Schwarzman Scholars: For Global Leaders Interested in China [Episode 267]

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AST Interview with Dr. Rob Garris Schwarzman Scholars

Gaining Leadership Skills & In-Depth Knowledge of China through the Schwarzman Scholars' Program [Show Summary]

Dr. Rob Garris, Global Director of Admissions for the Schwarzman Scholars Program, discusses the Schwarzman Scholars’ program and admissions policies. Through the program, participants from around the world earn a Masters in Global Affairs at Tsingua University in Beijing. The entire program is focused on providing the scholars with in-depth knowledge of China while developing their global knowledge and leadership skills. Modeled after the Rhodes Trust, Schwarzman Scholars provides full tuition, room and board, and a stipend to participants during the year of study.

Dr. Rob Garris, Global Director of Admissions, Speak About the Schwarzman Scholars' Program [Show Notes]

Today’s guest, Dr. Rob Garris, earned his Ph.D in European History from UNC in 1998. While at UNC he also launched his career in academic administration when he worked as the Director for Educational Programs for UNC’s Center for European Studies. That was followed by other positions including a stint as Senior Associate Dean for Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and Managing Director of the Rockefeller Foundation. All these positions prepared him for his current role. Since 2014 Rob has worked as the Global Director of Admissions for the Schwarzman Scholars Program, where he oversaw the development of the Admissions Office for Schwarzman Scholars and has spearheaded recruitment efforts.

Let’s start with the basics since there are probably listeners who aren’t familiar with the Schwarzman Scholars program. What is the Schwarzman Scholars program? [2:15]

The Schwarzman Scholars program is an educational and leadership development program designed to ensure that decades from now there are people in leadership roles in every part of the world and in every major professional field who are better at what they do because they understand China and who also function together as a network and as an intermediary between China and the world. China is already playing an important role in many different aspects in global trends. We think it is important that people have factual knowledge of how China interacts with the rest of the world coupled with professional and interpersonal relationships so there can be much smoother flows of information between China and other major world powers.

At Tsinghua there is a very strong academic program developed by Tsinghua and other universities around the world about how China relates to the rest of the world. In addition to the classroom experience, we give students incredible opportunities to learn outside of the university about China and its role– students travel around the country, visit with professionals in fields they are interested in, discuss topics including the environment, health, technology, and urban planning. We also match each scholar with a senior mentor in his/her field to learn in a firsthand way from someone who has been successful in that field. At the end of the year we help place scholars into an internship-like experience to continue learning in a workplace environment. We have relationships with 70+ institutions in Beijing so students can end their year with a very practical hands-on experience.

Can you give us a bit of background on how it came into being? [7:44]

The program was inspired by a particular moment in the professional life of Steve Schwarzman, cofounder and chairman of Blackstone. In 2007 when Blackstone was preparing for its IPO, the Chinese government contacted Steve to express interest in participating in the deal. Through the negotiations that resulted, Steve became very aware that many of the business and political leaders he turns to when trying to think through an important transaction didn’t have the same level of awareness of how the Chinese government went about making decisions, or factors driving participation in an IPO of a North American financial firm as compared to other major countries. He thought that was a dangerous situation - to not be knowledgeable about a country like China. He recognized the need for a new generation of leaders with a deep awareness of China. After a time he got to know China better and was introduced to Tsinghua. His natural instincts to use his philanthropy to address problems in particular through educational programs eventually led to the inspiration to build a new kind of program at Tsinghua inspired by Rhodes.

Can you describe the Schwarzman Scholars admissions process? [10:28]

That’s hard to answer on a specific level, but easy on a general level. Our program is designed to accommodate a wide variety of professional backgrounds. In our first three years of admissions, we have had a fairly stable set of interests from people in STEM fields, policy/politics/economics/business, and a smaller group with a humanities background. We are very happy to see the diversity, but it means the admissions process has to accommodate people with very different academic backgrounds and professional aspirations.

We have designed the process to be as open as possible to accommodate different cultural and social backgrounds, connected with a focus on whether the candidate is likely to be a leader in the field they are interested in. We ask candidates themselves, “What is it in your experience that makes you think you are likely to be a leader in the field you care about?” We ask the admissions committee and interviewers to be focused on that pretty straightforward question, but to be as flexible as they can to the fact that leadership can look quite different in various areas in the world. The leadership theme informs everything in the admissions process, but is designed to be flexible to different kinds of leadership.

When candidates ask what is the best thing to do to prepare to apply, I encourage them to not make all decisions based on Schwarzman Scholars, but I do advise them to devote time and attention to issues and organizations they care about. If they spend that time and energy on issues they care about, they will be a natural fit – they show dedication and initiative, interpersonal skills, and the ability to produce results.

We care about the academic side of things as well, so I encourage prospective students to focus on doing well in the classroom, which of course is more straightforward to evaluate. Candidates with leadership tend to be really good in academic coursework as well.

China interest/education is not part of the admissions process. The program is intended to find people who will be leaders in whatever area they will be in. For example, there could be an applicant who is a leader in energy policy focused on policy in US or Germany, who only now wants to include China, and that is fine. There are some scholars who do define themselves as China experts, but many more fit into the first category, with some other area of passion where they have come to realize they will be better in their field by having the China knowledge.

Can you describe the application process? [18:23]

The process is similar to other fellowship or graduate applications. There is an online application that is open right now with a deadline of Sep 27. After that deadline we go really quickly through a reading phase, where we have hundreds of readers around the world, and we direct applications to readers who will know and understand the culture and educational background of each candidate. In just over two weeks we assess over 4000 applications and select 400 people to come in for face-to-face interviews.

