On the Road and In the Air for Vanderbilt

Travel adventures are all in a day's work for the business school's international recruiter.

From the Fall 2014 edition of Vanderbilt Business

Kim Killingsworth, Owen’s director of international recruiting and relations, doesn’t let much rattle her as she travels globally to recruit the right students for Vanderbilt’s business programs. The start of the July-through-March recruiting season found her dealing with challenges ranging from tension in Tel Aviv to an airline strike in Argentina and a nonfunctioning ATM card in Rio. Here are some of her thoughts and experiences from the road.

July 12, 2014

Kim Killingsworth with Cancellation BoardI am currently on the last leg of a more than 24-hour trip home from Tel Aviv. I was there for a two-day MBA recruiting fair sponsored by EducationUSA, a U.S. Department of State-sponsored network of educational advisors.

I arrived in Tel Aviv and waited at the airport for my Emory MBA colleague to arrive so we could share a taxi to the hotel. I had been to Tel Aviv for this event last year and prior to that in 2006. I was familiar with the scrutinizing questions at immigration upon arrival and felt I knew the city and culture somewhat.

In other words, I felt perfectly comfortable traveling there in spite of the previous week’s violence. We dropped our bags at the hotel, went up to the roof to see the sunset over the Mediterranean and then jumped in a taxi to head out to dinner. No sooner did we get in than we ended up in a standstill. We asked our driver what was happening. He made an arcing motion with his hand and responded in his limited English, “Syria missiles.” The air raid sirens sounded briefly, the first of four or five air raid warnings we would experience during our few days there. Reading The New York Times later on our cellphones, we discovered the missiles were from Gaza.

Tel Aviv July 2014
Killingsworth hadn’t counted on missile attacks and watching international news being made during her Tel Aviv recruiting trip.

The MBA fair was immediately canceled after this incident, but then reinstated 12 hours later and reduced from two days to one. Of the 22 MBA programs that had planned to participate, 13 showed and of those, seven schools had admissions reps with the rest covered by local alumni. Those of us who attended were continually thanked by the local attendees for coming to Israel during this crisis.

I remember one conversation in particular with a young woman who lingered near my table. When I engaged her in conversation about her experience and post-MBA goals, she opened up. She told me she was nervous about the situation because she had completed her military service on a base close to the Gaza Strip and was concerned for her colleagues there. She had been an artificial intelligence officer. She was in the reserves and knew there was a good chance she could get called up.

Overall, we did not experience any obviously tighter security. Locals continued business as usual. Perhaps there were fewer people on the beach as they did not want to be in an exposed area without easy access to bomb shelters. One early morning I was walking on the beach when the sirens sounded. I had to run from the shoreline to crowd into a public restroom with others. In general people, including kids, don’t panic. They seem concerned with getting cellphone photos of the smoke trails of the intercepted missiles. It drove home to me how they are accustomed to this activity.

August 6, 2014

Kim set out on the Latin America leg of her recruiting tour. She visited Santiago, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Lima, Medellin and Bogotá in the nearly three weeks she was away.

Harp player
Stopped at a Bogatá traffic light, Killingsworth was serenaded by a harp player.

On this trip, some of the best conversations I had were with taxi drivers. It started with my arrival into the first city of the trip, Santiago. I had lived there 21 years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer so I always feel nostalgic returning. I arrived near midnight after a full day of flying, and despite just wanting to get to the hotel, I had a very engaging conversation with the driver. As we cruised along the highway, my favorite Mercedes Sosa song came on the radio and I was delighted that we both sang along. It was the perfect welcome back to Chile.

With my taxi driver in Buenos Aires, I had a charming conversation about my two favorite Argentine actors and left the taxi with a list of all the films they acted in together. In a taxi in Bogotá, stopped at a traffic light, we were serenaded by a harp player in the middle of the street.

The primary focus of this tour was MBA recruiting fairs, but when the schedule permits, I conduct Vanderbilt-specific information sessions or sometimes dinners or receptions with alumni to which I invite prospective students. I take advantage of any partnerships I’ve entered into as a way to meet prospectives, such as one with the Medellin-based Sindicato Antioqueño, which is comprised of over 120 Colombian companies including Grupo Suramericana and Bancolombia. Vanderbilt, along with six other schools (only three in the U.S.), presented to employees who will apply for company sponsorship to pursue an MBA abroad.

