20 February 2018
A generation of American professionals equipped to engage with China
This series showcases young American professionals who have studied Chinese for any length of time, including studying abroad in China. Where are they now? How have their studies abroad, and Chinese language studies more generally, shaped their experience as young professionals?
Today we feature Sulaiman Kenyatta:
Sulaiman Kenyatta is a graduate of Morehouse College’s undergraduate program in International Relations with a minor in Chinese Studies. His journey into Chinese was made possible by several opportunities to study abroad in China. His first trip to Shanghai was facilitated through a summer Morehouse-Shanghai University exchange in 2012 with support from the Coca-Cola Foundation. Sulaiman was one of 10 students selected to participate in this three-week intensive summer language program. The program of study took place at Shanghai University, which provided rigorous language and cultural training, consisted of four hours of classes in the morning and two hours of one on one conversation and activities in the afternoon.
Apart from seeing important historical and cultural sites, Sulaiman found that this trip left such an impression on him because of the meaningful interactions he had with his counterparts at the university.
“In addition to formal language instruction, one of the principal intentions behind the design of our Chinese learning experience during this trip was to develop a stronger sense of cultural awareness”. Developing bonds of friendship with the graduate students at Shanghai University during our course of study, as well as participating in cultural activities, reinforced this component of our summer program”. He enjoyed this experience so much that he returned to Shanghai that fall as one of three recipients of a semester-long scholarship from Morehouse College.
The semester study in Shanghai allowed Sulaiman to focus on advancing his Chinese skills while truly exploring the Chinese culture. “The entire time I was in Shanghai, I was taking Chinese classes and applying my knowledge in daily life.” He said. Indeed, perhaps the single greatest advantage of studying abroad is the immediacy of practical gains in classroom learning through cultural immersion.
Yet another invaluable reward lies in the friendships formed through the shared experience of learning Chinese in China. “I lived in a dorm with other foreign students from all over the world,” he said. “We bonded over the experience of living in China as students of the language and culture, we understood each other in moments of homesickness and cheered each other on with every step of progress made in our mutual goals of learning Chinese and understanding China”.
That summer, Sulaiman went on his third trip to Shanghai, this time through sponsorship from Deloitte, a supporter of the 100,000 Strong Initiative. He was one of 14 Morehouse College students selected to attend another three-week immersion program at Shanghai University. He also had the opportunity to meet with senior leadership at Deloitte China. “Through these talks, we learned more about how to do business in China and throughout Asia which really sparked my interest in the international business sector,” he said.
The next year Sulaiman went on academic exchange to Stanford University for two quarters where he continued his Chinese studies while completing additional coursework in international relations. He subsequently completed his bachelor’s degree at Morehouse and relocated to Washington, DC, where he landed his first job at the US-China Business Council (USCBC).
Sulaiman went off the beaten path by relocating first to the place he knew he wanted to be and then staring the job search after relocation. It certainly helped that he had a relative he could stay with in the city while he got his post-grad bearings straight, but he definitely had a vision for why he wanted to be there. “While I didn’t have the job lined up before moving to DC, I knew for a fact I wanted to continue working in the China space,” he said. “I knew what I wanted to focus in, and my background helped. I had experience living in China, understanding the culture, learning the language, and being up to date on the emerging issues”. Sulaiman’s confidence helped, but there were some important steps between that stage and when he started working at USCBC.
“I networked,” he said. “I started cold calling people, sending emails. USCBC had been on my radar for a while, and I knew about the organization from their website, so I sent an email to a senior level person of the council, telling them about my experience with China and expressing my hope to work for the council in any capacity. They had an opening two months later, which was the internship I started with.”
As an intern, Sulaiman really honed his skills in digital media content development and marketing. Among other things, he wrote articles about foreign direct investment and trade deals that impacted Chinese and US companies, and assisted in re-launching the Council’s award-winning China Business Review. He strove for excellence as an intern and really built a portfolio of work to help him advance in this space.
Timing was also a factor in how he moved up in the organization. “I was only an intern for about a month and a half when the manager I was working with left the organization,” he said. “This was something I wanted to do, and I knew I could be useful in this role. I expressed that I wanted the job, and they trusted me enough to give me the full time role”. The three months he spent in his role as an intern paid off, not only because of the relationships he built, but also because he had the time to prove his reliability and aptitude in the skill-sets the Council really needed in its staff. He spent almost two years in his role as Digital Editor/Manager.
In Sulaiman’s story there were certainly elements of timing and luck, but these moments intersected with paths forged by concerted efforts in networking and targeted outreach to key people in the right organizations.
“You have to be assertive if you know what you’re interested in. You have to lay your cards on the table and tell them what you want to pursue. In my case at USCBC, my leadership saw my effort as an intern and I was rewarded with a full time job when the opportunity presented itself.”
His efforts were also confirmed with consistent preparation in coursework and study abroad experiences.
But what if you’re not so sure about what you’re interested in? For many fresh graduates, navigating the uncharted waters of the professional world can be intimidating. “Everybody has some kind of interest,” Sulaiman said. “When I applied for this internship, I was in a place where I needed to get my feet wet, to get some experience, so I really expressed that I was willing to learn and very eager to get involved. I also had a set of experiences to back up my interest in what the organization does.” The general counsel remains—think about what you are interested in, what you are good at, how these translate to a specific skill-set, then focus on how you can get more experience doing these things.
While it is valuable to keep your options open, it is also important to know when to pursue a particular opportunity. Flexibility is needed within a broader framework for what you want to do. “Keep in mind that your interests may change over time once you actually get some experience,” he said. “You may want to switch lanes or pursue the same issues but from a different angle or industry”.
After two years in the policy space, Sulaiman recently relocated to Indonesia where he is working on doing exactly that. “I want to move to the region to expand my experience in the international business sector,” he says. “I want to deepen my understanding of business operations and emerging sectors in the region…My biggest take-away from my professional experience is that China isn’t going anywhere, and it is only going to continue to grow. I want to be in a position where I can be a part of that growth,” he said.
USCS: advice to current/prospective students of Chinese?
SK: Be patient. It takes time and focused practice. When we were studying Chinese, that’s all we were doing. Any kind of immersion program would be ideal when you’re leaning the language so you can also apply what you’re learning immediately. Keep an open mind, enjoy the experience, and trust the process!
Sulaiman Kenyatta is a Southeast Asia-based digital communications consultant. He served as the Communications Manager for the US-China Business Council in Washington, DC from 2016-2018. He is a 2015 Morehouse College alum and also attended Shanghai University as a Coca-Cola and Deloitte Study Abroad Fellow.