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PKU Personalities: Unraveling Challenges with Humble Care

NOV . 24 2021
Peking University, November 24: Peking University students and alumni are spread all across the world. PKU Personalities interview series is a part of our determination to keep Pekingers connected in this time of global isolation.

This series of interviews aims to introduce notable Pekingers dedicated to international dialogue and cross-cultural communications to the rest of our PKU family and the world.

About Pek Nan

Tan Pek Nan (陈柏男),  completed his undergraduate degree from Peking University's School of International Studies majoring in International Political Economy in 2019. He was also a scholarship recipient of the Chinese Government & China Development Bank. Pek Nan is currently enrolled in Stanford University's MBA program, and after graduating this year, he will be joining the accelerated leadership program in a U.S. Fortune 500 gaming company in pursuit of his interest. Zealous about creativity, Pek Nan's work has garnered over 20 awards from the likes of National Geographic, Sony, Panasonic, Wikimedia, and more.

Pek Nan giving a speech

A Dogged Determination

As the first member of his family to go to university, Pek Nan is always determined to excel in his academics while he carries the hopes and dreams of his loved ones. Looking back, he initially hid his college application process from his family to shelter them from the financial pressures of supporting a university education. Working through high school and later serving in the military, Pek Nan conveyed the good news only after securing the scholarships and acceptance to attend Peking University. While he had no one to give him advice on how to survive university life and had to tackle challenges largely on his own, Pek Nan never gave up because he was reminded of supporters back home. "I held on to the words of encouragement from family, friends, and military comrades. It was definitely a team effort", he said.

He could still vividly recall the initial struggles he had when he first came to China in 2015. “I could remember how I was struggling to read and write a lot of the Chinese characters that seemed really foreign to me back then. I would stay up all night for days, in part due to the stresses of college, to play catch-up and learn them so as to fully understand my classes.”
Pek Nan emphasized the importance of knowing oneself well and discovering the learning style that suits one best to maximize productivity. By trial-and-error, he learned that he works best when "the world is quiet" — that is in the early mornings, and therefore, Pek Nan always makes the point to sleep at 9pm and start his day at 3am when he can focus on his work. In 2019, Pek Nan graduated as third in his faculty and was nominated for PKU's Student of the Year. His achievements were personally commended by Tian Xuejun, China's Vice Minister of Education. During his four years at Peking University, Pek Nan received distinguished scholarships from the Chinese Government, China Development Bank, Hana Financial Group, Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, as well as PKU's distinguished graduate, merit student, academic excellence, and social work awards.
Pek Nan graduating with his friends at the School of International Studies

Pek Nan then witnessed how rigorous academics at Peking University was ever intertwined with a Chinese nation's history and future and sought to continually bridge the gap between practice and theory in international relations. For his research on the rise of the Duterte phenomenon in the Philippines, his team received the Institute of International and Strategic Studies' Thesis Award for their research excellence in 2017. Till today, you can still see Pek Nan's active participation in cross-cultural exchanges and international forums.
Pek Nan attending social practice activity organized for distinguished international students

In 2015, Pek Nan was given the opportunity to represent all international students to meet PKU's then-President Lin Jianhua, and was later appointed to be host to Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, during her stop in Peking University as part of a historic congressional visit to China. In 2018, he was also featured in CCTV and CGTN's programs for his insights on the Belt and Road Initiative.

Pek Nan representing Singapore Singapore to share his policy insights on CCTV and CGTN in 2018

In 2019, the UNESCO International Youth Forum on Creativity and Heritage in collaboration with the Belt and Road Initiative selected representatives from different countries to visit Changsha. Pek Nan amongst the participants represented Singapore and Peking University at the youth forum and helped to draft "The Changsha Initiative", a global cultural policy recommendation presented to United Nations member states. Pek Nan admits to sounding like a broken record sometimes when the calls for change meet resistance from legacy systems and historic fault lines. "But there is beauty in the struggle and the honesty of words", he said.

The Peking University alumnus keeps a quote from Chinese artist Xu Beihong on his desk that reads "人不可有傲气 但不可无傲骨".
Pek Nan leading UNESCO discussions in Changsha

"When you are in Rome, do as the Romans do"

Pek Nan practicing with his Chinese friends in PKU's Fenglei Dance Crew
Pek Nan believes that "in order to understand the Chinese culture, you should surround yourself with Chinese friends and be fully immersed in the local lifestyle." When given a choice, he chose to participate in the annual singing competition to commemorate the December 9th movement, a compulsory activity for his Chinese classmates. Pek Nan credits such consistent efforts to many lifelong friendships formed at PKU.

“Coming from the military, I knew that there would be no replacement for bonds forged in shared hardships. But I also realized that in a university context, bonds made through prolonged shared experiences – like nightly rehearsals for 129 – would come close.”

