On Leadership: Q&A with Associate Dean for Student Life Melanie Koenderman

August 6, 2021

This month we sat down with Associate Dean for Student Life Melanie Koenderman to hear about her background in education and her experience leading Student Life at Schwarzman Scholars.

Tell us a bit about your background. How did you first become interested in working in education and what drew you to Schwarzman Scholars?

I was drawn to Schwarzman Scholars both for the importance of its mission, and the opportunity it represented. In my previous work experience, I witnessed the power of mission-driven education combined with a small, residence-based environment. You see people grow, not just academically, but personally – in the way they view the world and how they think about themselves. That’s the best part of working in education – getting to witness the shifts that happen in people as they navigate new environments, ideas, and challenges.

How have you grown as a leader in your current position?

While I’ve worked abroad for a good chunk of my career, I had never worked in China before, and I learn every day from my team members, colleagues, and our Scholars. That’s part of the reason I took on this position – I like a steep learning curve, I like working in the start-up phase of new institutions and programs, and I work best when I’m in a situation with lots to learn and lots to be done. I’ve grown in many ways from the experience of working in China – and in many ways it’s been in the same ways that we’re hoping to share with Scholars.

I have been so fortunate to work with a team committed to ensuring the College environment and the student experience is dynamic and impactful. I think the pandemic has provided growth opportunities for all of us. We have had to pivot and plan for multiple scenarios within a constantly changing global environment.

What about Schwarzman Scholars most excites you?

I think the best part of Schwarzman Scholars is the development of a community among Scholars, and the opportunities that this sets up for personal learning and growth. To hear Scholars reflect on how they have been impacted by a colleague or a teacher, or the experience of being part of a class or deep dive that shifted their thinking or their future trajectory – well, it just warms my heart. I love getting to support Scholars throughout their time at the College – it’s a real privilege to play a small role in the journeys of these wonderful people.

What would you like prospective applicants to know about student life at Schwarzman Scholars? 

For people who come into this program with curiosity and a true desire to learn about and from other people, this program can change your worldview and life trajectory. You have the opportunity to live with Scholars from around the world with unique backgrounds, worldviews, and ideas. For those who approach the experience with initiative and an openness to learn from others, it can be like living in a think tank and incubator all rolled into one.

You spend a lot of time working and speaking with Scholars 1:1. What’s your best advice for being a successful Scholar?

Approach the experience with curiosity rather than dogmatic or judgmental thinking. Take the time to get to know your colleagues deeply. Approach each conversation, on any topic, as an opportunity to learn and understand more about how the others think rather than an argument or debate that you’re trying to win.

What is your favorite part about living in China?

When you live in another country, every day is an adventure, and in China that is definitely the case. Things that are mundane tasks at home – getting groceries, or walking to an appointment – are opportunities to see entirely new things and connect with people as you practice your language skills. In particular, I love visiting the farmer’s markets and niche food shops and getting outside of the city to hike some of the amazing unrestored sections of the Great Wall – it is awe-inspiring every single time.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

Yoga and CrossFit help me stay grounded even during challenging and uncertain times. I love sharing both with our Scholars and staff by coaching classes at the College, as both have been so impactful to me. I read a lot about health and nutrition, and spend a lot of time cooking with other people. I’m also a voracious reader of fiction (I used to be a high school English literature teacher in the very early days of my career!).