Thomas Pan is currently studying for his MBA at China’s Tsinghua University. We asked him about the program and what it’s like living in China.
Where are you from originally?
I was born in Hong Kong but I have paternal roots in Suzhou, just outside of Shanghai. At the age of one, I moved to the United Kingdom, where I spent most of my formative years. I also spent some time living in London, Hong Kong and Singapore before heading over to California for my undergrad degree.
Why did you choose Tsinghua University?
After graduating, I worked in London and Hong Kong before settling in New York City. I actually started my US applications in 2007 but was concerned about my future in the US as a non-American, not to mention it was still a good time to keep working back then. When the time came for me to reevaluate an MBA in 2008, I realized two things: firstly, that I needed to differentiate myself from the growing number of MBA graduates in the US and secondly, that anyone willing to do an MBA in the US is probably in a prime position to take a little risk in life. With this epiphany, I hopped on a plane to China and took a look around Beijing and Shanghai, then settled on investing my future with Tsinghua University.
It’s true that CEIBS is sitting pretty with its respectable FT ranking and Peking University arguably has a more established international name than Tsinghua. However, the experience that impresses me the most about Tsinghua is the power of its brand name within China. Upon hearing the words Tsinghua University, local Chinese almost invariably confer upon you a degree of admiration and respect I’ve seldom observed anywhere else in the world. This attitude is likely driven by Tsinghua’s mainstream representation in China’s economic development and political leadership. Next, take a look at Tsinghua’s advisory board and you’ll find a list of business leaders that’ll make your jaw drop. To me, this is allure. This is what tells me I’m looking at the right place. If you’re going to throw yourself voluntarily into the dragon’s den, you’d better take the sharpest blades in there with you.
Did you consider other schools in China as well?
I considered Peking University’s Guanghua Program as well as CEIBS in Shanghai, but decided that since neither complemented my agenda, I would not apply. Both are fantastic programs, but I felt that Beijing was a better platform from which to learn about China (try visiting Shanghai as an expat in your late 20’s and you’ll find an abundance of distractions) and that Tsinghua held a marginally better brand name in today’s China.
Are there a lot of international students in your classes?
My class in Tsinghua’s International MBA has just over 120 students, of which over 45% are internationals. International students represent 16 different countries, which I think is phenomenal for a single class in a Mainland Chinese MBA. The year above me of about 100 students stood at almost 55% international, representing 11 different countries. In total, there are 22 nationalities in our combined classes. Please excuse all the stats – perhaps I’m becoming more Chinese but it’s a habit I’ve picked up since moving out here: Chinese people love to hear the numbers!
I’m also happy to report that this year, we welcomed our first Finnish, Israeli, Indian, Romanian and Swiss students to the Tsinghua MBA family.
Are you planning on staying in China after graduation?
Absolutely! I have two main beliefs about coming to China at my age. Firstly, you have to keep your mind open to being here for the long-run. By that, I mean well beyond the two years of your Tsinghua MBA. Thinking on a two-year plan will only restrict your sense of exploration, adventure and perspective.
Secondly, being frank, I think most MBA candidates in China recognize that while a Chinese MBA degree may raise a few eyebrows or differentiate us back home, the brand names still have a hill to climb in the international arena. Nonetheless, we’re all here because we know that within China, our degrees open doors that no foreign degree can come close to opening, and that education in China is modernizing to international standards at an unprecedented pace. With the experience we gain here, we hope to be well-positioned for the mounting surge in Sino-global business. We’re first movers, we’ve invested in our advantage, and we’re here to stay.
Why do you think China has become such a hot destination for international students looking for MBAs?
There are a host of different reasons really, some shallower and some deeper. On the shallow end, Chinese MBAs remain relatively cheap compared to US or European degrees, and there’s a strong demand from universities for international students too. Moving deeper, I personally find that US MBAs are becoming increasingly commoditized and homogeneous. Global experience is an excellent way to differentiate oneself today, as is a willingness to swim upstream instead of going with the herd. What better way to demonstrate such qualities than to come to China, where the language is gibberish to non-Chinese speakers, foreigners still stick out like a sore thumb, and the pace of change is reminiscent of Michael Phelps’ Olympics record-breaking spree? MBA candidates are waking up to the fact that China’s ascendance is inevitable, and that in terms of positioning oneself for this growth, few things trump first-hand, on-site experience of the local culture and mentality.
Do you think that not knowing Chinese will pose a significant problem for a prospective MBA student considering the fact that English language courses offered at Tsinghua are limited?