Alumni profile: When opportunities called, Sternberg learned to say yes

Thomas Sternberg emphasizes the importance of saying yes.

“If opportunities arise, while there may be risks, the benefits may far outweigh them,” he says.

As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Sternberg said yes in 1969 to an opportunity to study in Taiwan. While there, this Jewish kid from New York said yes to an invitation to help out an American Jesuit priest who was legally blind.

Thomas Sternberg
Thomas Sternberg

“He wanted to take a group of his students on a trip around Taiwan, but was afraid because of his eyesight,” recalls Sternberg. “He asked if I were interested in accompanying him and the group to be his eyes.  I said yes and we embarked on a one-week journey in a 1956 Ford station wagon, with a driver and five students around the island of Taiwan.”

Sternberg, who went on to become CEO of his own independent insurance agency, muses, “Escorting a blind priest and five of his students around a far-off island in Asia in a ’56 Ford … priceless.”

To make such “priceless” opportunities available to future generations, he established a scholarship, named in honor of Chou Kuo-ping, the professor who arranged for him to go to Taiwan. Since 2004, this scholarship has provided support for 177 UW–Madison students to study in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

“It was important to me that the scholarship focus on Chinese-speaking countries,” says Sternberg, who chairs the UW–Madison International Division’s Advisory Board. “After all, a person who speaks both English and Chinese can communicate with a majority of the people on the planet.  And think of how much better the planet is when people talk to each other.”

He enjoys the letters he receives from the scholarship recipients. “They are all terrific. There is no doubt in my mind that each of them gained a broader world view, along with a boost in self-confidence and some enhanced language skills.”

He recalls one letter in particular: “One of the first recipients was a young woman from Wisconsin who wrote to tell me that she was the first person in her family to have a passport and that her travel showed her how much she could accomplish by getting out of her comfort zone.”

Another recipient was a student majoring in Chinese and mechanical engineering, who went to China in 2009.

“When he graduated in 2011, he was hired by a company in the U.S. to work in China at a factory as an engineer. He thanked me for the scholarship which he felt had set all this in motion,” Sternberg says.

“In addition, he has established the Chinese Language Learners Bridge Fund, which is dedicated to establishing Chinese programs at UW and granting scholarships to students to study Chinese. He has reached out to UW–Madison alumni in China to seek support for the fund.

“So it looks as if my efforts will continue with the next generation. That makes me smile.”

Sternberg and Fall 2014 recipients of the scholarship he established.
Sternberg and Fall 2014 recipients of the Chou Kuo-ping Scholarship.

Down an international path

“I was always keen on life outside the USA,” says Sternberg, whose parents were born in Berlin.

With five years of French in junior high and high school under his belt, he arrived at UW–Madison needing only one more semester of a foreign language to fulfill his degree requirements.

“I felt that with only one semester required I could afford to take something out of the mainstream and a bit adventurous,” he explains.  “I chose Chinese in the first semester of my freshman year.”

His beginning Chinese class had only six students, which meant a lot of personal attention from the professor, Chou Kuo-ping.

“Miss Chou formed a real bond with her students and, on occasion, would invite us to her home for a real Chinese meal and great conversation, in Chinese, of course,” he says. “This went on for the entire four years.”

During the second semester of Sternberg’s junior year, Miss Chou asked if any of her students wanted to go to Taiwan to study for the summer. At that time, travel to mainland China was not allowed.

“She offered to arrange lodging with families that she knew and classes in Mandarin at Taiwan Normal University in Taipei,” he recalls.  “All six of us said yes.  Since all the classes were one-on-one, we did not attend classes together, but did stay in touch throughout the summer.”

Sternberg’s host family, who were Catholic, introduced him to their priest, an American Jesuit. That led to an unforgettable odyssey around Taiwan.

Sternberg traveled around Taiwan with Father Donohue, who is blind, and his students.
Sternberg traveled around Taiwan with Father Donohue, who is blind, and his students.

“Father Donohue arranged lodging in local parishes along the way and said Mass in Latin every morning.  We all attended.  All other conversation was in Chinese.  So here I was, a Jewish kid from New York traveling around Taiwan with a priest and five students, speaking Chinese. I learned that if I could handle this, I could handle just about anything.”

