Featured Alumni Stories

This is one in a series of articles written by Thunderbird alumni who share their perspectives on leading and managing in today's complex international markets. And on the benefits that come from a world full of resourceful T-bird connections. We are proud to share T-bird alumni stories about work and other aspects of life after Thunderbird. Interested in contributing? 

Graduate Pays It Forward with Paper Airplanes 

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By Maya Ormsby

Life has its interesting turns and twists, and sometimes gives you a rare chance to pay forward for the generous gifts you have received in the past. This was very apparent to me during the campus tribute in April 2018, where I was able to clearly see the arc of my life and how Thunderbird both helped me advance and afforded me the tools to support others in pursuing their dreams.

At the tribute ceremony, I walked around our beautiful exotic campus searching for my former classmates from 1998, recalling the feeling of exhilaration at the graduation ceremony. Just three years before, I was living in Saratov, a picturesque town on the Volga River where the first group of Peace Corps volunteers set up their headquarters. A casual remark by one of the volunteers, a recent MBA graduate, helped me formulate my dream: I knew then that I wanted to study in the USA. I spent the next two years improving my English, preparing for the GRE, GMAT, and TOEFL tests. And I was actually using a computer for the first time at the Peace Corps study room. 

I was in my mid-30s by then. However, just like proletarians, I had “nothing to lose but my chains.” By the late 1990s, Russia was in a major economic turmoil and my dream of a career in science had evaporated. My then 9-year-old daughter Maria and I landed in Arizona in the middle of monsoon season, feeling uneasy and thrilled at the same time. 

Blooming like desert flowers

We fell in love with Arizona instantly, with its mountains, palm trees, scorching sun and dry air. For the next two years, Maria was in charge of all domestic affairs, which she handled admirably. I plunged into my studies with gusto. Every class offered new thrilling discoveries: IPE (International Political Environment) where I showcased my knowledge of Marxism; International Finance; and infamous FORAD (on floppy disks) - I enjoyed them all! To support our little family, I started working at Mayo Clinic as a paid intern and also volunteered at the Thunderbird Communication office, as was required by my scholarship. Needless to say, I rarely spent time at the Pub (sigh), yet was fully immersed in the magic of the Thunderbird mystique.

The next 15 years were a whirlwind of thrilling adventures building a career in the biopharmaceutical industry: corporate mergers, acquisitions, international travel, product launches and managing partnerships with multinational firms. My “baby T-bird” daughter blossomed into a beautiful young professional herself. She is now a lawyer and expert in multilateral trade agreements and treaties protecting ocean life. I also married my wonderful husband, a professor and healthcare quality leader at Deloitte.

Finding meaning in helping refugees

In 2016, my life soon took an unexpected turn when my friend invited me to the Aspen Institute seminar on education in crisis. The global refugee catastrophe was worsening every day; millions of people were fleeing from war, prosecution and violence. I watched the news with horror and donated money to the organizations helping refugees. Still, I was searching for ways to be more involved. 

At the Aspen seminar, I was introduced to a terrific social enterprise called Paper Airplanes, which provides virtual education for refugees and displaced people in the Middle East. The organization connects hundreds of Western volunteers with refugees via Skype to support peer-to-peer tutoring in English language and professional skills. It seemed like a brilliant idea: valuable instruction provided anytime and anywhere. As long as individuals have access to the internet, their instructors can help by reaching across continents and war zones.  

Learning English opens doors

Proficiency in English language is immensely important for refugees and displaced persons in the Middle East. It’s a desirable skill for employers, and refugees living in the countries of first asylum must pass an English proficiency exam in order to be accepted at a local university. Recalling my years of stumbling in the dark while learning how to enter graduate studies in the US, I felt immediately connected to this cause. 

I found general contact information on the website and emailed Paper Airplanes’ founder Bailey Ulbricht offering my help as an advisor and mentor. First, there was no response but I persisted. When we finally connected, I invited Bailey to the Thunderbird First Tuesday in Washington, D.C. and introduced her to my friends and classmates. Secretly, I was hoping that she would consider pursuing her graduate studies at Thunderbird. It turns out that Bailey won the prestigious Marshall Scholarship and was moving to London, to begin her graduate studies at the SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies. 

“Are you planning to continue leading Paper Airplanes during your studies?” I asked. Bailey looked unsure. I said firmly, “You can do it. I did.” And I shared my personal experience working and raising a child while studying in a fulltime graduate program. A year later, Bailey sent me a hand-written note stating that my encouragement helped her commit to combining the school duties with running a growing social enterprise. When the Paper Airplanes board was formed, I was elected to serve as board president, which I continue doing until this day. All of the initiatives I help lead are informed by what I learned at Thunderbird, and the opportunity to pay back for education and generous mentoring provided to me, is an incredible gift. 

Paper Airlines forges partnerships

Paper Airplanes’ achievements are truly remarkable. We have supported over 1,500 students to date, many of whom have gone on to attend university courses, take the TOEFL or IELTS English proficiency exams, or pursue further skills training. We are on target to provide instructions for an additional 1,000 students in 2018, expanding our programs to include English, Turkish, Journalism, Women in Tech (computer coding), and Youth Exchange (high school students). 

One of our current English language students, Luna Tayan, is a recent graduate from the University of Damascus specializing in graphic design. Through excelling in English language, Luna wants to expand her knowledge of design and be able to make friends with young people across the globe. Luna and her tutor Sarah have been working together for the past two semesters. These tutoring sessions resulted not only in dramatic improvement in Luna’s English skills, but also in developing deep interpersonal connection and friendship. Luna shared with us: “My tutor Sarah is such a special person; she means a lot to me. I particularly appreciate that she tries to make learning easy and fun.”

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Paper Airplane's English language student, Luna Tayan. Photo credit: Rama Ghamian

The Board helped Paper Airplanes to develop partnerships with other organization, including Arizona State University. While attending the Thunderbird campus tribute, I learned about ASU’s Education for Humanity initiative that provides education for refugees and displaced and marginalized learners. We are now discussing a partnership, where Paper Airplanes provides the skills and support for prospective students impacted by conflict in the Middle East, to help them pursue an online academic degree. 

Again, either through my training or supporting educational opportunities for those less fortunate, Thunderbird has continually promoted a future in which all individuals affected by conflict have the opportunity to pursue education, knowledge and growth. 

If you are interested in learning more about Paper Airplanes or how to assist refugees, please contact me at mayaormsby@global.t-bird.edu. 

Additional resources:

Author's bio 

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During her career, Maya has led a broad range of marketing research and strategy development projects, positioning platform development, and product launches. She has also managed collaboration between the Swiss and the US biopharmaceutical firms, including consensus building and issue resolution.

Maya came to the U S. from Russia after winning the prestigious Thunderbird Global Scholarship, which allowed her to pursue a Master of International Management and Master of Business Administration degrees from Thunderbird, the American Graduate School of International Management.

Her personal experience in leveraging education into a successful career drives Maya’s passion for Paper Airplanes mission to support a world in which all individuals affected by conflict have the opportunity to pursue education, knowledge and growth.