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Department: Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs

Chou Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs

April Chou ’96

Principal, NewSchools Venture Fund

A foundation for my dreams

Prior to attending college, I had developed an interest in international relations. In my admission essays, I discussed wanting to be a bridge between cultures and countries. I was a small-town high school student with supportive first-generation immigrant parents who were learning about the admission process along with me, so I had a limited basis for deciding where to apply to college. It was only sheer luck that the search for a strong program led me to Princeton as a liberal arts institution.

As a result, from my early days at Princeton, I set my sights on the Woodrow Wilson School. During my freshman and sophomore years, I developed an even greater interest in policy as a lever for change. I began to understand the importance of systems thinking and bringing multiple perspectives to bear in problem solving. So the interdisciplinary approach of the Woodrow Wilson School and the range of required courses across departments really appealed to me. I was also excited about the department because it enabled us each to design a program based on our academic interests, and I had in the meantime developed a range of different interests—one set related to foreign policy and the other related to domestic social issues.

In my first couple of years at Princeton, I continued to be interested in East Asia and diplomacy. I tried to improve my Chinese literacy through intensive language classes and took courses in East Asian history, politics, and sociology. When it was time to select a major, I knew that I would pursue a certificate in East Asian studies alongside it. Also during that time, my extracurricular interests and evolving identity as an Asian American led to an academic interest in civil rights and social change. That led me to also pursue a certificate in American studies, with an emphasis on the social fabric of our country and how it has grappled with issues of access, equity, and opportunity for all.

Applying to the Woodrow Wilson School enabled me to pursue both of these paths, without having to choose between them. After the excitement of getting into the program, I remember working at a civil rights organization during the summer and telling a fellow intern about selecting “Woody Woo” as a major. He remarked, “I can’t believe that you’ve managed to make even Woodrow Wilson sound Chinese!”

Building on successes

Upon leaving Princeton, I think I surprised myself and those who knew me best by deciding to take a job with McKinsey & Company (the management consulting firm) in Washington, D.C. What appealed to me about the opportunity was similar to some of the aspects of the Woodrow Wilson School—an emphasis on impact and problem solving, the chance to work with amazing people, and exposure to new concepts and challenges. McKinsey, like Princeton, exposed me to a whole new world of ideas and taught me about the importance of being able to learn quickly and continuously. Eventually, my adventures with “the Firm” enabled me to live and work in China and Singapore and explore other parts of Asia.

After living abroad, I moved out to California to attend the Stanford Graduate School of Business. During that time, I continued to explore my social sector interests and also pursued a graduate degree in the School of Education. I returned to McKinsey in San Francisco after graduate school, and eventually became a Nonprofit Fellow, which enabled me to serve clients in the nonprofit sector for a full year. That experience helped me realize that I found so much more meaning in work that was more aligned with my passions and led eventually to my decision to take all of the foundational skills that I had developed at McKinsey and apply them to work in the social sector.

In the nation’s service

Today, I work at NewSchools Venture Fund, a nonprofit focused on public education system reform with an emphasis on underserved children and communities. The organization is mission-driven, and one of our core beliefs is that a “hybrid” cross-disciplinary perspective and the contributions of those from multiple fields are critical to solving problems in public education. At the same time, as a venture philanthropy firm, we borrow heavily from business models and concepts in our work. NewSchools is a place where the choices I have made about my course of study and career have come together and enabled me to make a meaningful contribution. It also enables me to fulfill the promise of “Princeton in the Nation’s Service” in my daily work.

I believe that my studies at Princeton laid important groundwork for my work and life. Princeton reinforced for me the love of learning and the ability to ask simple questions. It taught me about the exploration of new ideas and the importance of bringing the best thinking across disciplines to solve a problem. It gave me courage to pursue my varied interests and explore multiple paths and journeys along the way. And perhaps most importantly, my studies at Princeton prepared me to live an engaged life, rich with community and extracurricular activities, to be paired alongside my family and career.

“During my freshman and sophomore years, I developed an even greater interest in policy as a lever for change. I began to understand the importance of systems thinking and bringing multiple perspectives to bear in problem solving. So the interdisciplinary approach of the Woodrow Wilson School and the range of required courses across departments really appealed to me. …”