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Alum Update

What’s Up Alum? – Robert O’Brien

Robert O'Brien ESIA & UHP '08

Robert O’Brien, ESIA ’08, graduated from the University Honors Program summa cum laude. From 2008 to 2009 he was a Fulbright Scholar in the People’s Republic of China. Since December 2009 he has worked as a Research Assistant in the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution. He will begin graduate studies at Oxford University’s St. Antony’s College this fall.

In preparing to write this column, I read over all of the previous entries and came away extremely impressed by the number and diversity of UHP success stories. Rather than go through each of the decisions that led me to where I am today, I want to use my 500 words to champion a cause that is near and dear to my heart – adventures.

To start, here’s a brief overview of my life post-graduation:

After graduating from GW in 2008 I spent a year and a half conducting research on the political ramifications of Chinese internal migration patterns as a Fulbright Scholar. Returning to the U.S. in November 2009, I took up the post of research assistant at the Brookings Institution, where I analyze developments in Chinese politics, economics and foreign policy. This coming October I will begin graduate studies in Global Governance and Diplomacy at Oxford University.

Now, let’s talk about adventures.

College and the few years immediately following it are typically the only period in our lives where it is totally cool to be focused on one’s self. The rest of our time is usually dominated by our responsibilities to others – parents and siblings before college and bosses, spouses and children after. With that in mind, the four years you spend as an undergraduate and the couple of years following graduation represent the perfect time to be adventurous. Your adventures can be physical, such as a semester spent volunteering in India, intellectual, such as taking a class in a subject with no relevance to your major, or even professional, such as taking on a summer job in a realm of work that you don’t foresee yourself pursuing. Pretty much anything that broadens your horizons without damaging your ability to be healthy and happy in the future counts as an adventure and there are, quite literally, an infinite number of them out there.

Why go on adventures?

At the most basic level, adventures make us interesting people. They make for good stories and they help us understand the diverse and dynamic world we live in. They also, though, can help out significantly in the job search and graduate school admissions game. I applied for a Fulbright to conduct research on China’s migrant workers because I was interested in the topic. My fieldwork in 2008-2009 included eating exotic dinners in migrant colonies (ask me if I’ve eaten dog, no, seriously…), traveling back to the countryside with migrant families (you’ve never seen so many fireworks!), and learning new slang in the various local dialects of the PRC (my favorite is the Henan phrase for “to toast your boss”). Since returning to the States, I’ve been praised numerous times by scholars, officials and businessmen, not for the academic quality of my research or the prestige of Fulbright, but because through my adventures I was able to experience something few of them have ever had access to – the beating pulse of the Chinese people. This, in turn has led to several new job opportunities and, ultimately, the chance to attend Oxford next fall.

Stated bluntly, adventures pay off.

If you’re in the UHP, you have already done quite a bit to ensure a date with professional success somewhere down the line. So as you work hard building your resume and advancing your career, keep in mind that the opportunity to go on an adventure won’t be there forever, that adventures are the substance of a colorful life, and that the right adventure can actually be the key to professional development. Don’t believe me? Ask a few GW alums. They’ll tell you “What’s Up.”