Ahead of the Games
by Sarah Small
As the world turns its attention to Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympics, 12 ILLINOIS students are already one step ahead of the current Olympic Games. They have the London 2012 games on their mind after spending a week in the city over Winter Break where they worked with international students from four universities around the world. Their goal was to develop business plans for a more sustainable London 2012 Olympics.
“(The project) is designed to allow students to independently explore very important issues,” said John Clarke, assistant dean and coordinator for the project. “You say, ‘We’re concerned about these things, but as students what are we supposed to do about it?’”
This is the fourth time Clarke has organized a competition that combines ILLINOIS students with their peers at foreign universities. Projects have been done in South Korea, Hong Kong and Chicago.
Clarke said London was a good spot for this year’s project because the Olympic Games command worldwide attention and provide a good platform on which to address sustainability.
“The Olympics is inherently unsustainable,” Clarke said. “You get 8 million people attending an event for two weeks. The sustainability challenges are huge.”
Although the competition was to develop business plans, it was not restricted to Business students; students studying engineering and environmental studies also participated.
“It had opportunity written all over it,” said Ariel Block, a sophomore studying Finance, Supply Chain and Management with a concentration in entrepreneurship. “International experience and exposure to literally a new world of people.”
Amanda Gillen, a junior studying Marketing and pursuing a minor in the Environmental Fellows Program, said she decided to apply for the trip because she had never been to London before, and thought the project was a great opportunity for experience in her major.
Although much of the work done developing the business plans took place in January 2010 when the students were together in London, the students spent the fall semester brainstorming, researching and designing their plans. In preparation, they experienced the challenges that come from cooperating with people across country borders.
The project had six teams, with a mix of students from each participating university. The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, the University of San Paulo, Yonsei University in Korea and London South Bank University all contributed students to participate.
Bradley Tran, a junior studying mechanical engineering at ILLINOIS, and the student body president, said his group communicated predominantly through Skype, a free international phone service; but with a 14-hour time difference for some of his teammates, meetings were difficult to orchestrate. Nevertheless, they felt it was an important connection and worth the effort.
Gillen’s group also used Skype as the main medium for communication, and she said it gave her a first-taste of the challenges of working in a group from different countries and cultures. When instant messaging her teammates over Skype, Gillen said it was really important to remember she was communicating with people whose first language was not English, and had to be patient while waiting for responses.
“The students find it very challenging to work on a virtual team,” Clarke said.
Despite the initial awkwardness of developing a business plan with complete strangers from around the world, Gillen said her group bonded well once they were all in London together.
“We knew each other, and by the end of the week together they felt like my family,” Gillen said.
Gillen’s team went on to win the competition, but Clarke said the opportunity to compete was more important than winning.
“All of the teams are essentially winners because they all got to participate in this experience,” Clarke said. “The students worked very hard; they didn’t get much sleep.”
Consumed with preparation for the final judging, Tran said he estimated most of the students got about three hours of sleep each night.
Despite the daunting workload, the students still got to meet with sustainability leaders, British politicians and members of the London 2012 Olympic planning commission. One day they even got to visit the construction site for the 2012 games.
“It blew my mind that I would be seeing it again on TV,” Gillen said. “It blew my mind that people would come there to compete.”
Clarke is already beginning to organize next-year’s competition at the University of San Paolo in San Paolo, Brazil, and Block, Gillen and Tran all said they would participate in the competition if they could.
“I think one of the most valuable things I got was learning how to work well with people from different cultural backgrounds,” Tran said.
Looking into the future, Clarke said he would like to get a university in Africa to participate and plans on continuing to coordinate the competition for students.
“I was very amazed by how hard the student worked,” Clarke said. “The students were highly motivated.”
Whether or not they return for the next competition in Brazil, the professionals they become after school will be forever rooted in their experiences preparing for the 2012 London Olympics.