Global China Connection

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Alumni Interviews

Tyler Godoff: Founding the GCC Chapter at Vanderbilt

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——How did you first hear about GCC and what inspired you to start a GCC chapter at Vanderbilt? During the first year of GCC Vanderbilt, how did you establish the organization and get other students involved?

I’ll start with the inspiration part first. I came back to Vanderbilt senior fall after a semester at Fudan University, and I realized that there was no group or institution on campus that connected Chinese nationals and non-Chinese in a meaningful way. I reached out to one of my best friends on campus, Wynne Lam, who is from Hong Kong, and I shared with him the gap that I identified and he agreed that nothing on campus existed. So Wynne and I spent time brainstorming the problem and trying to figure out the best way to solve it. We spent a bunch of time researching different student organizations, and we found this nascent organization called Global China Connection at Columbia University. We reached out and spoke to Derek Fu who was one of the founders of GCC and explained to him what we were hoping to do. He said, that aligns perfectly with our mission so why don’t you guys become the Vanderbilt chapter?

We became the Vanderbilt chapter and spent a lot of time that fall doing the necessary work to get founded, funded, and get professor support. Brian Heuser from Peabody was our initial advisor and he was very important and instrumental to making sure we had the necessary support to continue to grow. And we actually won that first year the best international organization (It was the award given out at the end of the year for student groups and we earned the award for best international focused student group.)

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——How do you see the role of GCC chapters on college campuses evolving as China’s relationship with the United States (and other countries) becomes more and more important?

I see the GCC chapters across campuses as the place where people on campus as well as externally look to for inspiration, for a model of how the two nations [the US and China] should be interacting. The beautiful thing about GCC is that it brings together people who are from diverse backgrounds and it bands them together over a common goal, which is to build and run a student organization and put together events that are meaningful. That’s a great unifying mechanism, and it sends a great message to US-China relationships and to the leadership at the highest level that basically the same dynamic can be at play – the two sides should come together and lead this organization, which is planet earth, and should realize that there’s something more important at stake, that the shared interests are rife and focus on that instead of where shared interests do not align.

To summarize there, basically chapters around the US and globally should serve as a model for what a high functioning US-China relationship looks like and can be like.

——After graduating in 2010, what kind of experiences from working in GCC have you found applicable to your professional life?

Following graduation I wanted to model what my Chinese peers were doing, which was going to leading US universities and then working for global companies (and doing that outside of China). I wanted to mirror that. I had already gone to a leading Chinese university, Fudan, and then I wanted to work for a leading Chinese company. The opportunity actually came through GCC. I went on a winter delegation which was organized by the Columbia chapter and they invited presidents of different chapters to join. We spent our winter break in Beijing meeting with leaders at an array of leading Chinese companies and institutions. During that trip I was able to meet the Vice-President of Sinotrans, and Sinotrans was in the process of building global operations. I worked with him to develop a role where I would enter the new hire class of 2010 and become a part of Sinotrans. And I was the first foreign new hire in Sinotrans’ 60 year history. I spent four years working within Sinotrans, which is a SASAC [State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission] level state owned enterprise. And it was a wonderful opportunity, a great exposure to what life was like in Beijing and what it’s like to work inside a large SOE. I feel like my GCC experience was crucial in not only setting up that opportunity but also in being able to excel inside of it.

 

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And broadly, I would say that GCC is maybe the most important leadership experience I had, certainly in college. It provided me this amazing sandbox, if you will, to test out different leadership skills and styles and really understand what it takes to lead, and what an awesome responsibility it will be when you are in charge.

My lessons were numerous. Maybe the most important takeaway is that a good leader leads an organization, a great leader is able to put in place leaders to take the organization to the next level. I spent a lot of my time senior year recruiting people who I felt had the capacity to lead the organization in years to come. Because I didn’t want GCC to be there for just one year. While Wynne, Nancy Tan and myself were in charge, I wanted to make sure that it would be there for decades. That’s why I’m excited that you and the current team are in charge and you guys are in charge a decade after it was erected. And you all have the great opportunity to build on this institution with decades of history. It’s hard to express how much I appreciate you and your team stewarding this organization and bringing it to new heights.

——What were some of your favorite things about living in China?

