From Tsinghua University to US Army: One graduate’s ‘transformative trip’ to China

From an Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) cadet to becoming a Schwarzman Scholar, Micah Dane Petersen is no ordinary international graduate. As a freshman at the University of Delaware, he took many Chinese Studies classes and spent nine weeks in China in summer 2015, speaking only Chinese, through Project GO (Global Officers) for selected ROTC students. In 2016, he was among 129 men and women chosen from more than 2,700 applicants for the Schwarzman Class of 2018.

“I have been blessed to travel to and study in more than 25 countries, and my time in China as a Schwarzman Scholar remains one of my most transformative trips abroad,” Petersen says. Today, he is the Personal Assistant to the Deputy Commanding General of Support at the 10th Mountain Division of the US Army. Read on as we dig deeper on what he has to say about his life-changing experience at Tsinghua University, China:

How did you find out about the Schwarzman Scholar programme, and what drove you to apply?

Attending the University of Delaware helped me set my mind on becoming a Rhodes Scholar. However, the prospect of being a Schwarzman Scholar seemed more of a perfect fit for me because it included the learning of basic Mandarin and a focus on leadership skills. 

Having many friends who were Rhodes Scholars, they stressed the unique aspects of the Schwarzman Scholarship to me. One of them was I would live with the entire cohort during our studies in China.

Here, Micah poses in Beijing during his time there as a Schwarzman Scholar. Source: Micah Petersen

Would you recommend the Schwarzman Scholarship to other students, and why?

Reflecting on my time as a Schwarzman Scholar, the importance of relationships is something that really dominates my memories there. This programme culminates in an MA degree from one of China’s most prestigious universities, but the primary benefit is that you have a chance to build deep and lasting bonds with truly outstanding individuals. 

Two cohorts in particular stood out for me. The first, an orphan from South Sudan who survived war and turmoil to eventually attend Yale University and be named a Schwarzman Scholar. He survived some of life’s most difficult challenges, and yet embodied joy and happiness that I will always carry with me. 

Secondly, but far from the least, I built a friendship with a young man from Libya. I will never forget his words, “As a Muslim man from Libya, I never thought I would become great friends with a Christian, US army officer. I am truly thankful.”

What challenges did you face in Beijing and how did you overcome them? 

I’m an outdoors person and an avid runner. China’s polluted urban areas challenged me, especially during its winter. Thus, I used every opportunity I had to travel to less-populated cities throughout China. The intra-country travel allowed me to escape the pollution and I got to experience unique places I will never forget. 

How have the environment, facilities and, and staff at Tsinghua University supported your academic experience as a Schwarzman Scholar?

Tsinghua University — and specifically Schwarzman College — offered me an environment that cultivated excellence and expertise. More importantly, the faculty overwhelmingly took interest in challenging and developing its students in a variety of manners. 

All of Schwarzman’s visiting professors hail from prestigious universities such as Harvard, Oxford, Yale, and so on. During their tenure at Tsinghua University, each professor resides in Schwarzman College. Not only do they interact with all scholars during class, but they also eat every meal with scholars, socialise with them in the forum, and even join students in the gym.

Dr. Gautam Makunda, my thesis advisor, spent hours talking with me about his experience working with the Department of Defence. His time teaching at Harvard Business School made his outlook on the world extremely fascinating. 

The Schwarzman Ball, Tsinghua University. Source: Micah Petersen

Melanie Koenderman, the Associate Dean at Schwarzman College, was integral in creating an environment for learning outside of the classroom. Weekly, she would open her kitchen for a small group of scholars to cook and enjoy brunch together. Culture is of the utmost importance in building relationships, and the faculty at Schwarzman went out of their way to cultivate a comfortable environment for it. 

What did you enjoy most about living in China, and how does it stand out from other countries you’ve been to?

After a year that included intellectual discussions with scholars and locals, visits to world-leading organisations, and an internship with a blooming non-profit in Beijing, I boarded my plane back to the US after graduation. I definitely gained experience I could not have attained anywhere else. 

My most unique time in China was the chance I had to travel the Central Kingdom as a semi-professional marathon and ultramarathon runner. These races were held in cities not often visited by Westerners, and this allowed me to improve my Mandarin skills. I also got to interact with locals from rural areas, and see diverse aspects of China’s geography. 

Do you have any advice for international students looking to apply as a Schwarzman Scholar? 

I am often asked what potential scholars should focus on in their application essays. To this, I usually reply: Above anything else, be honest and write about how you have changed. Where have you inflicted growth in a way that has improved the lives of others? Too often, people try to highlight the things they have done for themselves, but the most powerful stories are the ones focused on projects that were oriented on making people’s lives better. 

Schwarzman for me, defines leadership by not counting how many people you have led, or how many companies you have founded, but by the amount of change you have brought to a community you care about. That is true leadership.