Staff writer

On his first trip to Tokyo, George Heyward had no trouble getting the inside scoop on the Japanese financial industry.

Getting a Coke was another matter.

In Tokyo as part of the Pacific Rim Education Program (PRIME), organized by the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, the 27-year-old American business student met with officials from the Industrial Bank of Japan and the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi to learn about their strategy for dealing with the Asian economic crisis and Japan’s “Big Bang” financial reforms.

“Coming into it, I didn’t know how receptive these people would be. I think it’s somewhat of a sensitive situation,” Heyward said. To his surprise, answers to his questions were clear and honest, and the experts even had a few things to ask Heyward. “They were picking our brains as much as we were trying to get information from them,” he said.

But while Heyward’s business acumen served him well in the Tokyo financial sector, it failed him when it came to fast food. “I spent 10 minutes in McDonald’s trying to communicate that I wanted an extra Coke,” said Heyward, who does not speak Japanese. “I know everyone was thinking ‘dumb American,'” he said.

Heyward was not alone. Last month, 35 students from the Marshall School arrived in Tokyo as part of PRIME, a five-week, mandatory course in international business which includes a trip to a Pacific Rim country for eight days of hands-on experience.

With a year of business school behind them, the students put their book-learning to the test by tackling real problems at the multinational firms they visit. Before arriving in Japan, M.B.A. student Jenean Palmer conducted a study comparing the return on Sony Corp.’s investments with that of similar American companies.

In Tokyo, she and four other students presented their findings to Sony’s corporate strategy group. “They were very impressed,” Palmer said. “That was the first comment that came out of their mouths.”

This time, the students’ projects were just practice. But they can expect to meet similar situations in their future careers, Marshall School Dean Randolph W. Westerfield said. “Like we tell our students, in the real world of business, you’re just as likely to be on the other side of a table with somebody from Korea, Japan or China as you are with somebody from America, so you better get used to it,” Westerfield said.

This is true whether a student plans to work abroad or not, he added. “To really get an understanding of how business opportunities are going to arise, you have to buy into the notion of international business, and you’ve got to be there to experience it.”

With the PRIME program, Marshall joins the ranks of a growing number of American business schools supporting a new lineup of study abroad programs and internships geared toward Asia.

Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, for example, sent its first group of 20 M.B.A. students to mainland China last summer for monthlong internships on the Global Management Immersion Experience program.

New York University’s Stern School of Business recently started a similar program. On the Asian Business Consulting Project, students visit an Asian country for three to four weeks to conduct a supervised consulting project.

Jonathan Beverly, associate director of international programs at Stern, said short-study programs abroad such as these are ideal for today’s business student. “They serve as an alternative for those unwilling to be abroad for a full semester, and provide exposure to a wider range of students,” Beverly said. “They seem to be the way exchange is moving in this age,” he added.

Marshall’s Westerfield agrees. “You really can’t learn everything you need to know about how foreign businesses work from textbooks. You have to do it eyeball to eyeball, face to face,” he said.

But some criticize programs like PRIME for providing only a superficial introduction to a foreign country.

Westerfield’s response? “It’s better than nothing.”

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