By Youfeng (Gloria) Pan, Guest Writer
John Schuldt is the Executive Director of the Thunderbird Independent Alumni Association (TIAA). He sat down with us on Feb. 15 to discuss his story, TIAA’s role in the Thunderbird community, and what he sees the future holding for Thunderbird.
What is your story? What led you to this position?
I like to joke with current students and faculty, even in the past, that I’m living proof that a former Pub Manager can have a successful career. When I was here as a student, the Pub was student run, and I was the Pub Manager, which was fair to say that it was one of the most sought-after position on campus. I had a good friend who was the editor of Das Tor, and we used to joke that we were the de facto power brokers on campus because the Pub Manager and the News Editor always know what’s going on on campus. I shared that with you as a bit of a joke, but there is an element of seriousness in there.
This school provided me the opportunity to have the life that I’ve had. I was hired by Ford Motor company, and I started one month after graduation. Ford considered me because I graduated from Thunderbird. Ford would not have hired me had I applied from my undergraduate institution.
I met my wife at an alumni meeting in NYC in 1988 after we had both graduated. So, Thunderbird provided me the opportunity to be happily married in the last 26 years and to have two wonderful and beautiful children.
I was the chapter leader in Boston, Massachusetts back in 1980s. I was the chapter leader in Atlanta back in the 1990s and also chapter leader in Tokyo and in Seoul. I’ve been actively involved in the Alumni community since 1986, right after I graduated.
So when this opportunity came up, when I saw it advertised, my wife and I both said “This a great opportunity!” There were about 30-31 who applied, and the board in the end selected me to be the Executive Director. For me, this is the capstone of my career. I left the place 33 years ago, and now here I am back again. I feel like it’s a circle of life, and now I’ve come full circle, and I’m able to give back to the school that gave me so much. That’s how I came to wind up in this position.
33 years ago, on Feb. 15, 1985, I was probably in the Pub. 3 pm in the afternoon I was definitely in the Pub, because the Pub opened at 2pm. I was probably meeting either a beer salesman or with students or I was studying in my office. And here I am, here again.
Some of the students may not understand the role that TIAA plays in the T-bird ecosystem. What is the story of the TIAA? How did it come to be?
TIAA stands for Thunderbird Independ Alumni Association. TIAA started when there was a for-profit educational institution called Laureate that attempted to purchase the school. There a group of alumni who bonded together and who were not in favor of seeing Thunderbird turn into a for-profit institution. So that’s the genesis of TIAA.
We are independent of the school and of ASU. We provide a voice into administration at ASU and Thunderbird that represents the views of our alum members. We are a respected voice in senior leadership at ASU and the school. We spend a lot of time talking with senior leadership about curriculum, course selection and quality professors. We are sought out for our comments and to advise on those subjects. Because we are independent, sometimes we can say things that might be difficult or challenging to say, but still it’s on an issue that needs to get on the table and be discussed. Because we are independent, we have the ability to do that.
For our members, we provide opportunities for continuous learning and continuous networking with fellow Thunderbird alums. An example of that is coming up on June 8th and 9th: we have a conference scheduled in DC. The theme of the conference is: “how will globalism survive politics and populism?” In other words, how will global trade survive? We’re going to hold this at the National Press Club.
It will be open to current students as well as all alumni and members of TIAA. There will be a Friday reception. Saturday is a full day of classes or lectures, focusing on things like Korea-US free trade, TPP, ‘One Belt One Road’ from China, NAFTA, and Brexit. When you think about the Brexit vote or the election of Donald Trump, both represent a shift to populism that we haven’t seen in either country for many years. So, our conference is going to focus on this. We do it every year to provide not only networking but opportunities for continuing education on issues that T-birds are interested in: global trade, policy and environmental sustainability.
We have another program planned in October in Malaysia that will be an environmental retreat that will focus more on sustainability. There will be a business aspect too — business as related to sustainability and green growth — and we just started our planning for the event. Current students and alumni can find more info at TIAA’s website.
What role do you see TIAA playing in the future?
As Thunderbird relocates and gets that beautiful building being proposed by ASU, we’ll continue to focus on what we called ‘the software.’ The value of the degree is not defined by buildings, but defined by the curriculum, course selection and quality professors. We are going to remain focused on being seen by the senior leaders of the school as a valued resource in the decision-making process about those items.
We are not going to focus on the design of classrooms, parking spaces, or dorms. But it has to have a Pub, and it has to have a rugby pitch. We are committed and passionate about keeping that Thunderbird degree valuable, and making sure it keeps its value through the life of your career. I’m in my thirty-third year of my career, and my Thunderbird degree has been valuable.
Whenever you relocate a school or a business, there will be noises. TIAA will focus on what the components are that deliver the greatest value of our degree. Obviously, we want to expand on that, as we get more members.
We are a member-based organization, as the revenue that we get from our members is what help us to do the things that we do to provide value back to for members but also to provide value to the leadership of ASU or Thunderbird.
The membership is not expensive. After you became an alum, the first year after your graduation, it’s $70 a year. That’s like taking 10 friends to Starbucks. There is so much value in a TIAA membership at that $70 level. I don’t think we got that across well enough to our alumni. One of the key things is to grow our member base. That starts with the current students, so current students: please join. It’s free.
What should every student know about TIAA?
From a current student standpoint, the first thing you should know or consider is that it’s never too early to start tapping into or taking advantage of one of the most valuable assets of attending Thunderbird. As a current student, it’s free. All you need to do is join. Go to the TIAA website, join, click that you are a current student – you are a member.
Then you’ll have access to the full suite of products that we have on the website, including the Alumni database. It is a great way for you as a current student to start networking. In my 31-year career with Ford, I moved 14 times, 3 times internationally. Every time I moved, one of my first moves was to contact the Alumni office here on campus — later TIAA after I joined TIAA — and ask who the chapter leader in Seoul was, for example. Find the name and email address, send him a message: “Hi I’m John Schuldt, a T-bird who graduated 1985. My wife graduated in 1986. We are moving to Seoul. Can you tell me when the next First Tuesday is?” My wife and I would go and immediately we’d meet people like us.
The most important element of Thunderbird is the alumni. As a current student, it’s hard to see that. But you get to see it as you get out into the world.
The unique thing about T-birds is regardless of whether you are a 1985 graduate, or a 2017 grad, we have a bond. We share something in common as T-birds. That benefits current students too. Many current students didn’t realize that they can take advantage of that today, while they are on campus. All they have to do is to join TIAA, and that’s free. Start from Day 1.