BU prides itself on fostering an international approach to both education and the career search. Our global student body enriches us with their perspectives. But here’s a first for the BU Career Blog; a BU parent with his own global career story to tell.
Niandong Wang is a trailblazer. After growing up in China and graduating from an engineering school in Shanghai, he realized he wanted something different.
“After working as an engineer for my first two years after college, I switched to a software marketing role and loved it. Eventually I became a business leader at IBM China. But I realized I wanted to be a senior global executive, not just in China,” said Wang in an exclusive interview with BU + Beyond. “I realized I would need to move to the US and pursue an MBA if I wanted to accomplish my goals.”
Today, millions of students travel from China to US universities. But in the late 1990s, when he was contemplating his big move, it was a much different world. Less than five percent of students at UC Berkeley, where he matriculated, were international students, and very few were admitted directly from mainland China.
“It took me a few years to prepare,” he said. “Part of the concern I had was that my daughter had recently been born, and it was a challenge to plan a move to the US with a young child.”
Eventually, Wang made it to Berkeley, where he received his MBA degree. He wrote for the schools newspaper every week as a columnist, taught as a graduate student instructor for over 70 undergraduates, and founded Berkeley Chinese Business Association, among other accomplishments.
Today, he has made a career as a senior business executive with almost three decades of professional experience in consumer internet, enterprise software and fintech. He has worked for Fortune 500 companies including Microsoft, PayPal, VMware, IBM, and fast-growing startups. He and his family have moved around and lived in Seattle, Vancouver, Beijing and the San Francisco Bay area. His daughter spent a semester of her high school in France. A dual Canadian and American citizen, she’s trilingual and now a junior at BU.
In the course of his global career journey, Wang has learned a lot of lessons about how to navigate college as an international student:
- Be ready to adapt. “In my first week at Berkeley, I was really fumbling around. I couldn’t find my classes, I missed due dates. And that was with me having been a working professional for ten years, all for US companies. ” Wang said. “Because American universities were really different from those of China: fast-paced, very individualized, with an expectation that students would be self-sufficient. I had to work hard to understand how to navigate the campus, how to manage my time. They were some of my most valuable early lessons.”
- Step outside your comfort zone. “This is, I think, one of the blessings and curses of international education being more common today. At BU and many other universities, you can come in and there’s a whole expat community from your own country. You can socialize with only students from where you’re from. And on top of that, your family and friends at home are just a phone call or text away,” Wang said. “But tempting as this is, it gives you a false sense of security and it robs you of the chance to step outside your comfort zone and really engage with a new culture. If you’re paying a US university tuition, you owe it to yourself to get the full US university experience. For Chinese students at US universities today, that means spending less time on WeChat and more time building relationships with American students, alumni and professional contacts.”
- Communicate your value. “The value of international students to the university is a two-way street. International students may come to the US to learn, but American students have a lot to learn from international students too. By reaching out and engaging with international students, you can experience a new culture, practice a new language, widen your perspective,” Wang said. “This is invaluable preparation for navigating your own global career or managing a global workforce.”
- Be proactive. “Depending on their home culture, some international students may be used to parents managing a lot of aspects of their education that are controlled by students in the US, such as selecting courses and filling out schedules,” Wang said. “International students should look at their US university experience as a chance to take ownership of their own life. You’re in the driver’s seat. It may be different than what you’re used to, but no one else is responsible for you. Be proactive in engaging with global peers, determining your own career path, and staying on top of your obligations.”
- Never stop learning. “If there’s one thing I could tell other international students, it is that they should be a learner for life,” Wang said. “Whether you stay in the US or have a career in your home country, never lose your curiosity and sense of inclusiveness. Be a community player and appreciate the give and take.”
Wang advised American students to also take advantage of the opportunities presented by their international classmates – even if that means stepping outside their OWN comfort zones.
“Imagine you had to travel to Indonesia next year. What would it be like if you didn’t have any connections there?” Wang asked. “Understand that sometimes international students may be scared of making mistakes speaking English, of picking up on social cues. Give your international classmates support and patience. Try not to make snap judgments. You may find you end up with some wonderful new friends.”
And as parting wisdom for the whole BU community, Wang related an anecdote about one of the first friends he made when arriving in the US to study at Berkeley all those years ago.
“When I first came to the US, I described myself as a foreign student. But we made friends with a couple from Germany who encouraged me to instead say international student,” Wang said. “Foreign may have the connotation of alien, but international means you’re a student of the world.”