I hated dancing. I’d always hated dancing. Events like wedding receptions made me nervous, because I knew that at some point I would have to dance. When forced to take the floor, I’d always pick a slow song where I could fumble around without anyone really noticing.

Now, when I hear a good beat, I love to grab the hand of my wife, my favorite partner, and twirl her out on to the dance floor.

So, what changed? How did I become a dancer?

Dancing

It started with a movie. My wife and I subscribe to Netflix, and she choses all of the movies for us. One night about four years ago, we watched Shall We Dance. The story revolves around a lawyer, John Clark (played by Richard Gere), who has a successful practice, but is bored with his life. He realizes that something is missing. The character is about 50 (my age at the time) with a teenage daughter and a busy, professional wife.

John’s train ride home takes him by a dance studio where night after night he notices a pretty girl looking out the window. He eventually summons the courage to get off his train and go up to the dance studio to meet her. Before he knows what’s happened, John is signed up for introductory ballroom lessons. From this point the story twists and turns, as most do, but one thing remains: John discovers that he loves to dance. He didn’t know that he loved dancing, because he’d never really known how to dance. Now, the more he learns, the more he likes it.

While not a four-star movie, I liked Shall We Dance. Later I learned it is an American re-make of a Japanese film. So, we got on Netflix and ordered that version, too. As is almost always the case, the original is better. The story’s the same, but in the Japanese version the protagonist is an accountant.

I’m an accountant. I connected with the character. When we finished the movie I said to my wife, “We ought to take some ballroom dance lessons.”

I didn’t mean it. In the passion of the moment, I just blurted it out and soon forgot about it. Then, about two months later, my wife told me that she’d signed us up for beginner ballroom lessons. As soon as I opened my mouth, she reminded me that I was the one that said we should do it. I was trapped.

I still vividly remember my first dance lesson: Tuesday night, 6:00 to 7:30 p.m., a grade school gym, basketball hoops and white linoleum floors. I ate six Rolaids on the car ride there. But, the lesson wasn’t as bad as I had feared. These were community education lessons and everything was pretty relaxed. I survived my first dance lesson without too much damage to my ego. We progressed through the four lessons, but I didn’t improve much. It was clear to me that I was not having a Richard Gere experience—life is never like the movies. When the class was over, my wife suggested we immediately do the same set of lessons over again. Since now I knew what to expect, I agreed. My second time through was like magic. I began to dance without fear. I got better at it. And I began to like it.

Since those early dance lessons, we have graduated to more advanced ballroom lessons with a very good local dance instructor. I continue to enjoy the lessons. I sometimes ask myself, “Would I rather be home watching TV on a Tuesday night or would I rather be taking a tango lesson with my wife?” For me, it’s an easy choice: the tango lesson. My wife and I have joined the local ballroom club, which has a dinner dance once a month, and we try to go dancing whenever we can.

We also do country dancing, waltz, two-step, and polka. We’ve worked our way through most Aggie Wrangler lessons. Invariably, we are the oldest people in the class by about 30 years, but it doesn’t matter. No one is watching. We go country western dancing every Thursday night at a local dance hall, and like ballroom dance, I’ve grown to love it, too.

In the end, the same thing that happened to Richard Gere’s character in Shall We Dance happened to me. Once I stepped out of my comfort zone, I discovered I have a passion—and a talent—for dancing.

Categories: Perspectives

In the last 10 years, more people have died worldwide from diarrhea as a result of unclean water than all the lives lost in armed conflict since World War II. In fact, today while you read this there will be another 6,000 lives lost due to unsafe drinking water and 90% of those victims will be under the age of 5. I have 3 daughters; ages 6, 3 and 1 month old. If we lived in a developing nation it is highly likely they would be part of this statistic. And the statistics go on and on. They are the headlines to the stories of human lives lost, and I cannot deafen their sounds any longer.

My journey starts in Hereford, Texas, as the son of a hard working, successful entrepreneur who sent me to the college of my choice: Texas A&M University. I am the first Merrick to graduate from college, let alone go to college, in all the generations in my family’s history—an accomplishment I don’t often forget as it was a very challenging task for me to finish. I pursued various start up businesses during college and realized consumer goods was the arena where I wanted to earn a living. The years passed and I got to be part of selling numerous products, having many a failures and a couple of successes. I had all I could ask for and more, but something was missing from my life.

Project 7 makes commonly used consumer products and uses the profits from its sales to raise awareness for critical areas of need around the world.
Project 7 makes commonly used consumer products and uses the profits from its sales to raise awareness for critical areas of need around the world.

Then it happened. A couple of years ago, I was at lunch one day with a friend, bending his ear about this personal void in my life. This was the moment when I first learned what a Social Entrepreneur was. It was one of those “slide show” moments in life that I’ll never forget. It was like a street magician had written my name on a piece of paper before he met me and surprised the audience with his tell. How did he do that? How did that just happen? I felt like someone just put clothes around this dream I’d been chasing for all these years in my head. I had a vision for my life. I would use business as a way to work towards resolving social problems.

