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International student finds home at Thunderbird School

Editor's note: This profile is part of a series highlighting the personal stories and achievements of Thunderbird students. Ready to read more? Subscribe to the Knowledge Network newsletter

An international student with a global history, Nancy Shereni has found a home at the Thunderbird School of Global Management.

The Zimbabwe native was an undergraduate marketing student at Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma when a professor steered her attention away from graduate school in the United Kingdom and toward Thunderbird.

An economic development trip to help Brazilian cashew farmers create sustainable practices – and the inspiration of her mother half a world away, caring for her disabled younger sister, working two jobs, and mentoring African business women – drove home Shereni's desire for a degree with global impact.

On that front Thunderbird stood out, Shereni said, for covering standard business topics such as finance and strategy as well as teaching about cultural issues with diverse faculty who have hands-on global experience. Now, she can’t imagine learning business theory without lessons in international relations and country-specific issues, such as the lecture on China from a professor who had worked to expand an American business there.

Shereni has long linked her global mindset and taste for adventure to her mother, Sherree. Shereni was 10 years old when her mother moved the family from Harare to Johannesburg, South Africa, so her younger sister could have open-heart surgery. Shereni lived in Johannesburg with her mother and younger sister, as well as an older brother and sister, for seven years. Her mother decided to move to Nairobi for two years, where Shereni earned the International Baccalaureate degree that allowed her to go to college in the U.S.

 

Friendly competition

Shereni remains close to her mother, whose directness is meted out with love, kindness, and support. They talk every Saturday, and her mother imparts life lessons, including this favorite: “There will always be someone better than you, and you will always be better than someone, so don’t be too hard on yourself on your journey.”

“My mother taught me to fall forward,” Shereni said. “She really motivates me, and also made me realize there may be learning opportunities in life. Failures are so many chances to learn.”

“Failures are so many chances to learn.”

With her family half a world away — her mother and sisters still live in South Africa, and her brother is in Hungary — Shereni steeled herself for intense competition from driven classmates when she arrived on campus. But learning has taken a different shape at Thunderbird, where it starts with a ‘collaborate to graduate’ model — meaning students cheer each other on in coursework, share notes about their hometowns and home countries, and even travel to visit families for holidays.

Shereni recalled a drive with fellow students from Asia, South America, North America and Africa, all crammed into a car and talking about their lives. “At what other school could you go for a hamburger with fellow students from nearly every continent?” (Only here.)

When news happens in a far-off country, Shereni can just turn to her friend from that country to get a better sense of what people there are thinking.

“Having that first-hand experience, it’s life-changing honestly,” she said, adding, “People here are just really willing to teach, to learn, to grow together. It’s competitive but it’s a good competition. People are willing to help each other and genuinely want to see each other succeed.”

“At what other school could you go for a hamburger with fellow students from nearly every continent?”

Professors with real-world experience

Thunderbird’s diverse student body is guided by faculty who encourage involvement and engagement, Shereni said. Professors make it clear that the goal is learning, not grades. Shereni has had professors mentor her formally, share their personal experiences, and take time beyond office hours to help quench her thirst for experience-based insight.

Having faculty who teach from their own real-world experience has helped Shereni sharpen her own career goals. The Master of Arts in Global Affairs and Management (MAGAM) program has taken her passion for marketing and given her an international lens through which to develop more sophisticated skills in areas such as branding and customer decision making. She has delved into the world of global social media marketing, a potential minefield given different cultural sensitivities.

“The world is evolving at a very fast pace in general and global marketing is more important than ever. To keep up, companies need to take into account that you can’t force your ideas on another country,” Shereni said.

“That’s why it’s so important to come to Thunderbird, where we get opened up to a global/local way of doing things,” she added. “Marketing is about the people you intend to reach and thinking locally about those people. Understanding the details of people within a given country is becoming more and more important, and its importance will just keep growing.”

“Marketing is about the people you intend to reach and thinking locally about those people.”

Business and development

“The first thing I noticed about Thunderbird was the combination of global business and development,” Shereni said of the Master of Arts in Global Affairs and Management program. “It’s the only program and the only school that merges business and development in a way I think fits me best. This is exactly where I am supposed to be.”

Armed with a deep understanding of the intersection of business and society, Shereni plans to work at a Fortune 500 company upon graduation. Getting experience for several years at a large firm will help her further hone her marketing and development skills for an eventual return to Africa, she says.

Ideally, Shereni would replicate the kind of work she did on that pre-Thunderbird trip to Brazil — working on a plan to help increase the standard of living in a community, say in Zimbabwe, by building business ties elsewhere. On the side, she envisions a nonprofit that mentors children, as her mother does.

Shereni knows that the network Thunderbird has helped her cultivate — fellow students, professors, and alumni — will be critical for every step. And she has no doubt she made the right decision to study where that network has already lifted her, just as she lifts others.

“We’re a family”

“It would have been so unfortunate if I didn’t come,” Shereni said. “I’d heard it before, how close people are here, but I didn’t know if it was going to happen.

“Thunderbird is very authentic and very real. It’s more a family. I didn’t think I’d see people in graduate school as family, but we have created our own community here.”

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