Schwarzman Scholars: using scholarships to build cultural diplomacy

Students discussing book (Credit: Jacob Ammentorp Lund At Istock)
Professor Sir Nigel Thrift

Professor Sir Nigel Thrift is the Executive Director of Schwarzman Scholars. Dr Thrift is one of the world's leading human geographers and previously served as Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Warwick, and as Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at the University of Oxford. Dr Thrift is also a Fellow of the British Academy. During his career, he has received many academic awards, including the Scottish Geographical Society Gold Medal, the Royal Geographical Society Victoria Medal, and Distinguished Scholarship Honors from the Association of American Geographers, as well as honorary degrees form Bristol and Monash Universities. He was knighted for services to higher education in 2015.

Leadership is a nebulous term. It signifies all manner of different and often heavily context-dependent qualities – qualities which themselves are often ill-defined. Yet that doesn't seem to have stopped anybody from touting their expertise. Courses on leadership are springing up all over the world, attempting to do many different things – but united by a word which seems to stand for so much and so little at the same time. A whole machinery of leadership education has come into being, which keeps many people in work but whose outputs are, to put it kindly, uncertain.

China is now a risen power. In the last 20 years or so, its economy has accelerated dramatically and its geopolitical influence has spread. It is a country, like the United States, that all leaders in every field need to understand. There is no way of avoiding its influence. Yet all kinds of myths and fantasies still prosper about China: myths and fantasies, which can only act as a barrier to understanding.

In the world we now live in, we need an enlightened cadre of leaders who can negotiate with China from the ground up. Educating leaders means fashioning situations in which students can encounter both leadership and China simultaneously. This is the goal of the Schwarzman Scholars.

Developing future leaders

Schwarzman Scholars is an exercise in practical cultural diplomacy. Its mission is to build a new network of enlightened leaders who are able to understand the changing geopolitical realities of the 21st century, and act upon them through the power of the cross-cultural friendships they will build up in China. It is a programme which is concerned with fashioning a generosity of spirit through interpersonal and professional relationships that will last and transcend national rivalries. This may be a small goal, but it is also an ambitious and visionary mission.

In order to achieve these goals, a one-year Master's programme has been built which will in time take in 200 students a year. It is based in and accredited by Tsinghua University, China's premier university. In each intake, 45% of students are from the United States, 20% from China, and 35% from many different countries around the world.

People who have already shown considerable leadership capabilities are selected for the programme, which is designed to add even more substance and context to their leadership capabilities. By selecting those with proven leadership skills, the programme can focus on people who already know what it's like to be a leader and who can learn from and build on each other's experiences.

These scholars participate in a programme built on three legs. The first leg is an intensive academic experience. Students will be taught by some of the best faculty from both Tsinghua and top western universities, studying a curriculum covering leadership, Chinese culture and history, economics, politics, and international relations. The second leg will give scholars a deep immersion in Chinese culture, professions, and language through intensive language training, deep dives into various cities and regions, and high-level internships. The third leg will consist of a rich and varied collegiate life, which will bind the academic and Chinese experiences together.

The programme is physically housed on the Tsinghua University campus in Schwarzman College. It aims to build up a set of rich and varied collegiate traditions that will provide its members with a proud and lasting sense of identity. As befits such a collegiate education, the programme's home is a handsome building designed by Robert A. M. Stern, which is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular new buildings in China, successfully blending the old with the new. It is a statement of intent in itself and will provide both a forum and a refuge – a home away from home. It is already more than bricks and mortar. It is the spirit of Schwarzman incarnate.

A vision for the future

Of course, fine-tuning the whole Schwarzman experience will take time, at least three years in all likelihood. But one of the main means of achieving this will be the scholars themselves. They will clearly have a large say in how the college goes forward. After all, the students are some of the brightest and best in the world. In time, the college will, it is hoped, become a centre of cultural life in Beijing and a magnet for talented people from all around the world.

Very soon, we shall see the initial outcomes as the first cohort of Scholars finish their year at Tsinghua and move into the early stages of their chosen careers. We will monitor their progress as individuals and as a network in their early years, but in most cases it will take decades before we know if they have grown into a global network of leaders, acting as intermediaries between China and the rest of the world. For now, we can celebrate the talent of a remarkable class of young leaders and the success of an innovative new programme, while we patiently work towards the fulfilment of a greater long term vision.