My vision isn’t just a personal calling, but one shared by many. It’s everyone’s responsibility to look out for your fellow man. So I started a business that hopes to call on society to do just that. My company, Project 7 (www.project7.com) makes consumer products that people use everyday. Through the sales of these products, we raise money and awareness for the seven most critical areas of need in our world. Those seven initiatives are:

  • Heal the Sick
  • Feed the Hungry
  • House the Homeless
  • Build the Future
  • Hope for Peace
  • Save the Earth
  • Help those in Need

It may sound like a daunting task, and it is. We can’t do it by ourselves, but we can inspire, be a voice, conduit and way for those wishing to make a difference in the world to do exactly that. We connect consumers with the nonprofits who are already trying to make a difference but need financial resources to continue to do good works. We have adapted our business model to compliment the American lifestyle. We have all watched a movie or 60 Minutes piece that inspired us to do something good, yet, by the time the snooze button has been hit we are back to our self-absorbed way of life. We came up with a business that uses everyday extraordinary products as a daily interruption or reminder that society can and should help out those in need. We draw attention to and educate about social issues through our packaging, with the cause being the “visual star.” The consumer picks the cause they wish to support with the respective funds going toward changing that specific need.

We offer our quality products at a comparable price and keep our overhead lower to ensure we give away as much money as possible each year to the selected non-profits. We ask nonprofits that are making a difference in these seven areas of need to apply for our funds. We then select finalists on an annual basis and ask our consumers to vote on our site for their final nonprofit selection for each cause. We offer a level of transparency for our consumers, showing the progress being made in each of the projects we fund. We want people to know that the funding they wish to pass on is getting into the appropriate hands. This provides credibility to our business model.

I am a capitalist, but I believe we should use our gifts for good and not evil. We have all seen the byproducts of professionals who have become drunk on their own success while neglecting the needs of those that have less. So I pose the question, what if we all used our God-given talents to not only make a living for ourselves but to help solve real world problems like clean water availability?

And, I’m not the only one who has been asking this question. Big business and consumers have helped us validate this thought with the growth we’ve seen in our first year of selling product. In December, we will give away our first round of funds the amount of $105,000. By the end of this year, our products will be in over 2,000 retail doors across the country. We have wonderful partners like Caribou Coffee, the 2nd largest coffee chain in the U.S., who exclusively sell our bottled water, chewing gum and breath mints. We’re in Whole Foods, Books-A-Million, and Java City nationally and in various grocery chains, drug stores, coffee shops, and gift stores on a regional level. We have a clothing line that is made out of organic cotton and five recycled plastic bottles. This October we will debut our new “bio bottle” bottled water around the country. This bottle is something very exciting for us as it increases the sustainability of our product, naturally breaking down in 1-5 years and at the same time it is also recyclable.

I am proud to be a part of a school and group of people such as Texas A&M that fosters an environment of serving your fellow man. What if an Aggie engineer helped lead the fight for economical clean water drilling technology or a water purification system for developing nations? What if an Aggie architect became the pioneer in green or LEED housing? How about an Aggie Ag Sciences professional who helped developing nations create a hardy crop that was more drought resistant creating a renewable food supply? There are many Aggies that have done great things that we are all proud of along with the quiet servants that nobody ever sees. It is my hope that someone reads this article and has “clothes put around their dream.”

Categories: Perspectives

From I have a dream, to pinching yourself, realizing that you are awake. Actually, there was no need to pinch myself: the bitter cold D.C. air was enough to remind me that I was alive, and watching history happen right before my very eyes.

Hardin (right) and two friends from Australia in front of the Lincoln Memorial directly after the MLK Day celebration.
Hardin (right) and two friends from Australia in front of the Lincoln Memorial directly after the MLK Day celebration.

There were a predicted four million people present, and billions around the world watching the National Mall in Washington, D.C., as Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States, recited the oath of office. I was standing next to the Washington Monument, more closely resembling a popsicle than a human being, however, I was better off than some of the other people I had met who had been camping out since 3 a.m. Although I watched the proceedings on the giant screens set up all along the National Mall, I could partially see the Capitol Building from where I stood. Being present at such an event, sharing in the minor suffering of the elements with my fellow Americans, was an incredible moment that I will cherish for the rest of my life.

The day immediately before the inauguration was Martin Luther King Day, which was appropriately celebrated at the Lincoln Memorial. Celebrities from Denzel Washington to Steve Carrel were present, with performances by Shakira, Bruce “The Boss’ Springsteen and my most anticipated… Beyonce. Often finding myself surrounded by an international crowd, I made sure all of the Australians, Canadians, Israelis, Norwegians and Puerto Ricans knew that Beyonce and I shared the privilege of calling Houston home. We sang and performed the “circle chicken dance’ from the music video “Single Ladies” all day, eagerly awaiting her live performance. Using some flawed logic, she chose to sing the much less patriotic tune of “America the Beautiful.” We’ll forgive her, only because she is Beyonce.

