Q&A with Selena Guo, MIT student and Schwarzman Scholar

Recently named as a 2021 Schwarzman Scholar, third-year MIT student Selena Guo will move to Schwarzman College at Tsinghua University in Beijing in August 2021 to pursue a master's in global affairs and participate in the prestigious global leadership training program run through the scholarship. Guo answered some questions about her background, what she's looking forward to when she makes the move to Tsinghua University in August, and how MIT fits into the bigger picture.

Tell us a bit about your background? How did you end up at Western and in FIMS?

"Being part of FIMS was quite unexpected for me. I was born in Beijing but moved to the U.S. for a year when I was nine, and then moved to Kenya because of my parents’ work as diplomats when I was turning 15. In Nairobi, I attended a British international school before I moved, again, to Canada for university. Since A-Levels have a smaller range of courses, I just knew that I was more interested in English Literature and Drama, but I never encountered media studies before I came to Western. I was first intrigued by the name “MIT” while I was browsing Western’s website, and I remember almost skipping it because I thought it was a tech-heavy/programming major. Later on, as I looked through the courses… they’re just so interesting! And that’s when I started picturing myself studying in this program. I had a very limited idea about what MIT was until I finished all of the last lectures of my first year MIT courses, and there was a moment that hit me [when I realized] the things I’ve learned here are so unique and crucial for everyone’s future, and if there’s one program that I had to spend four years studying, this would be it."

How did you find out about the Schwarzman Scholars program?

"I heard about it for the first time when I was still in Kenya. Some of my family friends were discussing it during a social gathering. All I remember was how intense the selection process was, and it sounded extremely competitive to me when I was still in high school, so I never thought about actually applying until I was in my second year of university."

What made you decide to apply?

"It was when I was planning to do a master’s degree in Europe, after I graduate [from MIT]. A lot of the programs related to media, cultural studies, or even art, seemed very interesting to me, but I just wasn’t sure if they were something that I was certain I could do in-depth research on. I think when we are trying to decide what next step to take in our lives, we tend to look back at where we’ve been all this time, and I realised that I had already spent so many years abroad while learning so much (but never enough) about each culture and country I had immersed myself in, but I never actually had the chance to really dig in to the question “what is China really about?” It’s a question that has gained increasing popularity (or even controversy) over the years. As someone who has been moving in and out of China, I’ve witnessed the change and progress China has made within just a decade or two, and along with that, more debate about China, more news about China - we even discussed about China in MIT a couple of times – which is kind of a phenomenon that would not have happened 30 years ago when my parents’ generation was growing up. And the more I learn about China from different perspectives, the more I think that there’s an urgent need for me to spend more time learning and actually living in this vast, diverse, complex country, where so many people outside of it, including myself, don’t completely understand but are quick to judge. Then I recalled Schwarzman Scholars, and it sounded just like what I needed – immersing myself in “what is China really about” in Beijing (the capital but also my home-city) with such a diverse group of excellent scholars literally from all over the world."

What were you able to talk about in your application/interview that got the selection committee’s attention?

"I think it might be my experience of living in those very different countries, even continents, at a very young age. Those experiences are my privileges, because they provided me with a primary global perspective and I never want to take it for granted. This also led to the publishing of my first book Turning 15 in Africa when I was in high school. Although looking back now, those chapters were really just from a teenager’s point of view, and a lot of my worldview has changed after being in FIMS, but still, I guess that’s the whole point of the book – to show people what it is like to throw yourself into a culture that is so foreign when you are a child or a teen. I wanted to document that sense of blind excitement, dizzying disorientation or alienation, culture-shock, and what it was like to grow up with people that were so different from you, which really led me to realise that we are not as different as we thought. But at the same time a lot of interesting stories and questions come along with our differences."

What work are you most passionate about?

"The more time I spend taking courses in MIT, the more I realise that I can be passionate about so many things, and the interdisciplinary can function as a whole. However, at this stage I’m most passionate about, in general terms, cross cultural communication – especially connecting China to the rest of the world. And not just the surface level of connecting countries by doing business, but the human connections too. A lot of our understandings about China (from a western point of view) lack the level of warmth that we need in order to empathise with each other as human beings all living on the same planet. I’m also passionate about women empowerment. When I was interning in Huawei Kenya, I launched WITH (Women in Technology Huawei) with my team to encourage Kenyan women [to take up careers] in the tech-industry, so I’m interested to work with other feminist Schwarzman Scholars."

What are you looking forward to at Schwarzman College?

"So many things! Apart from looking forward to discussing and learning about China’s role in international relations with all those brilliant peers and professors, I am very keen on exploring Beijing and other parts of China with a group of international friends – something I’ve always wanted to do ever since I started studying abroad. It’s probably going to feel a bit odd at first because my role as an international student is going to be reversed [for the first time] and I’m eager to show and experience what living and learning in China is really like with all the amazing peers."

How will your undergraduate education at Western/FIMS help you next year?

"What Western and FIMS have taught me over the years is really the capacity [to twist] our brains in ways that we never thought that we would. FIMS, in particular, is such a treasure. As media, information, and technology are so interweaved in our human development, it is important to have a sense of awareness about one of the most difficult questions: “What is the good/right thing to do?” China, as one of the fastest developing developing countries, has also been increasingly focused on technological advancement in the past few years. Though I’m generally positive about how those developments have significantly raised the standard of living among the majority of Chinese citizens, we can never be too careful regarding all the potential side effects of technological developments. Learning about the various impacts of technological advancement from a mainly western, [developed country] viewpoint in MIT was a very good starting point to consider what we really need in the future and what we absolutely want to avoid. Even apart from technology, FIMS has made me understand so much more about certain sections of western history and its civilisation. Just like learning about any other culture, we cannot truly understand it without learning the history [about how and when did we get here?] and this is going be immensely helpful for China’s cross-cultural communication in the future."

What are your longer-term goals (where would you like to be in five or 10 years?)

"To be very honest, I have no idea. I used to set myself long term goals all the time but all of them were just based on what I knew about the world then, and both the world and my perception of it were always changing as we marched ahead. This year, especially, has made me feel that the best goal is to adapt to changes and learn to ride the waves. As for now, I’m hoping that no matter where I’ll be in 10 years, I can still keep on thinking and writing more in both English and Chinese."

Are you excited to be selected? Nervous? How do you feel about it?

"Yes, I feel thrilled and honoured to have this learning opportunity, but it’s also slightly nerve-wracking to think about, because even [once you’ve been] selected, even when you know that [you’ve been] selected for a reason, as you scroll through the profiles looking at those exceptionally extraordinary peers that you are going to have, it’s hard not to feel at least a little bit intimidated from the outlook of everything. But I’m sure that it won’t be a problem once we start the program and meet in person, and I look forward to contributing my thoughts and perspectives into the program."