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Life as a Schwarzman Scholar

Matt enjoying a sunrise on the Great Wall of China

Greetings from Beijing! I moved here about two months ago to participate in the Schwarzman Scholars program, a year-long fully-funded master’s program in Global Affairs at Tsinghua University, arguably the best school in China. Inspired by the Rhodes Scholarship, this brand new program (I’m a member of the 3rd class) was created to bring future leaders from around the globe together to live and study in China’s capital.

They strive to foster cross-cultural understanding and develop a deep sense of the political, economic, and social forces driving China’s actions in the 21st century as it aspires to ever-more prominence and influence on the global stage.Similar to how I feel about the McDermott Program, my favorite part of the Schwarzman program is the cohort of fellow Scholars. This group is unlike any I’ve previously been a part of. The diversity blows me away. We have 135 people between the ages of 21 and 28 from 38 countries and regions (all official statements use the phrase “countries and regions” because China doesn’t consider Taiwan a country).

People did their bachelor’s degrees all over the world. Some have 6 years of work experience; others have none. Some already have 1 or 2 master’s degrees, or even a PhD or MD; others are fresh out of college. The interests and ideologies of group members vary immensely: Marxists regularly discuss economics with former Goldman Sachs employees; current and former military officers from the US, South Korea, Singapore, Israel, and China chat about tensions across the Taiwan strait or on the Korean peninsula. People seem to be willing to engage with humility on a number of contentious topics – political, economic, religious, you name it – that Americans typically don’t open-mindedly engage in discussions about.

A small snapshot of the cohort, from left to right: Angela from Taiwan, Ramsey from the states, Alice from Australia, Lionel from Singapore, Lily from the states, me (from the states), Lindo from South Africa, Fei from China, and Alex from the states. They’re all lovely human beings that I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know over the last two months.

The goal isn’t to convince the person you’re talking to that you’re right and they’re wrong. Rather, the focus is on trying to understand how the other person views the world and why they view it that way; trying to share with them how you view an issue and why. I’m constantly exchanging ideas and connecting the dots in new ways. It’s like a non-stop intellectual orgasm.

Another similarity to the McDermott Program stands out. Steve Schwarzman visits a couple of times each year, we had an informal Q&A session with him after he gave a short talk on why he founded the program. It was really special to pick his brain and interact with the person who gave us the incredible gift of spending a year together at Tsinghua.

Schwarzman-Archers with TX pride. Shantanu Banerjee (Spring 2015 Archer from UT Austin) and I frequently chat about DC life, Dr. Swerdlow, Economics (he worked at the Federal Board of Governors for two years, so our “conversations” are really me listening to knowledge pour out of his mouth), and Texas pride (he thinks I need more of it; I still refuse to identify as a Texan).

Most people I’ve spoken to in my cohort hadn’t experienced this before; they’ve never gotten to know the benefactor of a scholarship that they’ve received. It reminded me how lucky we all are to have spent time face-to-face with Mrs. McDermott.

Outside of Schwarzman College, one of the best surprises for me has been Tsinghua’s obsession with sports. “No Sports, No Tsinghua!” is a motto plastered on signs all over campus. I regularly play soccer with students from all around the world. We often share next-to-zero language skills, but we still manage to communicate, succeed, and have a ton of fun on the soccer pitch together.

Morning yoga at the College. I still can’t touch my toes, but I’m working on it.

I also participated in a Tsinghua Graduate School Track Meet, where I took home first place in the 1500m run, and our Schwarzman College team won the first Tsinghua Graduate Union Tug-of-War competition of the year!

No Sports, No Tsinghua! Tug-of-war counts as a sport here (which is surprisingly exhausting; several of the rounds lasted longer than 30 seconds, and I was gasping for breath when they ended). Schwarzman College took home the championship in the first graduate school tug-ofwar competition of the year.

Weekends are packed full of travel and adventures. In just the first month we’ve done some rock climbing, explored the 798 art district in Beijing and had private tours of a couple exhibits, and hiked and camped along the Great Wall.

I recently jumped on a 30-hour train ride to far-northern China where some friends and I explored the grasslands of Inner Mongolia for a week. A small group of us even have plans to trek to the Everest Base Camp in February. And, of course, I’m staying connected with our wonderful McDermott family; I’ll be seeing four different McDermott Scholars in four different East-Asian cities during the next few months.

We’ve hiked at two different sections of the Great Wall in our first month here. The pictures definitely do not capture how steep the uphill climbs are… I was out of breath several times. Also, I made sure to bring a half-dozen UTD shirts to China #WhooshAroundTheWorld

Back to life at the College: our regular line-up of extremely prominent guest speakers (i.e. Tony Blair) is awesome. Two weeks ago I enjoyed a small group lunch with Niall Ferguson, and it was one the highlights of my time here so far. Our informal conversation touched on Brexit, the need to regulate social media, AI, and the timelessness of Shakespeare.

When I found out that our very own Sophie Rutenbar will be a guest lecturer here in November, I was thrilled because I’ll finally be able to chat with her (hopefully), and I was reminded of the rising prominence of UT Dallas and its alumni.

I’ve been to the Summer Palace in Beijing a couple of times. The juxtaposition of greenery, old architecture, and Beijing’s skyline is gorgeous.

I bumped into Amy Stursberg, the head of the Blackstone Charitable Foundation, in our dining hall a few weeks ago, and when she saw my UTD t-shirt she excitedly started raving about our Blackstone Launchpad. We had a ten-minute conversation about entrepreneurship in Dallas and how UTD is well positioned to prepare its students to succeed in that space.I was glowing after the conversation because I think it’s so cool that a person I ran into on the other side of the planet immediately recognized my t-shirt and knew how fantastic UT Dallas and its people are.

Oh, and if anyone’s wondering: maintaining a vegan diet in Beijing hasn’t been too much of a struggle. Definitely manageable.

Warm Whooshes,

Matt Salm (’14)


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