I’m a third culture kid. Having spent my formative childhood years in the US but the rest of my life in Japan, I’ve never felt fully Japanese nor American – but rather somewhere in between. I always felt out of place during my teenage years in Tokyo, where I was the only one interested in studying overseas for college. And I felt out of place when I first got to Pomona in 2007, where I sounded American but was culturally Japanese. Back then, the International Student Mentor Program (ISMP) was in its first year and the number of international students was much fewer than it is now. It took me a while to find a group of friends that I truly felt comfortable with.
I eventually found my group – mostly international – and it was through interactions with them that I realized how important it was for me to be in a diverse community. That was where I felt most comfortable and could thrive in, both personally and professionally. I became interested in a career in international affairs, in a multilateral / international organization surrounded by people from all over the world, and thus began thinking about graduate school. Most programs require at least a few years of work experience before applying though, so I decided to first look for a job in the US.
I wanted to stay in the US after college for two main reasons. Firstly, I wanted to take advantage of my F-1 visa status and the 1-year Optional Practical Training (OPT) period that comes with it (note this period is 3 years for STEM students) – it’s extremely difficult to obtain an H-1B work visa once you graduate and leave the country. Secondly, I had done an internship in Japan during my junior year summer and did not particularly enjoy it – so I knew it was better for me to stay overseas instead of immediately returning home.
As I started exploring job opportunities, I soon realized that most organizations do not sponsor H-1B work visas. While they were willing to hire me during the 1-year OPT period (as it is Pomona that applies for the OPT, rather than the employer), it became clear that H-1B sponsorship was limited to a few sectors, such as consulting and finance. Why the most lucrative industries? Sponsoring a non-US citizen is expensive and US law stipulates that foreign nationals can only be hired when there is no US citizen qualified for the particular position (as an undergraduate with no work experience, I imagine this is a very difficult argument to make). Having ruled out finance through my junior year internship, I decided to pursue consulting. That’s how I ended up at Oliver Wyman in NYC.
After two years at OW, I decided to explore the international development world to see whether I could see myself pursuing graduate studies and a career in that field. Via OW connections (it’s really quite amazing how consulting opens so many doors!), I ended up at the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI) in Swaziland, a small landlocked kingdom lodged between Mozambique and South Africa. I joined CHAI not because I was interested in public health (at that point, I had no experience in health), but because I was drawn to their problem solving approach. CHAI had essentially created a market for HIV drugs back in the early 2000s, through the power of economies of scale. Simultaneous engagement of both the demand and supply sides of the HIV drug market had brought down drug prices from around $3,600 to $150 per person per year, making it affordable for countries to offer treatment to those eligible.
Personally, I fit right in with CHAI’s culture and ways of working (particularly as they hire many ex-consultants) and I felt tremendously grateful that I had started off in consulting – it was the skills I developed at OW that enabled me to work effectively with African governments. In Swaziland, I worked closely with the Ministry of Health, facilitating policymaking to scale up HIV/TB testing and treatment. After 16 months in Swaziland, I then moved to Malawi and joined the global team, covering Malawi / Zimbabwe / South Africa and providing analytics-related support. Most importantly, as a TCK, I discovered that being in a country that was neither the US nor Japan was where I fit in the most. My cultural sensitivity helped me build strong relationships with local governments, which was the key success factor in my work. My TCK experience had made me resilient, flexible, and adaptable – traits I didn’t realize I had until then.
I am currently pursuing a three-year joint degree at Harvard Kennedy School (MPA/ID) and Harvard Business School (MBA) because I want to be at the public-private intersection in international development. During my time with CHAI, I found that while significant progress has been made in the fight against HIV, TB, and malaria, more sustainable progress can only be made through investments in infrastructure, energy, and sanitation. Unfortunately, the vertical, disease-based nature of donor funding has created a vacuum for horizontal, system-strengthening investments, such as reliable sources of electricity for commodity and patient data management systems, and roads that safely transport drugs and diagnostics to rural health facilities. I believe the private sector has a significant role to play in such investments, and I want to be able to speak the language of policymakers through HKS, and develop the management / leadership skills through HBS, to ultimately act as the bridge between the public and private sectors.
Whether you’re interested in consulting, international development, public health, Africa or HKS/HBS… I would like to offer current students the following advice!
Enjoy your time there! Live every day to its fullest, you’ll never be surrounded by so many smart, talented, and brilliant friends. Have picnics, go on hikes, enjoy the Southern California sun and the beautiful campus!
Spend as much time with professors as possible. Since coming to Harvard, I’ve realized how lucky Pomona students are to have professors who are always willing to meet and chat – you definitely do not see that here. Grab meals with them, go to office hours – they are your lifelong mentors. Stay in touch with them after you graduate.
Take advantage of all the amazing events on campus, whether it be speakers, lectures, performances, etc. Disconnect learning from grades and absorb as much as you can from non-academic settings as well.
For international students: if you do want to work in the US after graduation, know that you need to find work related to your major to get a visa – so do research early on to see what major makes the most sense for you and your interests.
Enjoy your summers, but do try to be strategic about your junior year summer. I decided to work in Japan so I could confirm whether I wanted to go home after graduation. It was a good process of elimination.
Set up coffee chats, skype calls – talking to people who are in your field of interest is the best way to figure out if it’s a right fit for you. Stalk people on LinkedIn, use the alumni network to connect to their friends and colleagues. You literally have nothing to lose!