Searching for a place to grab a bite to eat (which was quite a feat given the number of people present in the city) we ran in to some cadets from the Naval Academy who were in the Glee Club, and had gotten to sing onstage at the MLK Day performance. Their pictures of Barack and Michelle were literally taken from only a few yards away, and they captured pictures of Bono and friends from within inches. Although two very different perspectives of the same event, we were all able to enjoy and recall the moment together.

Don't get between Americans and their coffee on chilly D.C. mornings! Every trashcan in the city was overflowing with used coffee cups.
Don’t get between Americans and their coffee on chilly D.C. mornings! Every trashcan in the city was overflowing with used coffee cups.

With the exception of my immediate international circle, everywhere I went was amidst a sea of Americans, many of them black. Growing up in Houston, I went to a high school that was largely black and Hispanic, with a dwindling number of white kids. Looking around at the crowd, I noticed generations of black Americans that had traveled far and wide to witness and be a part of this piece of history. It brought a tear to my eye when I saw an elderly black woman, her eyes wet as she gazed across the Reflecting Pool to the Lincoln Memorial, as she listened to President-Elect Obama Obama speak. She was ethereal, somehow outside of her body and in the present. I never asked her, but I didn’t have to in order understand that she had been in that exact spot before, almost half a century younger, listening to Dr. Martin Luther King share with the world his dream, the dream of millions.  Standing there with her grandson, asleep in his stroller, it was as if you could take a bite out of her sense of pride, accomplishment, and assurance.

Washington, D.C., is notorious for being a dangerous city, however, my entire time there, I never once felt unsafe. Something in the air felt brisk and refreshing, like a sip of Diet Coke. The streets were packed, it was disturbingly glacial (I literally traversed block by block, stopping in a pub/restaurant on each corner, thawing my nose and re-circulating the blood in my toes) but none of these elements of discomfort or potential sources of frustration seemed to dampen the mood. The news networks all wonder when the honeymoon period will end, but based on my assessment on Connecticut and 18th, real change is in the air.

Categories: Perspectives

The following is a commencement address given by T.J. Barlow Professor of Management Asghar Zardkoohi to the 2009 graduating class of Mays EMBAs on May 2 in The Woodlands, Texas.

A long time ago, actually exactly 32 years ago this month, there was an announcement that Milton Friedman, the well-known economist (a Nobel Laureate in economics and my hero) was going to deliver the commencement talk at my school. I was graduating that year after six years of hard graduate work. On the way to the commencement ceremonies, while holding on to my graduation cap for the fear of losing it to the wind, I ran into one of my favorite professors, Charlie Goetz. I remember asking Professor Goetz two questions: the first was about his speculation of what Professor Friedman was going to talk about at the ceremonies, and the second was about my confusion between the terms “graduation” and “commencement,” as I had never spent any time thinking about the distinction. I knew one thing, I was graduating, and that was the ending of graduate school, not beginning.

T.J. Barlow Professor of Management Asghar Zardkoohi (at left, with 2009 EMBA graduate Kenneth Mercado) was selected by the students of the graduating class as the recipient of the 2009 Executive MBA Program Teaching Excellence Award.
T.J. Barlow Professor of Management Asghar Zardkoohi (at left, with 2009 EMBA graduate Kenneth Mercado) was selected by the students of the graduating class as the recipient of the 2009 Executive MBA Program Teaching Excellence Award.

On the first question, we both had the wrong guess: we thought Professor Friedman was going to talk about stagflation, as the economy then was suffering from stagnation (that is a heavy dose of recession) and inflation simultaneously. Instead, Professor Friedman talked about the torch of knowledge and how WE, the graduates, had the responsibility to advance the torch (like in a relay race) and pass it on to the next generation.

On the second question about my confusion between graduation and commencement, Professor Goetz told me, and I paraphrase: “commencement is the more appropriate of the two terms. What you think you have learned so far in the graduate school is HOW to go about learning and HOW to go about thinking; what questions to ask, and how to go about analyzing information. The real learning starts now, when you are on your own.” I sort of felt let down. I never told my children this story, for the fear that they would be discouraged to start college.

I actually didn’t need to keep the information from them, as my eldest son heard the same idea first hand from someone else. It was 2001 when my eldest son was choosing between two medical schools. One of them was Johns Hopkins. The prospective students who had already been accepted into the school were invited to visit the school to make up their mind whether this is where they would be spending the next four years of their lives. Some parents were with their son or daughter at the orientation; I was with my son. As part of the orientation, participants were invited to hear one of the well-known medical professors. In his remarks the professor said, and I paraphrase, “Half of what we will teach you will be proven to be irrelevant information within the next 10 years, and you’ll forget the remaining half within the next five years or so.”

He continued by adding, “and you should be happy about what happens to each half.” The professor stopped talking, and there was a big silence in the room. I believe the professor’s silence was intentional to make sure everybody got the point. Very quietly my son asked me, “What is he talking about?”

