Alabama Native Returns Home to Take Students to China

by Paul Frankenberg on April 8, 2013

Wyatt SmithWyatt Smith

Vanderbilt University, BS, Human & Organizational Development and Political Science, Graduated May 2010

How did you pick the college you attended?
I was very uncertain about my college choice, and ultimately came up with three very different options. One was the University of Alabama, which had a great scholarship incentive for students who were from Alabama. The second was Harvard, which had an obvious draw. The third was Vanderbilt and the University’s Ingram Scholars Program, which is a public service scholarship initiative.  This was really appealing to me.

I saw Vanderbilt as my opportunity to be surrounded by really talented, driven, socially minded people. The Ingram program pushed me to seek service opportunities and leadership opportunities that I might not have sought otherwise. It also provided tuition support and I was able to go to college and graduate without debt, so it made a big difference.  I attribute much of my growth in college to those experiences in the Ingram Program.

What or who influenced your decision?
I think one of the major factors was a financial one. Because my family has a ranch, our financial aid package wasn’t the best, and there wasn’t a lot of flexibility. My family was going to have to make some changes in order to facilitate me going to Harvard, so I reasoned that it made more sense to pursue an Ivy League degree in a graduate program.

Specific to Vanderbilt, my family lives in Alabama and I was excited about the opportunity to go to school close to home. I was also excited about the opportunity to go to a school that I had always admired and respected, and to be a part of an elite scholarship program that I knew would bring me into the same orbit with a lot of decision makers at the university.  That was too compelling to pass up.

I think the Ingram program allowed me to do some special things in student government and in terms of international travel, two opportunities that might have been more difficult to pursue at another university.

What did you go to college to study?
I was interested in business, but Vanderbilt does not have an undergraduate business major, so I sought a degree in Human and Organizational Development (“HOD”) as an orientation towards business and management.

Did you change majors in college and why?
I started college in both HOD in Economics, but as I got farther along, what I really was passionate about was Political Science. So, I switched my economics major to a minor and took on a new major in political science, along with HOD.  I really loved my political science coursework and my professors.  A light bulb went off in my head when I pursued the discipline, as I found I was naturally passionate about the subject.

I think that many people, when they get in college, convince themselves they need to have a certain major or a certain degree in order to find a key to success.  But it’s a much better orientation to pursue something that you care about and you’re passionate about, because naturally you’ll work harder and you’ll seek more outside information in that discipline. You’ll research better. You’ll ask better questions. And ultimately, you’ll be more successful doing it.  That’s been true for me.

What activities did you engage in and what internships and / or jobs did you have while in college?
I completed international service work through my Ingram Scholars program connections in Belize and Peru. Then, I spent a summer abroad at the London School of Economics, studying macroeconomics. Even after this, however, I felt like I had a lot more opportunity for growth internationally. So during my senior year, I applied for a fellowship facilitating a year of international study on the issue of citizenship and democratic institutions. It’s called the Keegan Traveling Fellowship and it’s given to one graduating senior each year to go out in the world and learn. What’s funny is that’s pretty much all of the guidance I was given–“Go out into the world and learn.” So it required me to be entrepreneurial to see it through, plan a route, develop contacts, and execute on my proposal.

I was able to seize that opportunity. I spent a year abroad after college and I lived in 32 countries, across 6 continents, over the course of the year.  I met with about 150 or so leaders and conducted interviews, kind of like this one. I asked each person to talk about their story, their country, and the challenges they faced in realizing goals. I compiled the information into a blog and tried to draw out some parallels between systems. Along the way, I realized that I was learning a lot more about myself probably than anything else—the experience definitely changed me as a leader and as a person.

(View Wyatt’s blog:

After my sophomore year I attended Vanderbilt’s Accelerator Program. The time I spent at Accelerator was the first experience I had in a private business setting. Obviously we were in an educational setting, but we worked on private sector issues, which I really loved. I had a lot of fun and I loved the fast pace. Then, after my junior year, I spent time working in the State of Tennessee’s Economic Development.

I’d say that the most, the most impactful opportunity I had was being student body president at Vanderbilt. Every school’s different, in terms of the function that its student government provides. I strove to position our student government in a policy space, advocating to administrators on the major issues facing students. To be 21 or 22 years old, running a 50 to 60-person team and creating shared vision, motivating others through soft power, because there’s no financial incentive, was great experience.

