The Journey from Academy Fellow to Faculty
Our Winter Intern, Catherine Rocchi, talks with Yunlan Ni about her journey from Academy Fellow to Faculty.
A participant in the first cohort of Fellows and now a faculty member at the Academy for Systems Change, Yunlan Ni feels deeply transformed by the Fellows program. “People sometimes think the word ‘destiny’ is too much,” she said, “but I really feel that way about the Fellows program.”
Yunlan describes the Fellowship as “a journey linked by five gatherings and four layers”: the physical, the spatial, the collective, and the inner discovery. The first of these layers is particularly notable for Yunlan. “It’s a physical journey for me,” she said, laughing, “all the way from China! It takes 24 hours just to travel [to gatherings].” Nevertheless, Yunlan feels that each gathering location made a unique contribution to the Fellows’ learning. “We went to Colorado, Vancouver, Mexico…In Mexico we went to Chichen Itza, a fallen civilization. We’re heading in that direction…it raised the question, ‘what can we do to avoid this?’ At Brew Creek, we had Chief Joseph there to share the wisdom and history of his people. You find the differences [between locations], and you also find the connections.”
Yet, it was her relationships with other participants that made the program special for Yunlan. “You could go on a round-the-world yourself, but the collective nature of this journey is fundamental,” she said. Yunlan recalled one particularly memorable conversation with another fellow in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula: “Sheryl Ries and I were chatting, and I asked her what draws her into this program. She said ‘service.’ It was a critical moment for me in the program, and in life…When China shifted its course to become an economic powerhouse, everyone was interested in business. Sheryl made me realize that when I was young, I was always attracted to service. It was part of my nature. My environment made me deny that part of myself and throw myself into business, but Sheryl helped me question that. I rediscovered the word, and more importantly, rediscovered what was important to me in life.” Now, Yunlan recognizes that business and service are not mutually exclusive.
Yunlan also credits the Fellows program with helping her discover the power of intention. “Before the program, I was always a ‘seeker,’ looking for new methods, new skills. The program helped me realize that the height you can climb to in life doesn’t rely on your skills or capabilities, but on your intention. Intention is more than ‘what do I get out of this’; it’s a dynamic process to find out who you are serving. Connecting the deeply personal with what is needed in the world, brought to life through you, as a vehicle. [After the Fellowship], I deliberately spend more time cultivating my intention. Skills and capability, yes, but intention comes first. Now, if things go wrong, I work on my intention. I am able to notice when things are ego-centered, or if there is a problem in my relationship with a particular partner. And then relationships start to change.”
Thus transformed, Yunlan is eager to give back as a faculty member, and identifies “a natural progression in my own learning from being a fellow to helping fellows learn.” She compares her development as a leader to ancient traditions on China’s Silk Road, in which future leaders of the Sogdian people spent their first three years working, their second three years as part of a leadership team, and their last three years at the head of one tribe. “I am a faculty member,” Yunlan said, “but I still feel as though I am observing and learning about the development of a cohort. Who knows, maybe in the next three years I’ll be able to lead an operation in China!” She also emphasizes the sense of fulfillment that she derives from service to the second cohort of fellows.
“[The Fellows program is] life changing,” Yunlan concludes. “I was always very suspicious when people wrote that these kinds of programs were ‘life changing.’ However, it definitely changed my worldview, big and small.”