The Thunderbird Mystique Lives On

The school was born almost 70 years ago on the site of an airfield where American, Canadian, British and Chinese pilots trained during World War II. After the war ended, Lieutenant General Barton Kyle Yount, founded the school on the belief that war was avoidable if countries had mutual economic interests.

In the curriculum, there is a granular focus on the nuances of what it takes to succeed internationally; hence, the school produces graduates with an extremely perceptive and sophisticated understanding of global business. Thunderbird students and graduates can split hairs, observing subtle distinctions within cultures, countries and regions that others might miss.


What always struck me was the instant bond between Thunderbirds, no matter what country in the world they were from. They had an outward love of humanity that I had rarely seen outside places like the UN. Thunderbird was like a religion — T-birds, as we are called, ate, drank, breathed and dreamed about all things international. It was not simply about a desire to do global business; it was about a passion for building bridges between countries.

It has been an amazing ride; however, shortly after I arrived, the school hit roadblocks that threatened its existence. I have never been clear on exactly how the fiscal problems began, but it was obviously very serious. Several academic institutions proposed partnerships that would save the school. It has been a challenge.

I was blessed that the top-notch academics of the program remained untouched. My professors and its administrators were as committed as ever to fulfilling their duty to provide us with a first-class education.


However, as the year wore on, independent groups of alums and faculty from all over the world decamped to propose alternatives. They unleashed an avalanche of online petitions, proposals, and PR. Word crisscrossed the globe. Wealthy alums offered to finance a bailout. Suffice it to say, the tremendous uproar on all sides — for and against the proposed (but now dead) alliance with for profit education provider Laureate — led to only one conclusion: the international outcry meant that obviously something irreplaceable was at stake, and it was not simply the loss of an MBA program.

After almost two years here, an international curriculum developed over seven decades, and overseas trips to China, Brazil, and UAE, I understand what is at risk: the loss of an ideal and the prospect of losing the cosmopolitan DNA and spirit that lives by them. Such a death would be tragic.

A few nights earlier, a classmate consoled me, saying that the “Thunderbird mystique” will live on as it looks for new partners, and the school will move forward, for better or worse. As he put it: “You see, it is not the institution that will hold the school together, it is the students here that will remain forever in our hearts. I am a better person for having been here.”

As I sat with hundreds of my fellow T-birds, I know that he is right. I also knew this might be the last time I will see many of these friends. They will return to their home countries and leave for places in the four corners of the globe. I’ve spent the last two years steeped in the ideals of creating global prosperity that have made Thunderbird renowned. I am eternally grateful.

About the Author...

Anna Shen

Twitter handle is: @annashen