Interview|A Return to Basics to get Ready for the Future
Interview|A Return to Basics to get Ready for the Future

How did Bruce Au, a UWC Hong Kong alumnus, transform from a kid who thought all white people spoke English to a graduate of MIT and Harvard University, then make a turn from Wall Street to education and philanthropic work in Hong Kong? He said, “In education, a return to the basics is perhaps needed to get ready for the future.” Would you agree? During the interview, Bruce shared the impact of his UWC experience on his studies, career and life.

 

Content

UWC Widens my Horizons and Awakens my Identity

Interviewer: I know you came to help with our annual Selection. How many times have you been a volunteer for the Selection?

 

Bruce: This is my first time.

 

Interviewer: Oh, so what motivates you to be a volunteer?

 

Bruce: Well, previously I was in the US, so it was hard for me to volunteer before. After I returned to Hong Kong, which is a much closer and tight-knit community, the doors opened and I found more chances to help out.  Given my work in education, I have always wanted to spend time with students to listen to their thoughts, and connect with their feelings. I also hope to do more for the UWC movement. The first step is really to know what is going on in UWC Hong Kong and UWC Changshu China these days. I believe the best way is to come and see for myself. You know, I am curious to find out what today’s candidates are like as well, and Selection Day is always fun. These are the reasons why I am here.

  • Bruce speaking as a graduate representative at Harvard

 

Interviewer: Oh, thank you. Before you come, we searched a bit on the Internet, and we found something really interesting that we want to ask you about. Why did you change your major from Computer Science and Electrical Engineering to Public Administration (MPA) in International Development? Is that true?

 

Bruce: Actually, I have two degrees. My undergraduate degree was in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, whereas my second degree, which is a master's degree, is the one on Public Administration in International Development (MPA/ID), and that was from Harvard Kennedy School.  I didn’t change majors, but actually have two different degrees.

 

Interviewer: Yeah, they are so different, that is what we are interested in.

 

Bruce: Since I was at MIT, I figured that I should study computer science. When I entered MIT, it was also during the first dot-com era, therefore, it was a no-brainer that I wouldn’t pursue history or something like that. After MIT, I started working at Wall Street and didn’t do anything computer science-related. Having worked at Wall Street for a few years, I realized that I wasn’t as passionate in finance as my colleagues were. I couldn’t see any real world impact I was making.  Also I didn’t find anyone I looked up to and wished to model after in my firm. At the time, I was really interested in management consulting, which advises companies and NGOs on strategies, so I decided to make a change.  In order to make that shift in the US, you need to complete a master's degree, so you do either an MBA, or an MPA program.

 

That is when I came across this really interesting program called Master's for Public Administration in International Development. It was founded in 2000 by Jeffrey Sachs, a great economist. It aims to prepare both practitioners and academics to help with poverty reduction around the world. 30% of the students were Americans, while 70% came from other places; it was like UWC, but for adults.  I felt it would be great to go back to something like a UWC environment, and it would also help me change my career direction into management consulting.

  • Bruce (Right) with other graduates of Harvard Kennedy School

Interviewer: I love it.  What impact does your UWC experience have on your career choice and on your life?

 

Bruce: If I didn't attend UWC Hong Kong, I would not have gotten into MIT, which had changed my life trajectory tremendously. From a more in-depth but less tangible perspective, UWC planted the seed of many things to come. I think UWC really widened my horizons, and let me know that there are many things that I don’t know out there.

 

Growing up, I didn’t know much at all beyond Hong Kong when I was growing up. Some of the students I interviewed today were like me then, who live in their own world and they don’t know much about the world outside of their school life. Thinking back, maybe I was even worse. I think I thought all white people spoke English! I didn’t know there were many languages out there. I had just mentioned that my UWC experience nudged me into choosing the Harvard Kennedy School’s MPA program in international development. Moreover, when I was at MIT,  it also inspired me to “study abroad” in Brazil, South Africa and India, which allowed me to meet different people and experience new places.

  • Coral Monitoring Service at LPC

The seed planted by UWC not only impacted my undergraduate studies but also my studies later on. After my MPA degree, I worked for a company that advised clients such as philanthropic foundations and the World Bank on their work around the world, such as global health, affordable financing and climate catastrophe. I doubt that I would get into this field if I were not a part of UWC. I mean…...  none of my middle school friends in Hong Kong really got into this field. So, it was UWC that really planted the seed for me; I learned to be more aware that there are so much out there, that the world is a big stage.

 

The other thing I will say is that at UWC you will represent your people. People will say, "You are Chinese. What is Chinese food? What is Chinese history? Is this Chinese, or is that Chinese?" I didn’t really know what being Chinese was about. What is Chinese history and philosophy? I certainly didn’t know. But with time, I search for who I am and seek my identity.  Especially after MIT and Harvard, I needed to have more grounding in who I was and what I really wanted to do. I think that awareness, search and reflection also had something to do with my UWC experience.

 

This is something really important. I can definitely attribute my self-awareness and exploratory mindset to my time at UWC.

Friends who Travel Together

Interviewer: How did you come to the decision to return to Hong Kong and engage in education-related philanthropic work? What are you doing exactly? Why do you think what you are doing is so meaningful?

