The Book Ends and the Journey Begins

An Interview with Marianna Tu | Chief Operating Officer, America Needs You

Portrait: Tom Kubik

Marianna Tu is the best example of someone who not only talks the talk, but walks the walk. Marianna started off as a volunteer mentor coach for America Needs You, found her passion while mentoring a first generation college freshman mentee, and then applied to become the organization’s Career Development & Technology Programs Lead. She is now the organization’s Chief Operating Officer. Talk about finding your passion, and making it your career. We salute you and all that you do!

What trait do you admire in others?

The traits I admire most in other people are persistence and patience. I’m very impatient. I admire people who put in the time to achieve a long-term goal, even if it sometimes feels like two steps backward one step forward. It’s something that I can do, but I have to trick myself with a bunch of small goals so that I always feel like I’m accomplishing something. People with that much patience have always impressed me.

Where are you from?

Cambridge Massachusetts. I’m the middle child of a multicultural family. I now live in Brooklyn with my dog, boyfriend, roommate and a rotating cast of houseguests. In a couple of months, I celebrate my 8-year Brooklyn anniversary.

Share a moment in your life that made you passionate about making the world a better place?

I was raised in a family where work was about impact and what you’re curious about. We didn’t talk a lot about practical work skills, but it was clear that whatever you did, you were expected to contribute and to do good.

Three specific experiences I can think of are:

1. I was volunteering with America Needs You, working with my Fellow [mentee], Anibelky, and she had that type of persistence I mentioned. She had already started studying medical studies in the Dominican Republic, then moved to New York, did CLIP, the CUNY Language immersion Program, then enrolled in Bronx Community College, transferred to Hunter, and now is in medical school in Ohio. Seeing her enthusiasm, her persistence, her journey, that was very inspiring to me and made me feel like I needed to be working harder in my own life.

2. The second would be when I was in high school. I would read the news, which was so depressing, and then I would talk about human rights atrocities at lunch and wonder why no one wanted to talk to me! I was frustrated by what I perceived as apathy from my peers. But then I discovered Amnesty International had a program that gave students a toolkit to set up their own student club — they provided lists of ‘prisoners of conscience’ and showed you how to organize letter-writing campaigns. It was this kind of ‘aha’ moment for me about how organization and operational excellence mobilize people. It was my own ‘don’t get mad, get organized’ breakthrough. I never talked to anyone who worked for Amnesty International, yet I started an Amnesty International Club, and we wrote hundreds of letters and we mobilized.

3. There’s also an America Needs You student story that comes to mind. We had a Fellow come to the U.S. living under a very difficult regime in another country. When asked about his experiences he said that his first year living in Brooklyn was the hardest year of his life. After losing his family and home and doing hard labor, he said this was the hardest time because he had all of these choices that he had to make, and it was so overwhelming and he felt so alone. I immediately realized ‘oh my goodness’ when people think the story ends, sometimes it just begins. That’s the America Needs You mission — getting into college is seen as being the final accomplishment for many students, but it’s really just the beginning of a whole new set of opportunities and challenges.

We have to remember that where the ‘success story’ is supposed to end is actually just the beginning of the journey for a lot of people.

Portrait: Tom Kubik

Patrons of Progress is all about showcasing people who are using their influence for good. What does “doing good” mean to you?

That’s a difficult question because the desire to ‘do good’ can often have unintended consequences. In my line of work, doing good means partnering with people and communities to move forward shared goals. Doing good involves having a lot of like self-skepticism and humility. It means trying to do the best you can while recognizing that it’s a process; you can’t work alone to make change.

If you could choose one word to describe yourself, what would it be?

Action-oriented. There’s always something you can do right now.

What sparked your interest and passion to get involved with America Needs You and now lead as its COO?

People see college as the end goal, not the beginning of a journey. I realized that when I was working at an amazing nonprofit called Peer Health Exchange, which leverages college volunteers to teach health education to high school students. Our college-aged volunteers were making a lot of decisions and sometimes had challenges that influenced their ability to maintain their commitment as volunteers, so I wanted to better understand their college experience. So many more students are graduating from high school and getting into college, but not as many are graduating with the skills they needed for meaningful careers — America Needs You addresses that gap.

Another thing that drew me to America Needs You is the fact that it’s volunteer-driven. It has always been important to me to work in the education and health space, but also to work with organizations that mobilize volunteers and get the private sector to do their part in creating change. To bring nonprofits, academic institutions, private corporations, and the public sector together in a physical space to learn, make things happen, and mix up what can be very separate communities, even though they’re geographically close, is remarkable and I knew I had to be a part of that.

I saw how insular communities can be when I went to five very different schools before I attended college, despite living in the same city my whole upbringing. I went to two private schools and three public schools. These school were all within a 15 mile radius, but had different cultures, different behavioral norms, and different expectations around education, health, and what it means to be successful. It was evident to me at a young age that large psychological and opportunity gaps can exist within a small geographic space.

Portrait: Tom Kubik

What do you hope our readers/viewers will gain from your story?

This is a platitude that has likely been said way too many times, but I do believe that just because you can’t do everything, doesn’t mean you can’t do something, and America Needs You is about showing that it doesn’t matter what sector you’re in, what your job is, or whether your parents graduated from college: you can make an impact.

I have a lot of peers who think “maybe I should work at a nonprofit to make a difference”, or “maybe I should go to school and get a degree and then I can do good”, or “maybe I should put in my time and make money and then I can give back”, and it’s really about what can you do today. America Needs You is a volunteer-driven organization, and we believe that there’s always something you can do right now. You can make your own work environment more diverse and ethical. You can take time to work with one student. I feel like that’s why I’m excited by volunteer-driven nonprofits or nonprofits that are at the nexus of sectors.

Additionally, I hope that people recognize first generation college students and low-income college students as a huge resource, to see them as an opportunity for companies. This is not about out trying to make yourself feel good, it’s about the fact that you would be lucky to hire any student that we work with, it’s not that they’re lucky to have an opportunity. I hope that people continue to recognize the value and the talent of the student population we work with.

Resources and technology aside, if you could make one remarkable change in the world by 2020, what would it be?

If I could waive the magic wand and make one change… I would make racism of all forms truly socially unacceptable and would make leadership at all levels demographically represent the population of those they serve. Where those in leadership positions truly represent the people that they’re leading.

There was a big article in 2015 in the NY Times about gender disparity in corporate America. It revealed that among S&P 1500 companies, there are more CEOs named John and David then there are female CEOs. “Among chief executives of S.&P. 1500 firms, for each woman, there are four men named John, Robert, William or James.”

Share something you’ve learned along the way that has helped guide you in your journey.

First, let go of the idea that innovation and creativity is only about creating or building new things. Often it’s about finding better, more efficient ways to do things that you’re already doing. To get something we think about all the time and especially in a small nonprofit. We don’t always have endless resources to do more, but sometimes we can just do things differently.

Another piece of advice I’ve received is that people who are perfectionists think they are succeeding because of their perfectionist tendencies, when they’re actually succeeding in spite of them. For instance, our Fellows often feel they’re doing well because of the pressure they’re putting on themselves and the all-nighters they pull. . Actually, they’re doing well because they’re amazing and talented. If they got more sleep and were less hard on themselves, they’d still be successful; in fact they would probably be more successful, a little bit happier and feel more bounce in their step.

College is an amazing engine of economic mobility, but it can also be a lonely and challenging place, especially for those who are the first in the family to go. As a country, we need to better support these trailblazing students.

Portrait: Tom Kubik

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