After 32 years of practice as an academician, I believe my professor, Charlie Goetz, and my son’s professor of medicine were right. Learning continues and knowledge evolves: the procedure that works today becomes obsolete as it is replaced by a safer and more effective procedure. The knowledge that is applied today will be supplanted by new knowledge that is superior. The organizational structure that works today becomes obsolete as a new and superior structure will be discovered that will prove to be more efficient.

I hope that what you have learned during the last two years is how to look at things, what questions to ask, how to go about thinking about organizational, economic, and social phenomena and to always, always question the status quo. Try to find a better way of doing things, as the ideas we have taught you may soon become irrelevant, and new ideas that are superior will replace them. As Professor Friedman said 32 years ago at my commencement ceremonies, “like a runner in a relay race, YOU with the advanced knowledge have the responsibility to advance it further and pass it on.”

The future relies on you and those you’ll teach to find alternatives that work better than the ones learned in our classes. There is no graduation from learning and innovating; there is only commencement.

Congratulations for this commencement.

Categories: Perspectives

For what or whom would you give all you have in exchange for self-imposed homelessness? What makes your heart ache?

In September 2008, I traveled with students in the Mays Business Honors Program to Washington, D.C. To say that this trip was life changing is an understatement. Although I thoroughly enjoyed our guided tour of the Pentagon, our private meeting with Congressman Chet Edwards’ assistant, and dining in Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ office, I was most impressed with a homeless woman. She lives on the sidewalk across the street from the front entrance of the White House.


Concepcion Picciotto has lived in Washington D.C.’s Lafayette Park since 1981 protesting against nuclear proliferation. [Image courtesy of dawvon]

A true champion for her cause, Concepcion Picciotto can be found every day in Lafayette Park, where she first took up residence in 1981. Her valiant message:  “Stop building nuclear weapons, and let’s use the money to eliminate poverty.” I expect this may strike a chord with some of you, but my intention is not to condemn or condone her proposition. Rather, I am intrigued by her selfless devotion to a particular cause for nearly three decades.

Over the course of twenty-nine years, Mrs. Picciotto has been harassed by police; She has been the subject of foul language from tourists; She’s frozen in the winter’s chill and sweltered through the summers; She’s even been physically abused by one of this nation’s servicemen. Yet you will always find her in her homemade tent. A milk crate serves as her makeshift bed and she survives only on what is given to her by local residents and visitors, whether it is a loaf of bread or pocket change. She suffers for her cause, but she does not complain. She rejoices in people willing to listen to her cause.

Picciotto is originally from Spain and is fluent in seven languages. I had the privilege of watching her give her message to a group of French tourists passing by one night. I had absolutely no idea what their conversation consisted of, but I remember feeling a strong sense of peace. I was content in watching this woman exercise her fundamental right to free speech amid persecution.

In reflecting on her dedication to halting nuclear efforts, I found myself searching for something in my life for which I would be willing to sacrifice the roof over my head. My stomach knotted over the answer that, at that time, I could not produce.

Ms. Picciotto inspired me to sit down and examine how my current ways will impact my future. Was I content with the direction in which I was headed? Did I really want to pursue the career I was working toward? Through a great deal of prayer, persecution, and grace, I emerged confident in the path on which I now walk. I know who I am willing to suffer for and rejoice in persecution.

For what or whom would you give all you have in exchange for self-imposed homelessness? What makes your heart ache? Most people avoid answering these questions because of the unpleasant feelings such convictions bring. I challenge you to consider this: Take away the car, the signing bonus, the diploma, the debit card, all of life’s conveniences, and are you content with the person staring back at you in the mirror? If I can find peace, surely you can too!

Categories: Perspectives

At the stroke of midnight, we stopped our game of Skip-Bo to toast the New Year. It was a quiet celebration, and certainly one I will never forget. As I sat silently with my fellow Aggies, I could not help but think of the images of displaced families, burning homes and machete-armed mobs that we had seen earlier that night.

Texas A&M graduate Rebekah Norwood '06 (at far left) has traveled to Kenya three times to provide relief for some of the country's homeless children.
Texas A&M graduate Rebekah Norwood ’06 (at far left) has traveled to Kenya three times to provide relief for some of the country’s homeless children.

We arrived in Kenya just two days before the 2007 presidential election. People were speculating foul play as the numbers for President Mwai Kibaki suddenly soared with only a few hours left in the election. Political tensions grew hourly, and by the time Kibaki was finally announced victor over Raila Odinga, ethnic violence erupted as political parties took their anger to the streets.

This was my third trip to Kenya, and I was leading a group of five other students from Aggies for Christ (AFC) to work with a ministry 30 kilometers east of Nairobi called Made in the Streets. The organization works to rehabilitate street children that live in the slums surrounding Nairobi, taking them to a farm where they educate them, feed them and most importantly, provide the stability and unconditional love that every child craves. Completely discarded by society, nearly 60,000 street children make their homes in piles of trash, finding comfort in glue fumes, which they sniff to ease their hunger pains. If Kenya had a social ladder, these children would not reach the bottom rung.

For the last several years, students from AFC have spent their semester breaks working with Made in the Streets, and the street children have come to love Aggies and look forward to their arrival. According to local missionaries, the Aggies are different than other Nairobi missionary groups: They will “go anywhere and do anything—no matter how dirty or difficult the work.”