 

Bruce: My decision to return to Hong Kong two years ago had to do with my two children – they are now one-and-a-half and three-and-a-half. Both my wife and I were raised in large part by our grandparents. We couldn’t bear the thought that our children would grow up without their grandparents in their lives. My grandmother is someone I love dearly and to whom I am indebted forever. She is a caregiver in the best sense of the word, and an inspiration to me.

 

As far as why engaging in education work goes, it is a sacred calling. Education is about inspiring students to be wholesome people of character and intelligence. How wonderful and meaningful is it to be a part of this endeavor? Education belongs to a sacred category of its own, unlike any other economic sectors such as consumer goods, retail, real estate, finance, transport; you name it.

 

For our education system to evolve, we need to heal some madness of our time. Schools have to be schools, not storefronts or factory floors. Teachers have to be teachers, not employees or customer service officers. Most importantly, students have to be students, not customers or exam-taking machines. In education, I’d argue that a return to the basics is perhaps needed to get ready for the future. Too few schools are paying sufficient attention to student wellness. Kids are increasingly unhappy, unfit, and uncontrolled. They continue to focus on imparting narrow academic knowledge that is meant to select the few students who will be university professors. Many are turning students into disciplined factory and office workers whose jobs are being replaced by robots. Yet success in both exams and compliance is no longer a path towards a fulfilling life. Too few schools are preparing students for a complex, fast-changing world.

  • Visiting a primary school in Hong Kong

Don’t take my comments as criticisms of teachers, school leaders or policy-makers. They are in fact the heroes in the story. It is just darn hard to shift a system from the industrial era to today’s digital age. My current role as a grant-maker in The Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust, the largest foundation in Asia, is to find, vet, and ultimately support people and organizations who have the heart, brain and will to meaningfully improve Hong Kong’s educational system. The Trust donates about HK$800 million a year to education projects. We provide our grantees with not only financial support but also a platform to connect and collaborate with like-minded individuals across the public, private and social sectors.

 

I spend a significant amount of my time on one particular initiative called CoolThink@JC. You will find its website if you search for it on the Internet. It is a four-year, $216 million HKD funded, coding and computational thinking education initiative that furthers problem-solving skill and digital creativity in primary school students. As the manager, I drive the initiative's strategic planning and partnership-building, oversee the day-to-day operations with 32 pilot schools as well as MIT and two universities in Hong Kong, and manage communications with the public, government, academic and business communities.

Friends who Travel Together

 

Interviewer: Thank you. What was the most unforgettable experience you had in UWC?

 

Bruce: There are a lot of unforgettable experiences! I suppose I can talk about the Project Week in my second year. It was unforgettable because it cemented my friendship with three of my close friends, one from Iceland, one from Canada, and one from Brazil. We are all quite different people, you know, and until today, although I can’t see them often, I still keep in touch with them.

 

The trip was anything but well planned; we simply took the train and up to Guilin. I remember we ran into a Chinese lady who called herself “got-no-money”. She was a hustler. She tried to sell us stuff, and eventually acted as our local tour guide.  We eventually made friends with her, and even visited her modest home.

 

We hiked up a mountain, you know, “Guilin’s sceneries are the best in the world,” as the saying goes. They are picturesque, exactly like what you see in a painting, a beautiful Chinese painting. As the sun was dropping, my Brazilian friend said something remarkable from the mountaintop, “I could die without regrets in this moment!” I told myself then I would not want to die yet. But a moment later, I also asked myself what was the point of living nonetheless? 

 

The same person later lost his passport, and he was brave enough to ask us to go back first. He would take care of it himself. And, what do you know? He got his passport back! I can go on and on, there are a lot of stories. At the end of the day, it was about friendship, about people with whom you’d never imagine to be friends. They all became someone in my life, and rubbed off some of their character onto me. That is wonderful; one of the best things in life.

  • With UWC Hong Kong students during Macau 1999 handover

My Humble Advice to UWC Students

Interviewer: What advices would you like to give to students at UWC?

 

Bruce: Number 1- stay disciplined. Take care of your grades and academic performance. At the same time remember that your grades on paper are not the most important thing while you are at UWC, otherwise you will miss a lot.

 

Number 2- you may sometimes feel a bit disoriented; however,  you should know that this is not just the case for UWC students, but for people at that age in general.  Turn the stress of not knowing your paths into an opportunity to try something new.  If you’ve never tried music, then just  try it out.  You may think you are not good at music, still try it out. You may think it’s very important to do everything perfectly, but you have your whole life to do that. There's a golden window to try something new in a safe space like UWC.

 

Number 3- you will be impressed by a lot of your peers, and you will meet a lot of great people. Some of them will really impress you.  For example, some of my friends speak a lot of languages, others have great leadership skills, many have great personalities, and a few are good at music. Pay attention to those people who impressed you, and tried to identify why they are so impressive. Think about why, reflect on what motivates you and hold your answers in your heart.  I think these reasons and ideas will guide you as you grow up and explore the world. These great people have showed you aspects of the person you want to be. Pay attention to those qualities as they will help you learn about your aspirations and guide you to make decisions later on in life.

 


Interviewer: Isma Amira, Cameroon,Media Group 

Editing:  Qing Zhao, Media Group

Photo: Bruce Au