The first thing that comes to mind is the experience of living in a place where day to day I was challenged in almost every facet of life because everything is new, the culture, the language, the geography – just all new. You’re being bombarded by an unbelievable amount of challenges and it’s a great feeling day in and day out to battle those. I loved being able to speak Mandarin out of necessity. I felt like there was really no better way to learn a language than to have that dynamic put upon you.

And the what I would say the incomparable group of people that you get to meet. By that I mean the diversity of people – on any given day I could be interacting with someone who is 78 years old who had lived through so much China’s transformation and be conversing with them in Mandarin. And I actually held some really close relationships with older people who lived on my street to a peer of mine who is maybe from the UK who is working in Beijing at the British Embassy. There’s a wide array of people that you can meet, especially living in Beijing.

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——What were some of your favorite things about living in China?

I spent four years in China after graduating from Vanderbilt and at that point I realized that I loved my time there and I’m so glad I did it when I did it. But in the long term I wanted to live in the US. It’s where I was born, it’s where my family is and most of my friends are, and I wanted my impact to be primarily focused on the US.

Since 2014 I’ve been back [in the US] and I went to business school at Yale. I then worked for Barrick, which is an international gold mine company. In each one of those experiences, both Yale and Barrick, there were times when China was a part of it. And that was my thesis from the very beginning, that China is such an important part of our world, if not the most important country in our world, and I knew that no matter what I did in life there would be opportunities where I could engage and learn from China.

——Finally, is there anything you would want to say to current GCC members or those interested in China-related issues?

My advice is to find a student organization that you feel passionate about and then engage with that student organization and dedicate a lot of time to it. Focus on leading peers and being led by peers. That second suggestion I actioned myself when I went to business school. In business school I purposefully selected student organizations where I was being led by someone that I respected who I could learn from. And I think that GCC is a great opportunity to do that. Really test out your leadership skills and use GCC as a platform to experiment with different styles. Learn how to lead by doing it – most things in life are learned best by doing and leadership is a perfect example of that. GCC provides a great platform to do just that.



Omega Tennant: Language Learning and Global Entrepreneurship

Interviewer: Holly Deng

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My name is Omega Tennant, born and raised in McDonough, Georgia. Vanderbilt class of 2015. Back in 2014, I was the Director of Expansion at GCC, and participated in GCC on campus as well. Currently, I work for the Department of State with the Critical Language Scholarship Program. In 2014, I participated in the CLS Program myself in Guangzhou.

CLS Program is basically a scholarship provided by the government in languages that are deemed critical, like Mandarin, Arabic, and Russian. In Xi’an, the program is with Mandarin. Each site has an 8 to 10-week-long program and is centered around language learning. I am the resident director here on the ground, a bridge between the Department of State American Council side and Shanxi Normal University where the program is hosted.

Also, I founded Omega Mind, a consulting and teaching company that works mostly with universities and other educational programs. I am glad to see how GCC has indeed expanded globally and at Vanderbilt as well.

 

——What was your most memorable experience at GCC?

My most memorable experience was working to help establish a chapter over in Germany. We communicated constantly with other team members across the world, me based in Nashville, other members in China, Toronto, and California all helping to establish the a chapter in Germany. It was so much fun, and it really puts the ‘G’(Global) in GCC.

The chapter in Germany was particularly motivated and ended up having outstanding turnout with members from various universities. Looking at these different places—you have Europe, OCN, and Asia—the material that they requested, the way they wanted to structure, putting together their initial board, and the way we were assisting them was very different from place to place. Yet there were many similarities in topics that they wanted to discuss, like economics and policies and how they impact each region. That was by far the best experience. It was great to just open my email and see new chapter inquiries from different countries. It was great to see how connections were made from Nashville, a smaller town back then.

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——What’s your opinion on studying abroad in college or in general? What was your most memorable experience while studying abroad in China?

Studying abroad is a MUST do. Wherever you go, just leave your hometown. Even if you do an exchange program at a different university in the same country, it is going to have a benefit.

My first studying abroad experience was in 2013 in Beijing for half a year. I was fresh in the ‘tea’ of China. It was definitely eye-opening in terms of the history. Learning the history from on the ground versus in book is something that the study abroad experience can only provide, particularly when you are rooming with local roommates and paired with language partners. Study abroad program centered around language was more immersive and put you in an uncomfortable situation. In the end, it is for your highest growth.

