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Applied Learning Tradition Strong for Real Estate and Graaskamp Programs

By Clare Becker

July 28, 2017

Student Ben Steven (MBA '17) talks with Assistant Professor Jaime Luque at the affordable housing event
Ben Steven (MBA ’17) talks with Assistant Professor Jaime Luque at an event where WSB students presented their projects on affordable housing. PHOTO: PAUL L. NEWBY II

As a concept, applied learning seems easy enough to grasp: If you’re a student, you’re basically taking skills learned in the classroom and implementing them in real-life work situations.

But what if that real-life situation comes with a $1.7 million portfolio attached, as it did for real estate student Paul Laughlin (MBA ’17)?

It’s challenging, Laughlin says, but also invaluable experience. Together with his teammates, he helped manage the live multi-million-dollar portfolio through the James A. Graaskamp Center for Real Estate’s Applied Real Estate Investment Track (AREIT) at the Wisconsin School of Business.

“No other real estate graduate program offers a program like AREIT,” Laughlin says. “We are proud to know that—at least year-to-date—we have reached our goal of both beating the benchmark and increasing the fund’s total value.”

Applied learning initiatives are a staple across all WSB centers and departments, giving students in every area of study the opportunity to experience practical applications of their classroom learning. In the Graaskamp Center and Real Estate and Urban Land Economics Department, students benefit from a long tradition of real-world learning experiences like AREIT that incorporate applied learning at every level, from curriculum decisions to global immersion events.

“The students come out of our program feeling confident and prepared,” says Lee Gottschalk, associate director of outreach at the Graaskamp Center. “They say that there’s really nothing that can compare to that real-world interaction and having to be accountable to the results and the fund.”

Applied Real Estate Investment Track (AREIT)

AREIT is open to second-year MBA students, and purposely caps enrollment between four and five students. The program has its own board of directors separate from the Graaskamp Center that works day-to-day with students, helping them with their investment plans and coaching them on presentations. Industry experts act as advisors to students throughout the process along with adjunct professor Michael Brennan and faculty advisor Tim Riddiough, who is also a professor and the academic director of the Graaskamp Center.

The program is the first one of its kind nationally, allowing students to strengthen research, portfolio management, and team-building skills.

Tim Riddiough
Tim Riddiough, professor and academic director of the Graaskamp Center

“AREIT is a truly unique educational opportunity that distinguishes the Wisconsin MBA in Real Estate from other top programs,” Riddiough says. “Our students develop fundamental research and portfolio management skills by blending a thorough theoretical foundation with the first-hand experience and challenges of managing real money and working successfully as a team. This is a demanding and highly-selective program, and when our students graduate, they are ready to hit the ground running.”

Gaining global experience

Creating real estate leaders with global know-how and perspective is a priority area for the real estate department, Riddiough says.

“We were definitely the pioneers in international study,” he says, crediting Senior Lecturer Emeritus Rod Matthews. “He was doing things before anyone else had done them, bringing students on real estate immersion tours and to unique places.”

Currently, the department and the Graaskamp Center give second-year MBA students the chance to take a global immersion study trip, usually seven to ten days, to places as varied as Hong Kong, China, Turkey, and Thailand to meet and network with international real estate developers.

Sharon McCabe, faculty associate and the associate director of the Graaskamp Center, says students often tell her the global trips are among the highlights of the real estate program.

“Visiting another country and learning about how their property markets operate provides students with a more global view,” McCabe says. “Property rights, demographic trends, capital markets and investment risks all vary from nation to nation.  It is enlightening to learn that things are done differently outside the United States.”

Second-year students are also invited through board members to attend the prestigious MIPIM conference, the world’s leading real estate property market held in Cannes, France.

Quote from Graaskamp associate director of outreach Lee Gottschalk

With the School’s active real estate club, undergraduate and graduate students can take two domestic field trips as well, usually to urban sites like Atlanta or Dallas.

Real estate students also have the opportunity to compile the annual official survey for the Association of Foreign Investors (AFIRE), interviewing association members and working with faculty associate Joe Walsh to present final results at the organization’s meeting.

Integrating applied learning into the curriculum

Real estate faculty incorporate applied learning into the curriculum in unique ways that impact not just WSB students, but the wider Wisconsin communities around them as well.

Via his sustainable development course, Tom Landgraf, a senior lecturer in real estate and urban land economics, led students in UniverCity, a University of Wisconsin–Madison and UniverCity Alliance program that connects campus with city leaders. This year’s program focused on a partnership with the City of Monona, a community of 7,500 people adjacent to the City of Madison. Students were assigned actual real estate properties and were asked to do a feasibility study, presenting their findings and recommendations to city officials and stakeholders.

“The UniverCity Year concept is a treasure trove of opportunity,” Landgraf says. “The projects come from discussion with the community through a formal connection between my classes and the local government. Last year, in both semesters, our students prepared development concepts on about 30 sites in Monona.” With resources from the School’s Innovation Fund, Assistant Professor Jaime Luque guided students in his regional and urban economics course on a semester-long project that examined the issue of homelessness and affordable housing in Madison.

Luque and students met with nonprofit organizations, advocacy groups, law enforcement, and homeless individuals themselves to gain a greater understanding of issues related to affordable housing in Madison, and to find ways to inform future policy decisions. Post-project, some of the students stayed on, continuing to volunteer with the groups they worked with.

Real estate case competitions

National real estate case competitions are yet another arena where WSB students get a chance to apply the skills they’ve learned in the classroom.

WSB students stand holding a giant check at the NAIOP University Challenge real estate case competition
WSB students took first place at the NAIOP case competition

Wisconsin BBA and MBA students participated in 11 real estate competitions in the 2016-2017 academic year, including competitions hosted by Cornell University, University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, and even outside of the U.S. for the Guelph Real Estate Case Competition in Toronto. Student participation in these competitions was supported by The Bascom Group, where alum David Kim (BBA ’89) serves as a managing partner.

Senior lecturer Arif Qureshi, who coaches students for the competitions, hopes to eventually establish a Wisconsin-sponsored case competition in the future but more funding is needed before that goal becomes a reality.

Mentoring the next generation

Bringing it all together is a very passionate and loyal alumni network, the Wisconsin Real Estate Alumni Association. The association has a strong mentorship program that connects students with members who can give them professional advice and job ideas, and also partners with the Center for “Graaskamp on the Road” events that go across the country.

“Wisconsin’s alumni network is unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” says Jonathan Schwerin (MBA ’17). “The willingness to respond to students and talk through real-life real estate topics, as well as support students in their internship and job search, is a huge benefit to the program.”

The mentoring, the global focus, and the applied learning opportunities set WSB real estate programs apart from other programs nationally.

It helps students like Simon Bowler (MBA ’17) gain the real-life, problem-solving experience that launches them out into the world.

“Participating in the AREIT program was the single most valuable and enjoyable educational experience of my life,” Bowler says, who has chosen to pursue a career in the real estate investment trust sector. “Everything that I learned in this program will provide me with an immense advantage throughout the rest of my career.”