Titus, seen here while still living on the streets, was one of the many children addicted to sniffing glue that Norwood worked with.
Titus, seen here while still living on the streets, was one of the many children addicted to sniffing glue that Norwood worked with.

Titus, a wonderfully mischievous boy, was orphaned at the age of seven and forced to live on the streets. He once spit in my face when I refused him money for glue, but then cried in my lap 10 minutes later when I offered him a plate of food. Meeting Titus for the first time, in the midst of sewage and decaying waste, was like learning to breathe again. As if I had held my breath my entire life until that very moment. For two long summers we tried fruitlessly to get Titus off the streets, and finally, this time back, I was ecstatic to see that he was finally in the rehabilitation program and off drugs.

Working with kids like Titus has become my life’s passion. Which is why, even as two congressmen, the State Department, a specialized evacuation company and our parents frantically worked to get us out of the country, I still could not picture myself anywhere else in the world. Exactly one week after the violence began we were evacuated to Tanzania on a chartered bush plane. As we flew toward the border, Mount Kilimanjaro on the horizon, I felt a mix of sadness and relief that we were finally getting out. My life has not been the same since my first trip to those slums. There is something about Kenya and all the Tituses of the world that make this work undeniably worthwhile. I go because, like other Aggies, I am called to selfless service. Such service is part of who I am and who God has called me to be; attending Texas A&M has only further ingrained this idea within me.

So when people ask me if we were scared or upset that we had to cut our mission trip short, I only pull out a picture of a young boy and say, “Let me tell you about Titus…”

• • • • •

To learn more about Aggies For Christ or Made in the Streets, go to http://www.aggiesforchrist.org or http://www.made-in-the-streets.org.

This article was reprinted with permission from Spirit magazine, a publication of the Texas A&M Foundation for alumni, donors and other A&M supporters. The Texas A&M Foundation, a private nonprofit organization with on-campus headquarters, solicits and manages investments in academics and leadership programs to enhance A&M’s capability to be among the best universities. Its current multiyear initiative, Operation Spirit and Mind&#8480, aims to raise $300 million in scholarships. For more information about the foundation, see http://giving.tamu.edu.

Categories: Perspectives

At the Parthenon
At the Parthenon

SNAP! I savored the unique flavors, sampling each of the dozens of dishes heaped upon the table—Greek salads, fried zucchini, tzatzki, pastitsio, souvlakia, lamb. We clapped along to the lively music as guitarists plucked out traditional melodies, serenading the crowded taverna. Hours later, full of talk and food, and more talk and more food, we wandered the cobbled streets, an eclectic mix of busy shops and abandoned ruins. I glanced up. The famous Parthenon stood, bathed in moonlight, watching over its legendary city. That’s when it finally hit me: I was in Greece!

SNAP! I glanced up…and up…and up at the imposing fortress on top of the even more imposing mountain. One thousand steps to the top of the Palamidi Fortress. One thousand steps! After huffing and puffing up a hundred steps, I began to question our bravado. One hundred steps later, I was convinced we were insane. Another hundred steps, and I was cursing whoever had the bright idea of climbing the darn mountain. Half an hour later, as I stood at the peak and surveyed the city below us, I felt a huge sense of victory. I had conquered the mountain! We clambered around the ruins, whooping and yelling as we explored the ancient fortress. It was a moment worth a thousand steps.

At Meteora
At Meteora

SNAP! Dozens of monasteries perched precariously on the crags of Meteora. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the beautiful stone prayers. We quietly wandered the halls of the Greek Orthodox sanctuaries. Elaborate icons adorned the walls. Incense burned. The murmur of soft prayers was a soothing hymn. I stopped and stared at the walls of a small chapel. The cracked and scarred paintings stared back, defiled and destroyed by Nazi soldiers decades before, left as a silent testimony to the harsh reality of intolerance and hatred. I lit a candle and whispered a prayer, stepping out to sit in the sunlight and reflect on the moment.

SNAP! The setting sun bathed the island of Mykonos in gorgeous colors. The soft light kissed our shoulders, sunburned from lazy afternoons reading on the beach and playing in the blue, blue water. The sun bid us goodbye, telling us to enjoy another night of food and talk, laughter and dancing. We delighted in the carefree fun and revelry of the island until it was time to welcome the sun again at a sleepy waterfront café, sipping frappes and hot chocolates as we watched the sky slowly lighten.

On the island of Mykonos
On the island of Mykonos

SNAP! I gazed in awe at the fabled Mask of Agamemnon and the legendary treasures of Troy in the National Archaeological Museum. SNAP! Loud whoops filled the theatre at Epidavros as we belted the Aggie War Hymn at the top of our lungs. SNAP! We spent the wee hours of the morning sharing our thoughts on a rooftop in Napflion in a scene straight out of the movies. SNAP! We ran a fierce three-legged race on the plain track that was the original Olympic stadium. SNAP! I ventured deep into the recently discovered tomb of Philip II.