Prior to coming to China, I studied Spanish, and traveled some countries in South America. I was fully immersed both in terms of the progress that I made linguistically, but also just the growth in my experience as a person and the relationship I built with people. So, now I feel that I have three sets of parents, my biological parents, my family in Peru, and a family here in China. You grow in terms of relationships and your own perspectives of what you yourself is able to do.

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——How has your language study helped you in your career? Do you have any advice or tips regarding language learning?

In terms of language learning, the main thing to remember is that it’s not about perfection. I think the term fluency is very over-used and does not have a very defined scope anymore. You could be very much competent in one aspect of the language but lack the language in another area. That’s the same even in our mother tongue. So, the main thing is to release this fear of fluency and this feeling that you must acquire this golden elephant of fluency, and simply learn sentence by sentence, conversation by conversation. If you feel great that you know enough to survive and have a meal, then enjoy that.

Last year, I did a speech series called the Language Lever, looking at language cognitively and professionally. You use language as a pendulum in order to help you mentally and professionally to acquire the insight that without it you wouldn’t be able to get. On a personal level, there are many scientific studies that shows the benefit of language. For example, it is good for both age and brain activity as you are learning. Language study also helps you more quickly be able to learn new skills. Specific for me, I feel like learning different languages, such as Spanish, Mandarin, and Portuguese. It is a snow-ball effect.

After I graduated, the second company I worked for was a financial technology company, working with large financial institutions like U.S. Bank. During the coding, initially it was just managing the project and making sure people know what they are going do and when. However, I wanted to know what they were doing, how they are doing it, and why. All these coding languages and technology are languages themselves. Learning foreign languages primes your brain to be able to say, ‘this is not too challenging, let me write the next sentence.’ It makes it exciting instead of overwhelming.

The last thing is on relationships. There is a quote by Dale Carnegie who said, ‘speak to someone in a language they know, it goes to their heads; but speak to them in a language that is their mother tongue, it connects with other’s heart.’ Of course, we can do business with someone in English, but there is a difference in someone’s demeanor and even eyes. It is like a light coming on when hearing someone talk in your mother tongue. That distinctly is the purpose of language.

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——At this moment, what do you think in terms of things that we, as American and Chinese students, can do to help improve the mutual understanding between the U.S. and China?

I think the only way to increase understanding, especially as related to cultures and people, is exposure, and it can’t be exclusively through newspapers. In fact, ideally it is not through newspapers and news because that is presented to you versus you being able to immerse within. Building friendships with people from that place and having conversations is key. Take subjects you learnt in class and have conversations with persons from that place or who actually experience it. That’s why it is critical in a study abroad context as well.

——What prompted you to start Omega Mind?

When I graduated, I worked for the company I mentioned for a year and a half. Prior to that, I worked in a different company, more so consulting, for eight months. During that time, it was enjoyable in gaining new skills and exposure to people from different levels of corporate America. Through that I realized, essentially, skills and abilities didn’t have to be bucketed within a full-time position and salaried employees to benefit corporates and organizations. 

One option is to work on a full-time payroll, and another is free-lancing and offering your specialized skills under contract with the organization. The second option provides more flexibility to work on more unique projects within the time frame. From that, I knew 9 to 5 didn’t really sit well with me, as well as just that very rigid, cut-off, and repetitive type of work demanded from permanent employees. 

2016 is when I started working independently outside those full-time jobs. For a year and a half, I juggled the two simultaneously. May 2017 is when I left my last full-time company and began contracting with them. Then in November, I decided to try free-lance full time. Now it’s been two years and there is no turning back. I have no regrets and I actually highly recommend in terms of entrepreneurship, free lancing, and contract work.

The benefit of contract work is being able to see and develop skills in a pressure cooker. It’s like you go and you have this new environment. You have to acclimate more quickly, and you have to get to work, doing what’s needed more quickly. The expectations for outcome are higher and short-termed. You enjoy that sprint and then you start over. Someone may say that is exhausting, but I find that beneficial in the same way as study abroad experiences: It is entrepreneurship. You have to go out of comfort zone, and you are working with different people and organizations, but also you can more clearly brand and define who you are in this large global context. Confident and leadership are keys.

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