Kim Killingsworth and Thiago Andrade
Killingsworth usually travels alone but is frequently assisted by local alumni at events. Thiago Andrade, MBA’14, flew from Salvador, Bahia, to help at the fair in Rio.

Of course I’m always open to meeting prospectives in other, informal ways as well. I’ve been known to meet prospectives on flights, which makes sense given the amount of time I spend flying. I find myself often giving educational and career advice to strangers and it usually seems to be appreciated.

My first morning in Santiago, I ended up in a long conversation with my waiter at breakfast. His graduate studies focus on scallop production and I learned more than I ever knew about the industry. We discussed how an MBA might make sense for him after he gets a few years’ work experience. An advising session over a perfectly prepared cortado and Chilean raspberry juice.

At the events, what really makes a difference is having help from alumni. It gives the prospects a perspective they can relate to—somebody who was recently in their shoes and who can speak about the student experience firsthand. I was fortunate to have alumni assistance in Santiago, Rio, Lima and Medellin. Prospects love meeting alumni.

Gerardo Marthans at Lima fair
At the Lima recruitment fair, IBM’s Gerardo Marthans, MBA’05, joined Killingsworth and spoke to potential students.

What was particularly rewarding this trip was that I reconnected with candidates who I met a year and a half ago. Enough time had passed since the first Latin America recruiting tour I did for Owen that now students are ready to apply. At the São Paulo fair, I was able to greet the first person who walked up by name. “Eduardo, it’s great to see you. How is the GMAT prep going? Are you going to apply to Owen this year?” Greeting him by name and remembering that he works in agribusiness demonstrated to him that we really do provide a personalized approach at Owen.

The theme of this trip seemed to be the interesting conversations with taxi drivers and dealing with the challenges of international travel—more than what seemed normal on this trip.

For example, I arrived at the city airport in Buenos Aires to chaos—Aerolineas Argentinas (the nation’s largest airline) had gone on strike that morning. There were TV crews filming and lines were a kilometer long. I was told the first available flight to my next destination was 36 hours from then, meaning I would miss my event in the next city. The solution was to buy a ticket on another airline and leave later in the day from a different airport. Leaving the next city, I experienced a five-hour delay for a one-hour flight due to rain.

Buenos Aires airport
Arriving at the Buenos Aires airport was chaotic due to an airline strike.

Then I tripped on the sidewalk in São Paulo and sprained the thumb of my dominant hand—my primary texting digit. I made a splint and taped it up, but then was challenged by the basics of typing, buttoning and opening water bottles. On this trip, my ATM card failed to work in two countries and I found out my banking identity was stolen and used fraudulently.

I’m good at—and enjoy—finding solutions and don’t let these inconveniences get in the way. While I may have to deal on my own with some of the challenges, there are always colleagues with whom to share the stories at the end of the day. A highlight is reconnecting with alumni, educational advisors, colleagues from other schools and friends in the region. Each trip is so different and memorable due to those I meet along the way.

Prior to starting this trip I was still thinking about the young woman I met at the Tel Aviv fair, the former artificial intelligence officer. I sent out a message to all the females I had met at the Tel Aviv event, hoping to send good wishes to that woman and find out if she had indeed been sent to Gaza.

I heard back from almost all but the one woman, saying they weren’t her but they were sure she would appreciate my concern. The responses came in at the beginning of my Latin America trip, then nothing. I assumed she had been sent to Gaza and imagined what that might be like. Then the very last day of my Latin America trip—three weeks later—I received a message from her. She apologized for her late reply but had not yet been sent to Gaza. I felt incredible relief and realized the impact just one candidate’s story can have.

September 2014

After Latin America, Kim Killingsworth returned to Nashville for a few weeks, then took off for three countries in Asia on corporate visits and a few recruiting events—all in 10 days. Part of her work is meeting with decision makers in Asian companies to discuss how the Vanderbilt MBA may fit the companies’ and employees’ professional development needs. She then returned to campus for a couple of weeks before heading out again. She says, “I have my schedule memorized of all my planned trips through the end of the year. You can give me a date between now and then and I know what city I will be in.”