For Austin Taylor the Duke Kunshan experience was quite different to that of his peers. An alumnus of the university’s international Master of Management Studies program, he travelled to China with his wife Jennifer and six-week-old daughter Siena in 2015, where he was faced with study, an unfamiliar country and learning to be a father all at the same time.
Now the native of Colorado in the United States works in a management position at General Motors, and attributes his career success in part to that steep learning curve he experienced at Duke Kunshan and the ability to adapt and persevere that it fostered in him.
“The things I learned in China have been a huge differentiator in my career, because I’ve been able to excel early on and quickly in unfamiliar environments,” he says. “That’s propelled me to be successful performing at a high level even in areas that I was not previously exposed to within the company. I absolutely attribute that to the skill sets and learnings that I took out of the DKU experience.”
A graduate of Brigham Young University in Utah, where he married his wife in 2012, and a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Taylor returned to the United States in 2010, after two years serving as a missionary in Italy, with plans to apply for a graduate study program. With memories of his European adventure still fresh, he chose to go overseas once again, picking the then burgeoning Duke Kunshan University.
On the DKU international Master of Management Studies program students spend the first half of the course at the Fuqua School of Business, at Duke University in North Carolina, before flying out to China for the second half. Some might consider it challenge enough, going to study in a foreign country, but for Taylor there came an added complication, when his wife became pregnant with their first child just before moving to Durham.
“We were a little uneasy about the situation,” says Taylor. “Being first time parents is hard enough and then doing that in another country where you don’t speak the language makes things harder still.”
However, after many discussions with family and friends, as well as the Duke Kunshan admissions department, they decided to make a go of it, and flew out to Kunshan with their daughter just six weeks old. Once there, they overcame the initial struggles of settling into life in China, including language barriers, finding an apartment and hospital check-ups for their daughter, with the help of supportive faculty, staff and a local church community based in nearby Suzhou.
The decision to go to Kunshan proved to be a “turning point” in their lives, says Taylor, and one that set him up to face future challenges both in his career and life. “We were forging our own path. We proved to ourselves that if we set an objective and we had the support of those around us, that we could find a way to make it work and learn from it,” he says. “There is a lot of growth that comes out of necessity.”
Besides the adventure of navigating life and parenthood in China, there were many fun times at the university too, Taylor recalls. He had become an avid fan of Duke University’s Blue Devil’s basketball team even before studying there and helped to organize a screening of their championship final match against Wisconsin, on the DKU campus.
“The national championship final ended up being right in the middle of our coursework, but the professors rescheduled classes and blocked off a large room with a projector set up so we could watch the game together, which was amazing,” he recalls.
The Blue Devils won, much to everyone’s delight, except for one conflicted master’s student who had previously taken an undergraduate degree in Wisconsin. “She was a little torn on who to cheer for but of course we were all happy that it was Duke that ended up winning,” he says.
After graduating from Duke Kunshan, Taylor, his wife, and daughter moved to Michigan in the U.S., where he joined General Motor’s leadership development programme, which aims to foster “finance athletes”. There, he moved rapidly up the career ladder through a variety of financial analyst roles, with time spent in marketing, financial planning and analysis, and aftersales, to his current position as a segment chief financial officer for electric trucks and SUVs.
The international environment Taylor experienced at Duke Kunshan has helped him deal with General Motor’s global scale and international workforce, he says. “I’ve been able to build a rapport in ways I don’t think I would have been able to without having had that experience,” he adds.
Taylor is now an experienced manager, but he’s also a highly qualified father too. Since returning to the United States he has had one son, Grayson, and two more daughters, Evelyn and Kylie.
For international students considering studying in China, he advises: “Try to immerse yourself in the culture.
“Getting out into the general population, going to the traditional Chinese market, or doing what the locals do and really trying to integrate. That is one of the most valuable pieces of the Duke Kunshan experience,” he says.