The interviews are a little bit different from other programs. The candidate will spend one part of the day in a 25-minute interview with a panel of 5-6 who have already had very significant leadership experience - current or former CEOs, heads of state, heads of parliament, heads of non-profit organizations, who can draw on their own experience to understand this person. It’s a give and take conversation based on whatever people have written about in their applications. We have interview sites in Beijing, Bangkok, London and New York, and at our expense we fly candidates in for the interview. They spend the entire day with us. The in-person experience is important not just for the panel interview, but at mid-day all candidates come together in small groups for a problem-solving experience. In a team of 8-10, candidates work to solve a puzzle or problem. There we are looking not just for leadership skills, but the ability to collaborate and work as a team. There is also a luncheon where they sit with interviewers. So the day focuses on specifics of applications but also on the broader skills of interacting with peers.

Out of the 400 applicants who come for interviews, roughly 140 will be offered a space. We are growing to a 200 number very slowly and intentionally. We are focused on group dynamics. We are watching interactions in each class to make sure we are creating an environment and community very much about learning from each other and making strong ties with each other. We don’t want to have a whole bunch of different communities who just happen to be living in the same building and studying the same curriculum. We watch that dynamic very closely and then make adjustments.

Can people who have been out of school apply? [26:23]

A candidate has to be younger than 29, and we’ve seen a shift in the last few years with more candidates who have been in the working world for a few years, from tech fields, government, consulting, and non-profits as well.

The application requires a resume, two essays and one short answer question. There is also an optional video, correct? [27:31]

Yes. The video, we make good use of – it is a one-minute opportunity to introduce yourself to the admissions committee. Think of it in a pretty relaxed way, as if you have just met a Schwarzman Scholar alum and have a minute to introduce yourself – you want to express who you are, what you are interested in, and why you want to be a Schwarzman Scholar. It is a chance for us to get a little sense of a candidate’s personality and how they might do in the interview.

The first essay is without a doubt the part of the app we go back to most frequently, and candidates should focus the most time and attention there. In that essay, applicants should talk about what it is they are interested in, how they take initiative to act on that interest, and how they work with others on it.

The second essay is very different. It is writing about a contemporary issue the applicant is interested in and written in a way they would for a class or publication in a student paper. This allows us to assess how well a person writes about topics they care about, and what kind of student they are likely to be.

The resume is very straightforward, just a narrative of a person’s professional and academic experience. A leadership section in the resume is encouraged.

How has the program evolved since you’ve now completed two full cycles? What have you learned? [31:46]

For the program we’ve seen it’s very important to provide a lot more room for scholars to explore and create on their own. In the first year we over-programmed things. From our thinking we wanted to make sure people had time to settle in, had a solid structure for support, and then recognized as the year went on that a lot of the really strong bonds formed when scholars had to figure things out on their own. We have changed a number of things from orientation to the amount of classroom time to travel time to create open space for them to get to know each other and to take responsibility for their own learning experiences, and that has been really helpful and useful. Some changes have been more practical and logistical, like we’ve managed to work out calendaring quirks so that our scholars can go take other classes in the rest of Tsinghua and vice versa, so there is much more opportunity to get to know other students. We also initially created the internship as a part-time experience, but we’ve heard loud and clear that it is much more valuable to have a short and intensive experience at the end of the year to focus on the work rather than piecemeal it out.

On the application front, there has been a conscious shift in the ratio of students to make US and international students more equal. We continue to debate the age limit, but we are keeping that in place for now. One other change is that in the interview process we now have standard structured questions that candidates should prepare for – we share before the interviews - but we wanted to have more consistency across interviews that take place and still have room in the interview to be free-flowing.

What are Schwarzman Scholars doing after they get their degree? [36:39]

We are still young so we don’t have defined patterns as yet, but we have seen some people want to combine their education with other forms of graduate education, about 20%. It is much more typical for people to work in the business world - technology, finance and consulting are the most represented areas. Fairly close behind are those working in various government or non-profit positions focused on policy issues.

What kind of career placement or guidance is provide by Schwarzman Scholars? [39:22]

We’ve had an enormous response from recruiters from a wide variety of fields. We have two career services colleagues in Beijing and one in New York working on employer relations in New York, London and other major cities. All senior leadership contributes with their network to help scholars in their job searches. In the non-profit and government world it is a much more networked approach.

Can you speak about the collaboration developing between Rhodes Trust and Schwarzman Scholars? [41:24]

In our first year Rhodes offered advice on how to think about selection process. This has rolled out into a lot of shared thinking about education, leadership, and how to develop in a population of talented young people. We have a Rhodes Schwarzman Leadership Program during orientation which is now expanding out, and we are collaborating on alumni programming. We see the collaboration continuing to grow.

How do you see the program evolving going forward? [42:59]

I think it will change pretty significantly. We are fortunate in that we’ve built a structure that is pretty adaptable. With international faculty who rotate in and out, we are able to pivot pretty quickly as subjects or interests change. We constantly ask ourselves what the critical issues are that leaders will need to understand, and we think a lot about some of the innovations in genetics, AI, manufacturing, and how that will impact curriculum. We want the curriculum to be as up to date as it can be. Having recognized there is real value for students to explore and create on their own, we also want Scholars to have more ownership of their experience so are also doing more thinking on that.

Listen to the show!

Related Links:

• Schwarzman Scholars
• Schwarzman Scholars Application Essay Tips and Deadlines
Admissions Consulting Services

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