It required appeals to people’s personal ambitions and desires to see change happen. The leadership experience taught me how to be successful. This included everything from being punctual and timely with communication, to managing follow up, to ensuring clarity on deliverables to thinking through accountability. We had a budget and we had to stick to it. I learned a tremendous amount from the work I did in student government, developing a skill set that I believe can be applied to many different scenarios.

In college, I also ran the LOOP Tutoring Program effort in West Nashville, which was a weekly volunteer effort focused on serving underprivileged children. As a site coordinator, my responsibilities centered on conversations with church and community leaders to make sure we appropriately led our kids. The relationship — I see it as a teacher now, too — often makes the difference over an individual making a decision to work that extra hour, or solve that extra problem set.  So I spent a lot of my time building relationships—my learning in this role came from listening as I led the program.

When I think about what would be valuable for your book’s audience, I think about the importance of being self-reflective. I recall pursuing an opportunity that didn’t work out for me during my junior year with Bain & Company, a management consultant firm. I really believed I wanted to be a consultant in that firm, but it didn’t work out. Reflecting, I realized that my quantitative skills, on paper, were not strong.  So I engaged in an exercise to look at myself and say, “If I was in the position of hiring someone, why would I have reservations about me as a candidate?” The answer was math skills. So before my senior year, I sought a job that would allow me to answer that question: I took an unpaid internship at the Tennessee Department of Economic & Community Development and asked them to just give me every project they had. I told myself I had to do some regression modeling, so I worked on a broad scale of projects looking at labor force trends in the southeast, which we then went on to publish.  I realized that I needed to show that I could be successful working in a very numbers heavy-environment.

Shortly thereafter, I began applying to business school.  Harvard Business School has a 2+2 program that recruits college seniors, and I was interested.  I had a good GRE score but I was weaker on my math skills. Now, however, I had an experience to speak to quantitative skill and how I was developing this skill.  During my interview with Harvard, I talked about the quantitative modeling we had done at ECD and I believe this was the difference maker in leading to my acceptance to that MBA program. Being mindful of your relative weaknesses and running towards them instead of away from them, particularly when you’re young, I think is important for trying to carve out some success.

There exists a silver lining to not being offered an internship at Bain: Had I gotten an offer to work for Bain full-time afterwards, there’s no way that I would have applied for and won the Keegan Fellowship. I would have never spent a year abroad, meeting world leaders and learning about myself. There is also little chance that I’m in Teach for America, leading a group of kids to return abroad to China in my first summer in the classroom and founding a Chinese language program for inner-city kids in Birmingham.

To be 25 years old with a few good wins under my belt, it’s probably a good thing that consulting didn’t happen right out of college. At the time, the failure hit me hard and I was very disappointed. But I would tell people to think about and pursue the next opportunity, which will be there, instead of wallowing in that disappointment.

(Paul asked, “Who told you to do all of this stuff?)
I don’t know that anyone told me, necessarily. I’ve always wanted to make an impact. You can look at people who have done it before you and try to figure out pathways.  Ultimately, however, I think a lot of people are reticent to make a move because they’re waiting for someone to tell or show them, “This is the move to make.” But real life is a lot messier than that—people who create opportunities for themselves when they’re young tend to keep pursuing and finding opportunities as they get older.

The challenge is that there’s always a possibility you’re going to fail, and failure can be hard. But it’s valuable to see it more as a learning experience. There are times when I’ve fallen hard on my chin—the Bain interview being one example—but you have to put yourself in that position to fail.  If you don’t, you’re not really living.  I think wherever you go to school and whatever you do, success depends on your willingness to go out and take some chances. Learn from people and try to be humble about success.

In hiring, companies make important and costly decisions. You need to show that you’re worth the risk.  I think college students, and young people in general, should be cognizant of this reality by going out in the world, trying a lot of different things, and showing willingness to take a few punches in the chin.  I believe this makes you better in the long run.

Tell me about your most useful resources to you in launching out of college: CMC, Internships, Family & Personal Contacts, Alumni, etc.
Teach for America has a strong recruitment network.  But when it came time to accept, I turned to long standing friends who had taken on the experience.  I wanted a good sense of the commitment I was making to work with Teach for America, and I gained that understanding through existing relationships.

