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Thunderbird alumni gather to say goodbye to their iconic campus

Hundreds of alumni gathered at the Thunderbird School of Global Management over the weekend to say goodbye to their iconic campus before Thunderbird moves to downtown Phoenix over the summer.

The “campus tribute” celebration marked the school’s past, with flyovers from World War II-era planes on Saturday, and looked ahead to its future, with a Sunday morning visit to the new site in Phoenix. In between was a lot of reminiscing by nostalgic graduates at the iconic Glendale campus.

“I came because it was the last chance to see the campus,” said Alan Horne, from the class of 1993. He learned Japanese at Thunderbird and after graduating, he worked in Japan for 10 years.

“I had read about Thunderbird before I came here and it was like they were writing about me. I knew I had to be a student here. And when I got here, sure enough, it was everything it was advertised to be,” said Horne, who now lives in Florida.

Alumni spent Saturday taking class photos and wandering around the campus. Graduates visited the library, with its artwork donated from around the world, and the Tower Building, home of the original flight tower and the iconic Pub, the social center of the school.


Alumni who gathered at the Thunderbird School of Global Management campus tribute event this weekend learned that the new site in downtown Phoenix will include many of the iconic parts of their campus, including artwork and the Pub. Photo by Marcus Chormicle/ASU Now

Allen Morrison, CEO and director-general of Thunderbird, told the alumni that the new site will include that legacy.

“We’re committed to retaining the heritage icons of this campus and capturing the history of Thunderbird as we move downtown,” he said.

Saturday’s festivities kicked off with a flyover, evoking the original use of the Glendale campus, which was started as a World War II air field. More than 10,000 pilots from 30 countries trained at Thunderbird Field before going off to fight in World War II.

After the war, Gen. Barton Kyle Yount, the retired commander of the Army Air Forces, bought the vacant air base for a dollar and started a school to train businessmen to work overseas. The American Institute for Foreign Trade opened in 1946. Thunderbird grew from a small trade school to a bustling center of graduate education. By 1990, about 1,500 students were enrolled from all over the world.

But by the late 1990s, people could earn degrees online and companies didn’t have to send employees abroad to do international business. Enrollment declined, leading to financial problems. In 2014, Thunderbird was bought by ASU, which stabilized Thunderbird's finances.

Today, Thunderbird has more than 44,000 alumni, with active chapters in more than 140 countries. The undergraduate program, which began in 2015, will remain at ASU’s West campus.

Morrison said that he’s spent the past three years meeting with alumni around the world.

“We have moved from a feeling, I would say, of discouragement to one of excitement and engagement,” he said.

Rennie Sloan, of the class of 1993, came to the campus tribute from Atlanta, where she works as an assistant communications director at the Carter Center.

“I’ve met some wonderful young undergraduates who are very impressive and seem committed to carry on the T-bird vision and uniqueness,” she said.


Sanjeev Khagram, who will become Thunderbird’s new dean and director-general on July 1, addressed alumni and students at ASU's downtown Phoenix campus on Sunday morning. “I know this weekend has been a powerful and emotional time for all of our alumni, students and faculty,” he said. Photo by Summer Sorg/ASU Now

“It’s so good to meet all the alumni and new people here. We all share a common bond and this has reinforced our connection to the school.”

The alumni network is one of the strengths of Thunderbird. Sloan came to the event with Kara Connell, a 2013 graduate who is a global senior marketing leader for GE. They met through the Atlanta alumni chapter.

“I moved a bunch for work because I was part of a post-MBA leadership program,” said Connell, who organized a “speed-networking” event for current students and alumni on Friday.

“Every time I moved, the alumni in each of those cities were one of the primary sources of how I made friends,” she said.

One quality that Thunderbirds share is their affinity for international travel, said Connell, who holds passports from Canada, the United States and England.

“I’ve been to 21 countries, I lived abroad in Colombia and Peru. I speak Spanish,” she said.

“We don’t have the sports teams to talk about, like ASU, but we do have that love of travel.”

Alex Sielaff, from the class of 1989, said she’ll always remember her time at Thunderbird as intense.

“People from all over the world come together with something indescribable, yet commonly valued. It’s a feeling I have not replicated unless I get together with other alums around the world.

“We’re a global club and we can always pick up where we left off.”

Sielaff, who’s a professor and corporate trainer in Milwaukee, recalled how rigorous the master’s of international management program was.

“We did real-life scenarios. I could get a call at 3 a.m. requesting me to drop deutsche marks. We all had accounts in our international finance class and we were trading against real currencies in the world market.

“At any time, you could be called upon to execute a trade for your team. Our professors were the real deal.”

Sielaff said she wanted to attend the tribute as a “last hurrah.”

“We’ll never again have this coming together at this place.”

The love of international cultures is what brought Corinne Holm to the American Institute for Foreign Trade, where she graduated in 1950.

“I already knew French, German and Spanish, so I majored in Portuguese,” she said. “There were so few girls then that we had a date every night.”

Holm lived abroad in Nepal, India, Pakistan and Ecuador for many years with her husband, an embassy doctor.

“I taught at schools for the Department of State and I taught them what I learned at Thunderbird,” said Holm, who came to the event from Tucson.

A decade ago, a group of Thunderbird alumni wanted to offer the school’s unique education to more people from developing countries, so they created the SHARE Fellowship, which provides funding and mentorship to high-potential students. Annie Wambita Okanya of Kenya, who has a degree in journalism from the University of Nairobi, is one of 18 current SHARE fellows at Thunderbird.

On Saturday, she talked to alumni about the program.

“These are people who have been involved in interesting projects to create impact in their regions. All of us have unique stories,” said Okanya, who will graduate in December. She worked on a project that helped doctors in East Africa get benchmarked to international standards for minimally invasive surgery.

“We’re a family created by the bigger family,” she said.

Okanya will be among the 400 current students and staff who will move over the summer to downtown Phoenix.

The new Thunderbird building, which will be at Polk and Second streets next to the Beus Center for Law and Society, is scheduled to open in 2021, the school’s 75th anniversary. The 85,000-square-foot building will be financed through donations, proceeds from selling the Glendale campus and a $13.5 million investment from the city of Phoenix.

In the meantime, Thunderbird will hold classes at One Arizona Center, near the downtown campus, starting in the fall.

On Sunday morning, several hundred alumni and current T-birds visited the new site and toured ASU’s downtown Phoenix campus. Sanjeev Khagram, who will become Thunderbird’s new dean and director-general on July 1, addressed them.

“I know this weekend has been a powerful and emotional time for all of our alumni, students and faculty,” he said “It's a time of change and I want you to join me in bringing that global village we had in Glendale here to downtown Phoenix."

Khagram, an expert on global leadership and sustainable development, said he knows what moving is like.

"Over my life, I have moved about 25 to 30 times. I tell you this because I know what it means to experience change. I've been through it and I know that we can take what happened in Glendale and take it right into the 21st century here at our new home."

Okanya said she is excited to make the move.

“There’s a misconception that letting go of this place will hurt,” she said.

“But being a T-bird is a mindset. You can throw me in the middle of Namibian desert and I’ll still be a T-bird.”

Connor Pelton contributed to this story.

Top photo: Thunderbird School of Global Management alumni from the 1990s pose for a class photo at the campus tribute event in Glendale on Saturday. More than 1,000 alumni celebrated the iconic Glendale campus over the weekend before it moves to Phoenix this summer. Photo by Marcus Chormicle/ASU Now.