SNAP! The Chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor called the hearing to order. Champions of education reform—Michelle Rhee, Michael Bloomberg, Joel Klein, Arne Duncan—testified on closing the achievement gap in education. I scribbled the debate on my legal pad, filling pages and pages with the proposals and arguments shaping public policy. As an intern at the U.S. Department of Education, I was eager to learn everything I could about the ideas, reforms, and results changing public education. We interns enthusiastically relived the debate and reexamined the issues over lunch, discussing our growing passion for education reform and the many exciting possibilities of the future.

At the annual White House Tee-Ball Game with First Lady Laura Bush
At the annual White House Tee-Ball Game

SNAP! “And…play ball!” President George W. Bush announced, kicking off the annual White House Tee-Ball Game. Fifty excited five-year-olds ran around the bases on the South Lawn to the enthusiastic cheers of the audience. Country singer Kenny Chesney led the crowd in a rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” After the game, the President smiled at us and shook our hands as he walked by. The First Lady posed for a picture. “Wow!” I repeated the word over and over again.

SNAP! Thousands of tourists decked out in red, white, and blue filled the Capitol to celebrate the Fourth of July. Reenactors read the Declaration of Independence to crowds at the National Archives. The Independence Day parade rolled through downtown. Big juicy slices of watermelon sold fast at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Taylor Hicks and Jerry Lee Jones jammed out on the stage in front of the Capitol. Cannons roared in time to the Overture of 1812. Spectacular fireworks exploded over the national monuments. I grinned, overwhelmed by pride and patriotism for our country. Happy birthday, America!

Meeting U. S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings
Meeting U. S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings

SNAP! I peeked into the Oval Office as we explored the West Wing of the White House. SNAP! I ran up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, reenacting the famous scene from Rocky. SNAP! I enjoyed the local favorite Blue Buck pancakes at Eastern Market. SNAP! I sat at the desk used to film C-SPAN’s Washington Journal. SNAP! I tip-toed after our lantern-toting guide on a spooky ghost tour of Old Town Alexandria. SNAP! I twirled around Times Square singing tunes from Mamma Mia! after my first show on Broadway.

These snapshots are just a few of the many that I took on my travels this summer. The incredible opportunity to travel throughout Greece for two weeks with the Greece Leadership Program and to intern in Washington, D.C. for two months with the Public Policy Internship Program left me with thousands of fantastic photos and memories. These pictures tell exciting stories of new places and new adventures, forming a unique collage of lessons learned, friendships made, and experiences gained in a memoir of a truly unforgettable summer.

Categories: Perspectives

Un-Belizeable! That is the best way to describe the North Belize Medical Mission team that I have been a part of for the past five years. In 2003, my mother, a nurse practitioner, was invited to be part of a team providing care to the villages of northern Belize around the town of Corozal. So I went with her, along with my sister, an ’08 Aggie graduate in psychology. We began spending the 2nd week of July providing medical, dental and eye care to over a thousand Belizeans every summer.

Tyler Eads and his mother, Shawna Eads, with a family at Corozal Clinic.
Tyler Eads and his mother, Shawna Eads, with a family at Corozal Clinic.

As a freshman at Mays Business School, I enrolled in the BUSN 289 Integrated Work-Life Competencies course with Dr. Roemer Visser as my professor. In this class, students are put into teams that are challenged to raise money for the organization of their choice. I thought getting my class team, Team Corozal, to support North Belize Medical Missions was a great way to tie in Mays Business School with a third world country in need of help. After fundraisers, solicitations to local dentist offices, and the donation of an RX medical mission pack from Johnson & Johnson, Team Corozal had raised over $5,000 dollars for North Belize Medical Missions. It was awesome to directly see the donations being distributed out to the needy Belizean families. I greatly respect Mays Business School for its desire to not only reach out to support local organizations but to support a team of students in its desire to make a difference in the world.

North Belize Medical Missions is a mission based out of the Central Church of Christ in Bryan, Texas. This year, our team of 33 people came together from all over the state of Texas, with a few from Indiana. We accomplished the enormous task of treating 1,452 Belizeans in just five days. Every Belizean we saw at the clinic received medical checkups along with eye and dental exams. Prescription lenses and sunglasses were distributed. Many rotten teeth were pulled. In the end, our pharmacist from San Angelo distributed 4,913 prescriptions that included vitamins, worm medicine, antibiotics and Tylenol, along with medication for high blood pressure and diabetes. Many of the medications distributed came from the donations Team Corozal (Mays Business School students) obtained.

Student and family in clinic
Tyler leading a Belizean family through the clinic in the village of San Narciso.

When I first began participating in this program at the age of 13, my duty was to weigh and measure each patient before sending them to triage. Eventually, I progressed to triage where blood pressure, pulse, temperature and medical histories are taken. This year I took over my sister’s role of coordinator of care. My multi-tasking skills were definitely tested as I moved each family from triage to the medical station, eye clinic, dentist (if they needed a tooth pulled), and on to the pharmacist — all inside of a hurricane shelter. Because many Belizeans only speak Spanish, I often caught them chuckling at my “hick” Spanish as I attempted to communicate.