Tell me how you landed your first job out of college?
It was pretty fortuitous the way things worked out: I was accepted for the 2+2 program at HBS in September of 2009, and this changed my focus. I stopped looking for consulting jobs and started looking for unique opportunities that I had a narrow window of time to pursue. I applied for Teach for America because it was expanding into my home state of Alabama.

I have a strong interest to return to Alabama long-term and saw Teach for America as a chance to develop roots and network. It also allowed me to work in a movement that that I’m passionate about, giving all kids access to a great education. Teach for America allowed me to defer my offer in order to pursue the Keegan Traveling Fellowship, so I entered the classroom in 2011 after traveling internationally for a year.

Why did you leave and where do you work now?
I’m still working in that first job, serving as a Social Studies teacher at G.W. Carver High School in Birmingham, Alabama.

In your current role, what are you responsible for?
The Teach for America mission is that one day all children in America will have access to an excellent education. We aim to close the achievement gap between kids from low income, predominately minority backgrounds, and their more affluent peers. So we commit to going into those classrooms for two years, in both an urban and rural setting, and in working in a variety of disciplines, predominately math and science, with the idea of being that if you can raise expectations and rigor, students will perform to that bar.

I’m responsible for leading 125 students towards major academic gains and the development of life-long skills in perseverance and resourcefulness. The kids that I work with are very hard working and want to create good outcomes for themselves. They just haven’t had all of the cards fall their way. Every day, I work to give them opportunities to create proof points that they’re capable of achieving on the same level as any other kid in the country, despite their poverty and background. I point to the Chinese program we started to give our students access to university-level Mandarin classes as one of those proof points.

During the time I was abroad, I spent a month in China with a great friend from Vanderbilt who works for a large, state-owned company. He helped facilitate a couple of connections with Chinese school leaders. I had my students apply to study abroad in China for the summer, and after they were accepted we raised money to take seven of them to China for the summer, where they studied Mandarin in a cultural immersion program.  For kids who come from a low-income background, in inner city Birmingham to develop Chinese language skills, I think that’s going to differentiate them in some impressive ways in the years ahead.

Go back to your sophomore, junior or senior year of college.  Does your current role fit with the professional passions you identified in college?
Yes. I would say yes. I didn’t understand it at the time though.  If someone said, “You’re going to be public high school teacher,” I would have said, “That isn’t me. That’s not what I’m supposed to be doing.”  But I see now that there are a few opportunities that are more aligned for leadership development than being a teacher. Every day, I’m the CEO of a turnaround.  I set the vision, I lead the investment, I create the goals, and I ultimately hold others and myself accountable to those goals.

We’ve done some really great things in terms of our mastery and performance. It’s on a small scale for sure, but I think a lot of our impact will be demonstrated over lifetimes. By comparison, I have friends who are working on Wall Street or with technology firms who have probably started out making more money than me. But in the long term, I expect that will even out. I’m really happy where I am. It’s a tough job and it’s an emotionally taxing one, but it’s been a good one for me.

I encourage others not to get lost into thinking that one route is or isn’t their track, because when you’re a sophomore in college, you don’t know what your track is going to be. It’s easy to get lost in that way of thinking, but college students need to know that opportunities come in many different varieties.

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you provide to a current college student?
First, don’t be afraid to try things and fail, because if you’re not someone who’s constantly trying, then you’re putting yourself on a road to being mediocre. Sometimes, you’ll have a feeling in your stomach of nervousness, and you’ll be very cognizant that there’s a possibility everything is going to crash. Those are the times when I felt like I was at my best, when I was doing the right thing, because that feeling of anxiety meant that I was on the edge. That’s where I feel I’m able to do good things.

My second encouragement would be to value resourcefulness. There are so many people around you who are willing to help, and it’s important that you seek out these resources and steward those relationships very thoughtfully and respectfully. These are people who can help you and they often want to help you.  If you recognize that this is relational, that there is somebody who you’re invested in and they’re invested in you, then I think the sum of those relationships is the foundation of your potential. I still draw monthly from five to ten people at Vanderbilt who are invested in me and my development. I wouldn’t be near the man I am today without their influences.

Interview conducted Dec. 2012
Wyatt’s comments were audio recorded, compiled and condensed by:

Paul Frankenberg
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