Alex Wilmerding

Alex Wilmerding

Alex’s career trajectory was heavily shaped by his time as a Yale-China Fellow. “I was inspired by being physically in China and able to explore Hong Kong residency, staying on to work in the region [after my fellowship],” he says.

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Yale-China Fellow, Yali Middle School, '87-89
Treasurer, Board of Trustees, '05-11

China has a knack for drawing people in. If you are a member of the Yale-China Association, there is a good chance you’ve felt that magnetism yourself. While countless tourists pour through China’s borders for only a single visit, many who intend to visit just once find their paths forever tied to the land. Yale-China Trustee Alex Wilmerding has a story akin to this. Shortly after high school, he embarked upon a six-week bicycle tour of China, starting in Macau. It was the first tour of its kind after China began to open up in the 1980s, and it took Alex through much of the southwest atop a bike and the northeast on a train. More than twenty years later, China has stayed with him (he now calls Hong Kong home) although, alas, cycling has not.

A newfound wish to return to China to live and work led Alex to pursue Mandarin at Yale. Upon graduation in 1987, he headed back to China as a Yale-China Fellow at Yali Middle School, though not before raising $20,000 to start a rowing team in Changsha. As Alex stresses, one can rarely predict the twists and turns of life; this adventure was to be no exception. A semester into the crew team’s existence, it was clear that Yali students were too busy with school to devote themselves to rowing. This was problematic because, first, the $20,000 that Alex had raised, much of it for importing boats and equipment, remained largely unspent after he found a boat manufacturer in China. Second, there was the question of what, exactly, to do with the two boats.

Through Yale alumnus Winston Lord, then U.S. Ambassador to China, Alex tracked down the Chinese national rowing team coach. Together, they arranged an exchange that brought together Yale’s teams and the Guangdong, Hunan and Beijing rowing teams. The Guangdong and Beijing teams were no match for the Yale crews. However, the Hunan provincial team triumphed in its races with Yale. Given that Hunan served as Yale’s host and primary sponsor in the exchange, this was fortuitous. Diplomatically, the Yale crews did not protest for having received faulty equipment during the contest in Hunan waters!

With more money left, Alex arranged to bring rowing coaches from Yale and Cornell in order to coach the Shanghai city teams. Teachers Hu and Zhou from the Yali English Department would then be sent to Yale for teacher training with co-sponsorship from Yale-China. Finally, as a gesture of gratitude, the Hunan provincial team was presented with the two boats and Yale’s additional gift of rowing machines, then very expensive in China.

Several Yale oarsmen went on to study Chinese as a result of the trip. Alex described how “it was a time when China was really just starting to open up, so I was able to see and experience firsthand how people in many communities wanted not only to engage with the West, but to better understand Western culture. The experience at Yali was a very profound and meaningful one. I think it made me recognize how important a role Yale-China had and would continue to have within communities.”

Alex’s career trajectory was heavily shaped by his time as a Yale-China Fellow. “I was inspired by being physically in China and able to explore Hong Kong residency, staying on to work in the region [after my fellowship]” he says. Alex served in management roles throughout China and Southeast Asia, working now in Hong Kong with Pantheon Capital (Asia) Ltd. Throughout the years, he has maintained his connection to Yale-China and continues to be impressed with what he refers to as “the integrity and high standards of the people who are attracted to lead the programs, as well as the graduates who are program participants. They are consistently inspired to step up and take leadership roles, acting as deep resources to make sure that the [organization’s] programmatic directions are rich both in the support guidance and leadership.”

At different times, Alex has served as treasurer of the Yale-China Board of Trustees, as vice chair for development, and as one of the leaders of Yale-China’s Second Century campaign. His hopes are quite simple: “I really look forward to the organization sticking to its mission and not wavering. My only wish is that people find ways to come back to be resources.”

--By Mattias Daly, Staff Intern


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