One story that has really impacted me is that of a workingman named Norberto who lost part of his leg after he was hit by a drunk driver. When our team first came in contact with him, we arranged for him travel back to the United States to be fitted for a prosthesis. After receiving his prosthetic leg and returning to Belize, he returned to our clinic every year to see our team. Unfortunately the prosthetic foot deteriorated and turned to powder. He had to continue to work in the papaya fields to provide for his large family, so Norberto got creative and used the top of a butter carton as a replacement foot in order to prevent his peg leg from sinking in the mud. When you see a man not promoting Adidas or Nike shoes but Land O’Lakes margarine, it really opens your eyes to how lucky we are to have the life we take for granted.

In Belize, Tyler is not a common name and therefore stands out. Most of the kids cannot pronounce my name and instead call me “Tiger.” On my first trip to Belize I was weighing and measuring the patients when I noticed this young woman’s son was also named Tyler. I told her I had to take a picture with her son in order to have proof that another Tyler lives in Belize. Five years later I have not missed my annual photo op with this young boy. His mother informed my mom that she was not going to come to the clinic this past trip because the ride on her bike was too far, but she wanted Tyler and I to take our annual picture. They made the trip. It’s people like this that motivate me to always find a way to go back year after year. I know we are touching lives, and that is an amazing feeling.

Categories: Perspectives

As I am writing this, one of the world’s biggest events is taking place and unfortunately, the U.S. is generally oblivious to its significance. Yes, I am talking about the European Football Championship — the one where Turkey had a Cinderella run to the semi-finals, where England did not even qualify, and where the Dutch were knocked out of contention in the quarter finals after a whippin’ by the Russians. It’s Spain versus Germany in the finals. You call it soccer. We call it football.

It is impossible to convey to most Americans how big this really is (even more so when we’re talking about the World Cup, scheduled for 2010 in South Africa). I tell them to imagine a rivalry as intense as Army vs. Navy football games, or UT vs. A&M, and multiply that by a factor two or three and scale it up to an entire nation. If the Dutch team is successful in a major international soccer tournament, people take vacations, businesses shut down on game days, and pub owners will paint not only their faces bright orange, but their buildings as well. Think St. Patrick’s Day, but on a larger scale. And the Dutch are far from unique in this respect. Legendary Dutch football coach Rinus Michels is famous for one very short quote: “football is war.” Football matches are ways to settle (or perpetuate) collective grudges, either because of a past war or because of a spanking in a match decades prior.

Crowd at soccer match
Fans turn out in large numbers for soccer matches across the globe, such as this 2006 World Cup match between Serbia-Montenegro and the Netherlands.

So why don’t Americans get this?

This is the million-dollar question at the heart of most cross-cultural miscommunication. Most of these questions are variations of the following question: Why can’t “they” be more like “us“? And upon immigrating here to the U.S., I have learned that nine out of ten times, this is the wrong question to ask.

It was the summer of 1981. My parents had made friends with an American, a civil engineer like my dad. He had visited us at our home several times and we liked Mr. Matt a lot. He invited me and my older brother to stay with him and his family in the United States of America, and my parents decided that it might be good for both of us to have that experience.

Of all the impressions I got during my visit — many of which are not very profound as I was a 7th-grader — there is one that is etched in my mind. My brother and I had just cleared immigration when we were met by Matt and his wife Dawn, there to pick us up. Matt showed us a smile of recognition, but Dawn’s greeting was a different story. A complete stranger to me, she opened her arms wide and looked like she was about to cry. She greeted me with the world’s biggest (and most suffocating) bear hug, as if I was her own long-lost child. My brother was fortunate to be able to avoid this awkward situation, because at 16 years old, he was a little too manly for such a greeting. But me, I bore the brunt of this strange expression of affection.

I realize now that it was a sweet response, possibly even genuine in some odd way, but certainly sweet. I did not get that at the time. I froze with panic. I thought to myself, who is this woman? What does she want? Why is she touching me like this? Everyone else just shakes my hand. And why is she asking me how I am doing? That’s not her business! A million thoughts raced through my mind. I was too confused to utter even a sound. But in that moment, everything I had ever heard about Americans, which seemed to revolve around them being superficial, was brought home in that incredibly uncomfortable moment. Dawn, of course, never had a clue.

“In terms of cross-cultural competence, I have come to realize that one never arrives; one either accepts or declines the journey.”

Three years later, in 1984, my family and I actually moved to this country when my father was reassigned to New York. I learned to say “nice to meet you” even when the words sounded completely hollow to me. After all, how would you know if it’s nice to meet someone at the time of the introduction? Wouldn’t it take some time to come to that conclusion? Of course, I interpreted others’ “nice to meet you” as a kind but otherwise meaningless gesture. Also, I quickly realized that Americans don’t really want to know how you’re doing, and that it can be very awkward for them when you actually tell them. In fact, I learned to have quite a bit of fun with that! You see, where I grew up, yes was yes and no was no. You say what you mean and mean what you say. And you don’t ask anyone about their business unless you have an established relationship that allows those kinds of personal questions, generally reserved for friends or close acquaintances.