Sternberg’s stay in Taiwan coincided with a milestone in American history; on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 became the first spacecraft to land humans on the moon.

“I’m walking down the street and I’m obviously an American,” he says. “Complete strangers stopped me on the street, shook my hand, and congratulated me on the moon landing. I told them, ‘Thank you, but I had nothing to do with it.’ That was just such a surprise. I felt really a sense of pride. They were genuinely warm, impressed, and happy. It happened to me several times.”

Sternberg, on the trip with Father Donohue and his students.

While in Taiwan, Sternberg took a side trip to Hong Kong, and traveled by bus to the border with mainland China. “I just looked into mainland China to say I’ve seen China. It was almost more meaningful than being there, to see it for the first time, even though I couldn’t cross the border.”

Summing up his stay in Taiwan, he says, “The experience was life-changing and taught me to understand and respect world views very different from my own. It taught me about the value of being able to communicate.”

He returned to Taiwan in 2007: “I went to the house where I lived in 1969. It was still there, but the family wasn’t there. I knocked on the door and there was another family. I had a picture of this family, and they didn’t even know them. But I found the house.”

Value of international experience

After graduating from UW–Madison with a degree in Chinese language and literature, Sternberg embarked on a career as an independent insurance agent and later become CEO of his own agency. He is currently a Principal at Assured SKCG, Inc., in White Plains, New York.

He was instrumental in developing a computer system now used by independent agents nationwide. He serves as a consultant on issues concerning the insurance industry, and also teaches insurance courses for professional designations around New York.

Even though Sternberg doesn’t use Chinese regularly in his work, he still regards his international experiences as invaluable.

“Even if one does not ultimately end up working in an international environment, an international experience will help develop understanding and communication skills that can be used anywhere,” he says. “I feel strongly that an international experience should be a requirement for any student wishing to earn an undergraduate degree from UW.”

In particular, he encourages the study of languages: “It broadens perspective and opens the mind to alternate ways of thinking and communicating.  Such skills are essential in business today.”

And he says that learning to speak Chinese is not as difficult as many people think.

“Once you get past the sounds, the grammar is so incredibly simple and straightforward,” he says. “I speak French as well, and to me, Chinese is incredibly easier than French or German, or any of the European languages. Now writing is another story. Writing is very difficult. You have to really concentrate to learn how to write.”

Sternberg with his host family on Taiwan.
Sternberg with his host family on Taiwan.

Travel to Mainland China

In 1984, a physician who knew Sternberg and that he spoke Chinese offered him an opportunity to accompany a group of doctors who had been invited by the Chinese government to tour the mainland.

“I was awestruck,” he says. “All the places that I had seen on TV – like Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City – became very much alive. A lot of the Chinese came back. I graduated in 1971 and this was 13 years later, so I’d gotten a little rusty.  But it all came back. I was able to speak and give toasts at dinner.”

“We traveled to quite a few places, including a 24-hour train ride from Xian to Shanghai. I’d never seen anything like it. It was the old China. I was traveling as the Chinese would travel. There were no Hyatts or Ritz Carltons or anything like that. It was guest houses and steam locomotives, coal-fired heat.”

He recalls, “The degree of control at that time in mainland China was a little unsettling for me, but I got used to it. We were never unaccompanied by somebody from the government. Never. They were with us 24/7, either a tour guide who worked for the government or somebody else who was there and worked for the government. We couldn’t go wandering off in places.”

He also was struck by the primitiveness of the old China – “people cooking on stoves that were nothing more than fire pits, transportation that looked like it came from the Wild West, stuff happening on the streets that doesn’t happen in the States, like people sitting on plastic chairs in the street getting a haircut from somebody who’s running a business on the street cutting hair.”

Then there was the food: “I just loved the food there, especially – and I was probably a little stupid to do it – the street food was fantastic. The thing about Chinese food is that it’s normally cooked; you don’t eat things raw, so the danger of picking up something is reduced. But we stayed away from the water, the salads, raw fruit, and we were fine. Nobody got sick on that trip.”

