By Sue-Min Koh
It was the first week of business school at Thunderbird School of Global Management, and you could see the eager anticipation on all the faces that came pouring into the AT&T auditorium. Dressed up in our best business suits and toting matching portfolios carrying dozens of resumes securely under our arms, we excitedly took our seats to listen to one of our first presentations in this new era of our lives. As we waited patiently for the presentation to start, a kind looking man with brilliant white hair named Don Stephens walked to the podium and started speaking about an organization called Mercy Ships and its mission to bring hope and healing to the forgotten poor by mobilizing people and resources worldwide.
One year later, I found myself sailing in the middle of the Atlantic on the largest non-government hospital ship in the world, the Africa Mercy. We have just finished a 10-month field service performing more than 97,000 procedures and impacting 67,219 lives as direct beneficiaries in the country of Benin in West Africa.
The decision to commit myself to a nonprofit organization for more than half a year right after graduation was not easy. Knowing that I would have to start paying back my school loans in only six months was a haunting thought which never quite left my mind.
I did not go to business school to work after graduation for free. I went in hopes of graduating with that killer corporate job offer accompanied with an impressive pay check. At the time, my career was taking a positive turn toward the pharmaceutical and medical device industry, where I was in the middle of interviews after completing a successful internship.
Yet as I started spending my future money before I earned it, the economy tanked and all potential job offers were pushed back to a more “ideal” date. Disheartened but determined to spend the free time wisely instead of sitting around and waiting for that perfect MBA job, I decided to take a step further and broaden my global experience not just culturally, but in a whole different arena.
Without a second thought, I immediately looked into Mercy Ships, as I recalled the presentation I had attended the first week of school. Pleasantly pleased to discover an available human resources/administration position, I quickly applied and one month later was on a plane for Benin, Africa.
The past seven months have been a thrilling, heart-wrenching and nearly indescribable experience that I can never fully describe in words. Working on the Africa Mercy, I managed a team of 60 international crew members and an additional 40 West African day workers who worked nonstop to ensure that medical operations ran smoothly and that life on the ship continued thriving comfortably.
As a direct result of our work, thousands of West Africans now have a chance to lead normal lives and most of all, have hope for their futures.
The blind can now see, the lame can walk, and the list goes on. Nothing could have prepared me for my experience other than the global education I received at Thunderbird. I was thrown into an atmosphere where I worked, lived and played all within a 500-foot ship with 450 other people from 40 different nations.
In a climate where different cultures collide on a daily basis, I found myself at ease and right at home. Similar to my Winterims abroad, where I learned to do business in emerging markets, I found myself learning to do business in a totally new environment where ideals and norms previously taken for granted were about to be seriously challenged.
Additionally, with high turnover preventing much change to occur, as the challenge to simply meet the status quo was demanding enough, my Leading Change and Transformation lessons kicked in and I was able to increase efficiencies by changing the approach and streamlining different processes within the department.
Whereas Thunderbird has given me the tools to be successful in any situation, Mercy Ships has provided the canvas in which to apply the tools in creating sustainable prosperity for those who could not otherwise.
Entering the corporate world, I feel empowered with my diverse background and I am confident that the combined experiences from Thunderbird and Mercy Ships will fuel my future — full steam ahead!
Sue-Min Koh, a 2009 graduate of Thunderbird’s Master of Science program, is a U.S. citizen authorized to work in South Korea. In addition to English, she speaks Korean and some Spanish and Chinese. She has a bachelor’s degree in social work from California State University, Los Angeles.