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Zack Marin

Why did you choose to do the flagship program? What makes it so unique? 

The summer before my freshman year at ASU, the then-director of the Chinese Language Flagship Program asked how I planned to differentiate myself after college—I honestly didn’t have a great answer. She recommended that I look into studying Chinese and, long story short, I fell in love with it.

The Language Flagship is a national initiative to create the next generation of “global professionals” by providing the framework (mental, financial, and emotional) within which students can achieve superior language proficiency in critical languages such as Chinese. I think that Flagship is unique in four regards:

  1. the program provides significant information and support to allow participation in a number of study-abroad experiences, including the Capstone year in China;

  2. the program fosters a cohort mentality, which results in intimate ties between students from all Flagship schools (ASU, Brigham Young University, Indiana University, University of Oregon, etc.);

  3. the program does not trivialize or shy away from the difficulty of learning Chinese, instead challenging students to actually achieve the superior language proficiency; and

  4. the program is basically a massive “personal-pan pizza,” allowing students to pick and choose their knowledge specializations, courses, and work experience based on professional interests.

Part of your program included the Capstone year, involving time abroad at a university and an internship in China. Can you speak more about this experience? How did it benefit you?

 The Capstone is the culmination of The Language Flagship experience and, as such, is the final result of years of intensive Chinese study and the last step to reaching superior language proficiency. What sets Capstone apart from other study abroad programs is its length and the degree to which students are encouraged to learn through immersion by studying, living, and working in China.

The year is split into two components: a semester at a top-ranked university taking classes (in Chinese, of course!) alongside fellow native students, and a semester internship working at a company/NGO of the student’s choosing. The classes that I took ranged from Chinese media during the Cultural Revolution to business law, and from professional writing to strategic management. Although I had previously taken classes conducted entirely in Chinese, it was incredible to experience the Chinese education system first-hand and provided an amazing sense of accomplishment when I realized that I could “keep up” with my native classmates.

I ended up interning at an international nuclear energy consulting firm headquartered in Shanghai. My experiences at Nicobar Group solidified my passion for consulting and provided the first truly professional venue to apply my Chinese language skills. Aside from the professional development aspects, I found a lifelong friend in my Chinese roommate, almost died on a mountain in NW China (I still recommend hiking it though!), was besieged by fireworks over Chinese New Year, got ripped off by my landlord, and formed a band with my internship co-workers.

All in all, I had had some crazy experiences in my previous trips to China, but the depth of interaction made possible by the sheer length of a year abroad allowed for even crazier adventures. The Capstone year benefited me both personally and professionally—and it was a ton of fun!

 

How did SILC and the program prepare you for your future career?

 SILC and ASU’s Chinese Language Flagship directly prepared me for my future career. When I met with the then-director of the Flagship Program, I was determined to pursue a career in genetics research. I ended up graduating with my genetics degree, but I picked up Chinese as well along the way—Chinese and the opportunities available to me through the Flagship program served as the foundation for my transition from science to business.

By my junior year, after two years of research in two different labs, I had come to terms with the fact that my professional priorities lay elsewhere. One day, I ended up chatting in the Flagship office with a recent alum about his experiences working at the investment bank, Goldman Sachs. His description sounded significantly more in-line with what I was looking for in my career, and, after a bit of research, I found myself applying to be a summer analyst. The recruiters at Goldman Sachs ended up being familiar with the work ethic of previous Flagship alumni and were very welcoming of applicants from various backgrounds; I ended up receiving an offer!

Ten days after getting back from my internship, I left for Capstone. During the process of researching potential classes to take for the first semester, I found myself buried in forums and chatrooms comparing investment banking and management consulting, a career which I was previously unfamiliar with. Consulting, at least on paper, seemed to be the application of the scientific method to the business world. Best of all, the entire process required significant interpersonal communication and client interaction—in essence, the synthesis of aspects I found lacking in my previous professional experiences. I found international economics, strategic management, international finance, and business law courses at the Chinese university and tried them all, adding some formal education backing to the knowledge that I had previously acquired on-the-job.

As the first semester came to an end, I began looking for a consulting internship opportunity. It turned out that a Flagship alum was currently working at a nuclear energy consulting firm and, although I had no previous experience with nuclear engineering, my language abilities and previous track record proved to be sufficient to secure an offer. Nicobar Group provided me with the opportunity to work on market-entry strategy and project implementation—I loved it! I had found a career that I could be passionate about!

Knowing that there would not be a definite opportunity for me to work for Nicobar Group back home, I began researching the major firms in the US and preparing for case and FIT (resume) interviews. Several of my Flagship cohort classmates and the managing partner at Nicobar Group helped me connect with current management consultants, and, after a few months of preparation, networking, and interviews, I am happy to say that I landed a position as an entry-level management consultant!

It’s been a long journey full of twists and turns, but I successfully followed my passions and made the transition from genetics to management consulting, the common thread of which was my experience learning Chinese in Flagship. I can’t wait to move to Boston in April!

 

What area of in-depth study in the program was your favorite? 

My favorite area of in-depth study was, without a doubt, Classical Chinese. Classical/Literary Chinese is a completely different language than modern Mandarin: there are no parts of speech, there is no punctuation, there are lexical differences, and characters have multiple/expanded meanings. Now, that may sound like the recipe for a headache-and it is-but translating Classical Chinese into modern Chinese/English is like solving a brainteaser that requires you to broaden your ability to interpret meaning and make connections.

Not only that, but these are the texts of Confucius, Mencius, Sunzi (Sun-tzu), etc. as they were originally recorded—there is something incredibly profound about being able to read ancient Chinese texts as an American in the 21st century. It melts cultural, linguistic, and temporal boundaries. Plus, you can quite literally quote what “Confucius says!” I liked it so much that I ended up working with my Classical Chinese professor to translate Daoist text for my honors thesis.

 

How does knowing another language help you succeed in life, both here and abroad?

I’m a big believer in the concept of linguistic relativity: the structure of a language affects how its speakers view the world. If language affects perspective, then learning another language should hopefully provide some insight on how/why speakers of that language view things in a certain way, thereby enhancing mutual understanding. On the flip side, learning how speakers of a language view things exposes the language learner to new perspectives, improving his/her ability to view and solve problems. Applying this to my experiences, my passion for Chinese stems from how vastly different it is than English, especially the character system. I believe that, as a direct result of my learning Mandarin, I am able to view problems from a more holistic perspective and make better connections between seemingly disparate ideas. These are traits that I found essential to memorizing Chinese characters.

 

What was the most challenging aspect of learning another language? Do you have any advice for current and prospective students?

I often jokingly say that between genetics and Chinese, Chinese was the more difficult major. There is definitely some truth to that statement though. The Mandarin dialect has five tones (including the neutral tone), a character-based system, two character types (simplified and traditional), and a number of phonetic and lexical differences across regions. Overall, I think that these are the four most challenging aspects of learning Mandarin. For me specifically, it was definitely the tones. As a singer, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them. Tones can mean the difference between saying “how much does it cost for a bowl of steamed dumplings” and “how much does it cost to sleep (with you) for a night.” There are countless examples like these that, while terrifying from a pragmatic perspective, make the learning process very fun. I eventually “found my Chinese voice” (it ended up being somewhere in between singing and different levels of gusto) and am now just in the endless process of accumulating vocabulary.

Regardless of the language, I think that it is important to create meaning for yourself in the language learning process, and immerse yourself in the language environment as much as possible. Once you have the first one down, it should be easier to persuade yourself to pursue the second one—even if you do end up accidentally asking someone to sleep with you instead of buying dumplings.