He also has noticed the changing sense of fashion: “Today, when I walk through China, the men and women are dressed beautifully, stylish, right up to date. Back then, I saw a lot of Mao suits, a lot of very plain clothing. People didn’t care about accessories, Gucci bags and stuff like that.”

Sternberg and his wife, Cheryl, went to China on vacation in 2011: “We went all over, to quite a few cities, as tourists. For me, that trip was actually very difficult. It had changed so much. I missed the old China. Where did all of it go? It wasn’t that long ago.”

In 2013, the Sternbergs went to Vietnam: “I said to my wife, this was what the old China was like. Even though there were some modern places, it was teeming, like the old Beijing, the old Shanghai. So I said to her, this is what I’m talking about. But that’s going to change, too. You can see it coming.”

Opening Doors for UW Students

Sternberg recently joined a UW–Madison delegation that traveled to Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.  The delegation included: Jerry Yin, professor and director, Wisconsin China Initiative; Lora Klenke, managing director, international alumni relations, Wisconsin Alumni Association and UW–Madison International Division; Dan Gold, director, International Academic Programs; Maj Fischer, director, International Internship Program, Karla Johnstone, professor, Wisconsin School of Business; and Laurie Dennis, associate director, Wisconsin China Initiative.

“I was quite impressed with our staff,” Sternberg says, citing “the amount of energy and dedication that all of them showed in terms of trying to reinforce the connections with China, to get our students there.   It’s all about the students, getting them over to China, having opportunities to learn, travel, and to embed them in culture.”

Backed by a photo of his professor, Chou Kuo-ping, Sternberg talks about his experiences at the Fall 2014 Study Abroad Scholarship Award Ceremony.
Backed by an image of his professor, Chou Kuo-ping, Sternberg talks about his experiences.

He accompanied the delegation on visits to several university campuses.

“I was quite pleased with Chinese universities, the quality of the universities,” he says. “We met with staff, administrators and faculty. I told several people on the delegation that I wanted to stop what I doing and go to school there. They’re wonderful places, great places for UW to send students.”

He also was gratified to see strong alumni participation overseas.

“We had Founders’ Day events in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong that were incredibly well-attended. We had 80 people in Shanghai, which is just phenomenal, all alums, all Badgers. People came wearing red and white. There were some ex-pats there, Americans who live in China, but mostly Chinese.”

In Hong Kong, Sternberg struck up a conversation with an alumnus who had come to UW–Madison around the same time he was there.

“Turns out that he’s a client of mine,” he says. “He runs the Hong Kong branch of a firm that is a client of mine in New York. We had a great conversation.”

Again on this trip, Sternberg saw the old China of 1984 continuing to fade: “I got less of a sense that I was in China, because it had so changed, had become so Westernized, or the Chinese version of Westernized. The university campuses were similar to our university campuses. The hotels … you could have been in any hotel anywhere in the world.”

But he did find one thing rather refreshing: “We had several meetings at universities that were very formal, very typically Chinese meetings – tables set with tea, presentation of gifts, presentation of business cards, people sitting in designated places based on the hierarchy of their position. All the Chinese would be on one side and we’d be on the other side. That’s a throwback to the old China. I was pleased to see that that still existed.”

Still, Sternberg sees China, along with Taiwan and Hong Kong, as great places for UW–Madison students to go. For those students, he has some advice:

  • “Don’t speak English. If you have some background, if you’re going there in your third-year and know some of the language, as I did, don’t speak English.”
  • “Listen, go there without an agenda, and try to hear what they’re saying to you and how they’re saying it. The culture is very different. Their approach to things is very different. You learn it by listening. Open your ears and listen, and observe, and absorb.”
  • “Get away from where you’re staying. Go out and see what’s happening. Take a bus to the end of the line, get off and walk around, and experience things that you might otherwise not experience.”
  • “If an opportunity comes up, like a blind priest coming up to you and asking, ‘Do you want to take a trip around Taiwan?’ don’t be afraid to say yes. Take those opportunities and go do things. Take notes and pictures to key the memories.”