Pek Nan was also a member in PKU’s renowned Cat Society

In understanding China, Pek Nan notes that "China's current success does show that many systems of political governance can work when they are congruent with a country's culture and history. The significance of China's success, then, is not that China provides the world with an alternative but that it demonstrates that successful alternatives exist."
Pek Nan helping to organize the inaugural Yenching Global Symposium in 2016

A Life of Giving

Pek Nan's journey with photography started with a side job at a camera rental store in Singapore. He worked through high school to support his family and would often borrow a simple compact camera from work to take pictures for photography competitions.

However, a turning point in his photography journey was when he joined "Project Dreamcatchers", an initiative to introduce photography as a form of art therapy to chronic disease patients at the National University Hospital in Singapore. During his time as a mentor for the project, he fondly remembers three particular patients that changed his outlook on his work with the creative arts: Sherri, a young girl with coloboma; and Lynn & Joyce, sisters with cerebral palsy.

“Sherri had 5% vision on a good day, and 1% on a bad day. As I witnessed how Sherri fought against her predefined limits to photograph a glimpse of this world as an extension of her vision, and how Lynn and Joyce struggled against uncontrollable shivering to raise their cameras, I finally understood the gravity of my work. It was a tremendous honor to mentor these patients.”

They did not give up on photography as a way of proving that they will push through any challenge, and Pek Nan did not give up on them either. Despite serving with the Army's High Readiness Core, a classified unit dedicated to counter-terrorism and peacetime contingencies, Pek Nan devoted his only weekly rest day to these young patients.

“Helping one person might not change the world, but it could change the world for one more person.”

Pek Nan volunteering for Project Dreamcatchers at the National University Hospital

This life-changing experience was just the beginning. Pek Nan went on to mentor thousands more in photography, receiving over 20 awards from various photography competitions along the way. In 2015, he was presented with the prestigious Soldier of the Year award from the Armed Forces. Looking back, Pek Nan is immensely thankful for the people who took a leap of faith in him – from the colleagues in the camera rental store who hired a high school student with no experience to the comrades in the military who trusted a young soldier's leadership. Now, he consciously pays it forward by pro-bono mentoring students and professionals from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Pek Nan was honored as LinkedIn's Top Voice for 2020

A Leader in the Works

At Stanford's Graduate School of Business, a cornerstone reads "Dedicated to the things that have not happened yet and the people who are about to dream them up." When asked about his choice to pursue his master's degree at Stanford, Pek Nan quoted the "Tinkerbell Effect", which describes that things are thought to exist only because people believe in them. He appreciates the sense of unbridled optimism in the students of Stanford, and their belief in building impactful solutions. Pek Nan also highlights the warmth and opportunity to learn from classmates much older than him, who become a collective source of wisdom and mentorship on navigating life's peaks and troughs. With his experiences at Stanford and Peking University, Pek Nan hopes to combine the best of the East and West practices in his decisions.

“At Stanford, I do not have any grandiose visions about being a leader. But I know I want to treat the tiny moments with care and empathy as one. I do believe that we are capable of discerning far more than we are capable of articulating. So, at a point where creativity meets business in my organization, I hope our people – the employees and the customers – will sense the care that goes into every pixel and every decision.”
Pek Nan with his friends in Stanford's MBA program

Serendipitously, Pek Nan was inspired to apply for Stanford's MBA during a brief conversation with Luke Kang, President of The Walt Disney Company in Asia Pacific, after his keynote speech at Peking University. He realized that getting more professional knowledge and exposure in the business side would allow him to better achieve his intended creative pursuits. "In scaling up the creative arts, you have to have two arrows in your quiver: a creative arrow and a business arrow. If you come up on the creative side, you have to somehow pick up some business chops. For me, I was fortunate to have the business arrow thanks to Stanford University and Activision Blizzard", he said.

For Pek Nan, the creative arts is all about embracing emotional experiences and our humanness. As our call with Pek Nan draws to an end, it is impossible not to notice his positive outlook on life. He shares that he has experienced many setbacks and doubts on his journey but each fall has helped him to stand back up stronger. “ Treasure your rock-bottoms. Also know that bad days are not bad endings.”

Rapid fire Q&A

Q1 Favorite Quote
"Let me fall if I must fall, the one I will become will catch me"
- Baal Shem Tov

Describe PKU in 3 words
Home, Timeless and Humbling

Favorite food at PKU
Dumplings at Xue Wu Canteen

Favorite place at PKU
Yan Nan Yuan (燕南园)

Favorite Class
Professor Tang Shiqi, Yuanzhu Yidu, (Dao De Jing) 原著译读 (道德经)

What are you reading at the moment?
"The last lecture" by Randy Pausch

One thing you shouldn't miss out on
at PKU?
Forming lifelong relationships

Writer: Goh Chia Chia, Aneka R. Rajbhandari, Chin Xiao Yun Pauline
Editor: Pu Hairui
Producer: Amanda Hu
Photo: Tan Pek Nan
Designer: Chin Xiao Yun Pauline, Goh Chia Chia