Four MBA students wowed the judges with their commitment. But who will come out on top? By Peter Brown

Once, long ago, you could join an MBA class and everyone would be from the same country. That seems unthinkable now. And to illustrate the international nature of today's top MBA courses, only one of this year's short-listed MBA Student of the Year finalists originally comes from Britain - and even he has been abroad for 11 years.

This is the ninth year of the competition, run jointly by The Independent and the Association of MBAs (AMBA). It is designed to highlight the value of the MBA, both to business and to individuals looking for ways of developing their careers. Academic achievement is important, but the short-listed students must have made a higher than normal contribution to their course. They have to be all-rounders who can keep up morale: MBA ambassadors.

The finalists are nominated from students at AMBA's accredited business schools, half of which are now situated abroad. "We were overwhelmed by the amount of interest shown in the award this year," says Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of AMBA. "In particular, we were pleased to see an increase in the diversity of business schools entering students for the competition. This reflects the international expansion of the association's accreditation service and the recognition of the MBA as the global standard for business leadership development.

"The shortlist of 10 were all interviewed by the judges, who were impressed by the high standard of candidates, their commitment to learning and the richness of their experiences as MBA students. The award is one of the ways in which we are able to advocate the benefits of the MBA and to champion the achievements of those schools that have had their MBA programmes accredited."

Joining Ms Purcell on the judging panel are Mary Jo Jacobi-Jephson, former vice president of external affairs at Shell; Roger Camrass, director of group at Fujitsu Services; and Barbara Stephens, chairperson of AMBA.

One of a growing numbers of Indians coming to Britain to study for an MBA, Madhav Bellamkonda, 28, has proved an outstanding student and has been nominated by the University of Strathclyde Graduate School of Business for this year's award. A full-time student, he comes from Bangalore and has proved to be an enthusiastic team player, initiating events for the benefit of students, the school and industry and at all time flying the flag for the MBA.

He created and developed the Strathclyde Business Forum (SBF), a student-led initiative to create dialogue between MBA students and businesses, which has also functioned as a team-building activity for his classmates.

"Coming to Britain is very challenging for students looking for careers after their MBAs," he says. "We recognised that if we could provide a platform where students could interact with local industry it would benefit all of us. Businesses would realise what talent and skills were available within their reach, and students would find out how local industries operate and what opportunities they could actually explore."

It worked. Bellamkonda and his colleagues have hosted forums and lunches for diplomats as well as business leaders and HR directors. His networking has led to promises of projects and career placements, and future students will be encouraged to take it forward. The college is particularly complimentary about his willingness to share his contacts with other students.

"Instead of complaining about things, it is better to take a proactive step," he says. His strong belief in an individual's capacity for change springs from personal experience. As a teenager he was running into trouble, but "a dramatic encounter" led him to the Anglican church. Now, he is an ordained pastor and trained counsellor, and has been helping at advice centres for young people in Strathclyde. He has also discovered football, and supports Glasgow Rangers.

"I'm married with two daughters and the MBA is a huge step for us as a family," he says. "We have made financial sacrifices, but it's something I really wanted to do. It's definitely been worth it."

Eunice Lim's academic standing, amiable disposition and sense of humour, endeared her sufficiently to Professor Tawfik Jelassi, dean of the ENPC School of International Management in Paris, for him to put her name forward. "A born moderator, she is gifted at calming spirits and motivating people to work together in difficult situations," the college says. "She has been instrumental in creating a positive and constructive class spirit. Intransigent where her principles are at stake, she can also fight for what she believes is right from a moral or ethical standpoint."

She herself is more modest: "I think it's my Asian upbringing. I don't like conflicts and I always try to resolve them. It's true that I can fight for what is right, but I try to do it in a nice way. I can be hard, but not unscrupulous."

Lim comes from Singapore but has been in France for 11 years. It was a combination of her language and leadership skills that led her to be Student Council president, organising events on and off campus, including networking and social activities. She is also the main liaison person between the staff and the student body.

She has worked and lived on three continents and speaks five languages, so she has been able to help other international students to integrate into the course and adapt to French living.

Twenty nationalities are represented on the ENPC MBA. "The French are very individualistic," says Lim. "And they tend not to socialise after work. So I've held parties, happy hours and picnics by the Seine.

She has also created a non-profit association to help poor Asian women through the minefield of Parisian bureaucracy, a project that grew out of her early work translating for newly arrived immigrants. Before the MBA, she worked hard to develop her conference interpreting business, growing it from three to 15 people. "But then I felt a need to see how far I could go. I wanted a return to corporate life."

