation.
The test, they both admit, set the tone for the Smurfit MBA's challenging academic curriculum and immersive experience delivered by an exacting international faculty of respected experts.
"The first few weeks of the programme in late August 2021 were a little overwhelming, with a huge amount of work," notes Kim. "You're immediately thrown into a situation where you are working with a small group of highly accomplished people from all over the world with diverse backgrounds and experiences. It's challenging but teaches you so much about working with people who have very different perspectives."
Paul agrees the international nature of the 12-month programme's cohort – 88 per cent of whom come from outside Ireland – is an enriching experience, but changing places in the classroom from teacher to student has been what's made him reflect most.
"What's impressed me is the quality of teaching and how skilled the faculty is at conveying a huge volume of information and demonstrating connections between the world of business and societal issues so engagingly. It was intense at first, but within a few weeks, I began to surprise myself with how well I adapted to the programme's intensity, and you start to look at the world differently."
"The lecturers consider the relationship between economics and the huge issues facing society, from the pandemic to climate change, through an ethical lens," Kim adds. "They equip you with the tools to cut through the gibberish of the business world and see opportunities to find enterprise-led solutions to these social challenges."
Just three months into the programme, the enterprising trade expert is already drawing on his international experience to put this into practice. He's leading a collaboration with Humanitarian Organisation Concern Worldwide to run workshops for the cohort, exploring opportunities to apply their developing capabilities to support organisations as they align their activities to the United Nations' 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
In addition to the international composition of the cohort, UCD Smurfit School's status as the only Irish member of the prestigious Global Network for Advanced Management (GNAM) provides participants significant opportunities to build a global network. GNAM is comprised of an elite set of 32 leading business schools, including Yale, Insead, Oxford and Said Business School, and boasts an active network of 4,000 alumni worldwide.
Closer to home, the outstanding reputation of the UCD Smurfit School and extensive business network provides the opportunity for students to rekindle domestic professional relationships, as well as to build new ones.
Leadership development opens a world of new possibilities
The return of the Smurfit MBA's international tours for 2022 as pandemic restrictions lift adds another global dimension to the programme.
This year participants will have multiple travel opportunities, which include visits to leading companies, as well as presentations and panel discussions from executives, government officials and entrepreneurs in Germany, Sweden and Portugal. These experiences not only add value around career development, but also enhance intercultural competence— a key 21st-century skill.
"The training we've received through the Leadership Development programme in areas such as intercultural competence and public speaking have really developed the cohort's soft skills to communicate effectively, understand ourselves better and lead diverse teams and organisations anywhere in the world," notes Kim.
Paul also says classes on organisational behaviour and leadership have helped him "learn better to appreciate where other people are coming from, be more patient and understanding."
Both are quick to acknowledge that taking time out of the workplace for a year is a challenging prospect for many people, but say the opportunity for the most motivated and ambitious to enhance their professional prospects is well worth the financial and time investment. The year dedicated to the MBA has proven to accelerate an individual's career progression and enables them to accomplish career goals quicker and more effectively.
The School's outstanding Careers Services Team— which the Financial Times ranked 8th in the world in its recent Master in Management Ranking— makes these opportunities even more accessible. In fact, the full-time MBA class of 2020 achieved an average of 77 per cent growth in earnings within three months of graduation, and 92 per cent were employed within five months of graduation.
"There's a common misperception that everyone who does an MBA wants to be Jeff Bezos, but it's not true. The experience has demonstrated the sheer number of options to take the next steps," says Paul. "Right now, I'm thinking of returning to the classroom to pursue a career in leadership development and training, but that may change by the time I complete the programme."
Kim does have entrepreneurial ambitions, which he's excited about "crystalising during the rest of the MBA experience and continuing to draw on UCD Smurfit School's outstanding career support and networks to explore new opportunities."
Applications for the next round of Supporting Ireland's Recovery Scholarships close on March 31st, for entry into the 2022 Smurfit MBA beginning in August. Find out more about how to apply and the relevant terms and conditions.
Learn more about UCD Smurfit School MBA programmes and join the Virtual MBA Insights Event on Thursday, February 17th.