It was the winter of 2002. I was back in the Netherlands for a vacation, visiting high school friends of mine (“friends” in the European sense of the word, not the American). They introduced me to a friend of theirs named Rob. Shaking hands was an awkward moment for me, because it felt as though I was supposed to say something beyond “hello,” but I couldn’t think what it was. So I said, in Dutch, “nice to meet you.” While Rob remained oddly quiet, my friends realized what had just happened. Pointing their finger at me, they burst out in laughter, basically saying, “You are soooo busted!” It was one of those moments I would prefer not to remember. Unfortunately, my memory seems to have a will of its own.

All of these experiences — and plenty more — have contributed to my interest in culture. They have made me realize that even though I may consider myself bicultural, I still will screw up, both in my home culture and in my host culture (not to mention other cultures). In terms of cross-cultural competence, I have come to realize that one never arrives; one either accepts or declines the journey. Mine has been unpredictable, painful at times, but overall, very rewarding. Depending on the circumstances, I now seem to end up on different sides of the “us” versus “them” divide. It is for this reason that this divide makes so little sense anymore, which is also why that question, why can’t they be more like us?, is such a fruitless approach when trying to enhance understanding across culture.

I have not yet put my finger on the right question to ask. If and when I do, I’ll write the book. But the Dutch have some folk wisdom that might be a good place to start. The saying goes: Verbeter de wereld, begin bij jezelf. It roughly translates as follows: If you want to change [improve] the world, you must start with yourself. My experiences have taught me to stop trying to “fix” the other. I can’t get all Americans to “get” the European Football Championship. But If I can get just a few students to start asking different questions about culture, I know I will have made a difference.

I’d love to keep writing, but I have to wrap this up now — the Euro 2008 Finals are about to start. Doei!

Categories: Perspectives

When I began college at A&M in 2001 I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I wasn’t passionate about anything specific, which wasn’t too concerning as a freshman. When I was a 5th year senior, I became a bit concerned. As a finance major, I would walk around the career fairs trying to find a company that I was interested in. Not a single company remotely interested me. I wondered if I would grow out of the phase of refusing the idea of an 8-to-5 job. I still had no idea what I wanted to do, but I loved traveling, international business, challenges, and learning about new cultures.

It was my 5th year, it was Christmas break, and I still had no jobs in mind. My roommate finally convinced me to go to Beijing, China and do manual labor on the U.S. embassy. If you had told me in high school that I would live overseas or even go overseas in college, I would have laughed. My experiences at A&M led me to a study abroad trip to Italy and internships in Singapore and El Salvador. I definitely developed a passion for traveling and living overseas, so going to China seemed exciting. Plus, it would give me more time to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

Four Aggies on a dock in China
Drew Jones (third from left) went to China with no definite plans, but by the time he left he had his own business selling custom-made suits.

I made the move to China in August 2006. My roommate, Jim Carlson, and I were out to accomplish the same thing; be adventurous, live overseas, and try to figure out what we wanted to do with our lives. I attained my goal much quicker than I anticipated. After six weeks of living in Beijing I met the woman I would eventually marry. I worked at the embassy for nine months, then started a business selling custom-made suits. I lived in Beijing for eight more months to establish this business before moving back to the states to begin marketing. Manual labor can be fun, but my brain must also be stimulated.

During breaks at the embassy I would write down ideas for my business. After the embassy job I committed to this idea full time. I trained with local tailors on how to take measurements. I started testing my business idea by taking measurements of embassy employees, having them choose from my fabric swatches, getting their suits made, then delivering it to them personally. I began doing this for almost nothing to see if the idea would work. And sure enough, after training to take measurements and some trial and error, I had some very pleased customers.

I knew I would need higher quality suits than what I was producing through a local market geared for expatriates. That’s when I began traveling around China with my Chinese business partner to visit different tailors and factories, and to do research on quality fabrics for my suits. My business partner had limited English capabilities, and no one else I was dealing with spoke any English. I had been learning Mandarin Chinese, which was extremely useful, but I would often revert to hand motions and occasionally made the mistake of talking extremely loud thinking they would suddenly understand me.

After traveling around China for 10 days, I had found the contacts and knowledge necessary to begin a business making and selling custom-made suits. I returned to Beijing and began making my new suits for the expatriate community. My goal when establishing this business was to be able to sell custom-made suits in the U.S. to college students and young professionals for an affordable price. I returned to the U.S. on Christmas Eve 2007 to begin marketing DJones Tailored Collection.

My priorities in college were always people, being involved in various organizations, and taking advantage of overseas opportunities in the summer. I always knew that I would end up doing something different, I just didn’t know what it was. I am so thankful for my experiences at Texas A&M which transformed me to become who I am now. I would have never thought that my experiences in China would lead me to where I am today.

For more information on Jones’ business, visit www.djonescollection.com.

Categories: Perspectives