The course at ENPC, in the centre of Paris, was the answer. Lim is currently doing an internship and enjoying it; eventually she would like to start her own business. Meanwhile, she intends to pick up her heels and keep fit with claquette (tap-dancing).

Few students exemplify the internationalism of the MBA more clearly than Alem Muminovic, who in 1992, at the age of 13, left war-torn Bosnia with his family. They settled first in Croatia, and then, in response to letters of appeal, were accepted as refugees in Sweden -"the most tolerant country I have ever encountered". He learnt Swedish in less than a year, and has shown the same flair for learning at the International University of Monaco, where he graduated top of his MBA class with honours.

Muminovic, 27, has worked in Bosnia, Sweden, Iceland and Holland. "I wanted an international business career," he says. "I knew the ways of Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and the Anglo-Saxons, but I didn't know so much about the Latin culture. So Monaco was perfect." While he was there, he took part in his first marathon, running through three countries - Monaco, France and Italy - and met his Mexican girlfriend. "I certainly understand the Latin culture now," he says.

In Sweden, Muminovic did military service as an arctic ranger and spent more than 100 days outdoors in freezing temperatures. "I was part of a group of eight, which taught me a lot about team dynamics and how I function in a group under stress. Moving my mental borders was a part of everyday training. You learn what is important and not to be narrow-minded."

Helped by his entrepre-neur parents, Muminovic then co-founded and ran his own prosthetic manufacturing company. He had seen in Bosnia how important aesthetically pleasing prostheses were for the self-esteem of amputees, and his company (which has now been bought) regularly donates prosthetic equipment to the Bosnian people.

"On the MBA course, my previous experience helped me to connect with the teaching, but I also learnt a lot of new things, especially in finance," he says.

Now, Muminovic intends to start a new life with his girlfriend in her native Guadalajara. His goal is to own his own operation by the time he is 30. "My friends call me the Gypsy," he says. "Because, with my background, it's difficult to know where home is. If I've slept one night somewhere, I call it home. So it'll be a challenge for me to stay in one place a long time.

"The MBA was hard work, but also seemed in a way like a vacation in a safe environment. Before it, I had always lived and worked with my parents. My real life starts now, but I have had excellent preparation. I'm very excited."

Of the short-listed candidates, only Simon Wright, 41, comes from Britain. His home town is Cambridge, but 12 years ago he emigrated to Sydney, Australia. In 2004, he moved from a successful career in general management in the media/IT sector to work with a range of community organisations. Finally, he became national manager of corporate partnerships for the Smith Family, a social enterprise in Australia.

"I had spent most of my career in media and TV land, but two or three years ago I stumbled into the area of corporate social responsibility. I was working with an NGO, trying to get corporates involved with the community, when the reputation of Nottingham University Business School popped up. Its MBA course was getting strong ratings, not least in America. It was doing five-star research in the area of sustainability and CSR. I was lucky enough to get a full scholarship and I've just finished the course."

Wright is married with young children, so joining the programme and moving with his family to the UK demanded significant commitment and personal sacrifice. His father has also been seriously ill, but the school says he has quietly and capably responded to all these challenges in an impressive and understated way that says much about his qualities as a professional and as a person.

"Simon is the top student this year and is expected to secure a distinction. He has contributed a great deal to the success of the MBA programme, participating fully in class and providing thoughtful feedback on the course content and structure. He has led most of the group work he has undertaken," says the school. |He has supported and mentored other MBA students and serves on the MBA staff-student liaison committee.

As MBA social secretary, he has organised social activities, including an international food festival, sports outings, social events and excursions, and the MBA soccer programme (he still plays). On Christmas Eve, all the international students who were away from their families were invited to his home. He also helped a group of Chevening Fellows from developing countries to integrate with the MBA cohort.

"Simon has continually given something back to the school and we could not have asked for a better ambassador," the school says. "He attends MBA open days to speak to potential applicants about the Nottingham experience and has already promoted the programme among his peers in Australia."

"There's more happening here than in Australia," Wright says. "There's more noise, there are more players. Businesses are being forced to confront some of the issues around social environmental and ethical reporting. I have a firm believe in the potential of businesses to act as a change agent." He points to the Business in the Community scheme as a good example. "I've been doing a bit of mentoring in Nottingham, working with the long-term unemployed. We're trying to build up people's skills and confidences."

The name of the MBA Student of the Year winner will be announced at a gala dinner in London on 9 November.