San Francisco Career Trek: "What's SAIS?"

A Taiwanese shuaige pose in Mountain View, CA, moments before being reprimanded by Google security. Over spring break, I participated in an energy, technology and finance career trek in the San Francisco Bay Area. We visited sixteen companies, including: Bloomberg New Energy Finance, Pattern Energy, First Solar, California Public Utilities Commission, Google, Dropbox, LinkedIn, Tesla, McKinsey and the Federal Reserve.

The career trek was a great opportunity to visit the diverse workplaces of SAIS alumni. And for someone who had never left the East Coast, it was a mind-boggling introduction to the culture of Silicon Valley perks.

One of two smoothies shamelessly consumed at Dropbox.

However, the career trek was most instructive for another reason. In Washington, D.C., the SAIS degree is well-regarded: SAIS graduates dominate the World Bank, State Department, International Monetary Fund, and Massachusetts Avenue think tanks. In an article for the Atlantic, "The  Surprising Similarities Between Beijing and DC's Elites," a fellow at a Washington think tank visited the foremost research institution in China:

"It instantly reminded me of the fabled 'SAIS mafia' (this is probably too niche a term for those outside the beltway) that seem to permeate various facets of professional life in the American capital."

But in San Francisco? We were lucky to encounter a non-alumnus who had even heard of SAIS. Companies in the energy and technology sectors know what to expect from a computer science major or an MBA student. An M.A. in International Relations and International Economics, on the other hand, is much more difficult to grasp.

Yet SAIS students have a multidisciplinary skill set that matches or exceeds any MBA program. Students enroll in courses related to statistics, econometrics, corporate finance, project finance, economic development, renewable energy, environment policy, and regional history and politics. They gain advanced proficiency in a foreign language. They have a keen understanding of political systems, regulation and international trade, and can translate their understanding into opinion editorials or 40-page research papers.

The career trek taught us that we cannot take these skills -- or the reputation of SAIS -- for granted. We must learn to clearly articulate our passions, comparative advantages, and unique backgrounds. But we should also learn from MBA students: Many SAIS students cannot speak in the language of business, and struggle with case study-style interviews. Additionally, while companies like McKinsey promote the 80-20 rule -- 80 percent of the impact with 20 percent of the effort -- many SAIS students can become lost in the details, unsatisfied until they reach a 99 percent correct solution.

I accumulated some serious company swag in San Francisco. But my newfound perspective on my degree -- its advantages and challenges, and my own areas for self-improvement -- was the most valuable take-away of the trek.

Sampling San Francisco's infamous toast and Blue Bottle coffee.

Xiaolongbao at Shanghai Dumpling King after a morning of disc golf.

Not on the level of Din Tai Fung, but I'll take it!

Chinese :: Coding

When I was a first-year in college, I deeply admired an acquaintance who spoke fluent Chinese. How could someone be so talented? Why wasn't that talented? And then it hit me: I could study Chinese, too.

Many people, myself included, are intimidated to learn new skills because we are afraid of making mistakes. Or perhaps we desire instant results. Or maybe we believe we don't have the intrinsic talent to succeed.

But five years, a dozen laoshis, and months in China and Taiwan later, I learned to speak Chinese at an advanced proficiency. The skill that seemed so unattainable simply required persistence.

That experience inspires me as I pursue a new goal: to improve my technical and design skills, as well as my knowledge of energy and technology policy. Eventually, I hope to identify a career path that links these skills with my graduate degree in international relations and economics, specializing in emerging markets.

I have always admired the kind of person who can build a website. Edit a video. Identify as a woman in STEM. And truly, I have been a little intimidated.

But maybe, with persistence, I can be that kind of person, too.