This year marks five years of ACE programming. We’re celebrating by looking back at our first year programs, reflecting with our first year participants on what ACE has meant to them, and learning what our ACE alums are up to now.
This week we interviewed Class of 2018 Duke graduate, Men’s Track and Field team member and ACE in China ’16 alum, Tanner Johnson. He shares some of his favorite bonding moments from ACE in China and reflects on the role civic engagement programs like ACE and Fulbright played in his current career path in computer science education and technology.
What are you doing now? How did ACE influence your academic or career path?
ACE had a big impact on my path after college. After feeling such a strong sense of personal growth in Yunnan while working at the community garden and organizing a short summer camp for kids in our town, I wanted to continue growing in similar ways.
After graduation, I went to Spain on a Fulbright ETA fellowship. During my year there, I worked mostly with people my age at a vocational school in Galicia. In Spain, I hoped to continue pursuing my curiosities with teaching that ACE inspired, in addition to honing in on two of my favorite things: Spanish language and computer science. Ultimately, it’s been through formative experiences like ACE and Fulbright that I’ve forged a path towards computer science education and technology.
“I learned that food is so important — we all need it, and most of us like to share it and learn from it. But more generally, I learned that if we’re curious and open, people will often be more than willing to share their lives and experiences with us.”
During my year in Spain, I also had a chance to co-teach a Bass Connections course at Duke remotely, which focused on expanding a program some friends, and I had started my junior year called CSbyUs, which seeks to improve access to quality computer science education in North Carolina.
Now, I’m based in San Francisco working as a software engineer at Gusto, where we focus on empowering small business owners across the U.S. I’m thrilled to work at Gusto and feel it’s preparing me to ultimately combine education with software in a way that delights and empowers.
How you have kept in contact with your program site (program partners) or other members of your Duke-Stanford ACE team?
I’m probably not the only one to write this, but I think our ACE group was probably one of the closest. After going far from home, hoping to learn and grow with limited distractions, spending long days with big ups and downs, to come back with a tight knit group of friends shouldn’t surprise anyone.
As I write this, I’m thinking about our ACE in China video call catch-up just a few weeks ago. Most of our original group made it, and we went around getting updates on where people are, physically and mentally, and where they’re headed. The conversation was so grounding and to hear everyone’s life updates reminded me of our original ACE application essays. I’m so glad to hear that many of our life plans have evolved but the core values have stayed exceptionally unwavering.
It felt a lot like our late night reflections in Yunnan, where despite sleepy eyes from a long day, we tucked away the small talk and got real. These are the moments I remember best from ACE, and I’m so grateful that summer was rich enough to keep us close.
Share a story during your ACE experience that changed the way you now think about something.
My favorite night in Yunnan was the one I got to cook with our hosts. Most people who know me know that I’m pretty obsessive about the culinary world and all it offers to teach us. So it’s not surprising that I would linger near the kitchen before lunch and dinner most days on-site, while what were usually 5 – 10 complex dishes were being whipped up for us.
Our hosts noticed my wandering eyes and, despite our language barrier (I don’t speak Tibetan or Mandarin and they didn’t speak English) invited me to cook with them one night. I had the privilege of cooking a special mushroom dish on a blazing wok. They laughed when I put the heat on medium and told me we’d be here all night at that rate; we amped it up to high and they showed me proper technique.
“These are the moments I remember best from ACE, and I’m so grateful that summer was rich enough to keep us close.”
After we finished cooking, they invited me to sit and eat with them; a huge honor since our hosts tended to eat together most nights while we sat at another table. I asked a bit more about these mushrooms, and through some translation help, my mind was utterly blown. I learned that we were eating a combination of Matsutake and Golden mushrooms, two seasonal delicacies in Yunnan.
Not only were they delicious, I also learned they were a significant source of extra income for many families in the region. Sometimes, they said, kids would take a break from school to forage with their parents in nearby mountains, their close proximity to the ground helping them spot the unpicked gems.
More questions led to more answers and laughs, and eventually a night where we swapped roles and our ACE crew prepared an “American” dinner for our hosts. I learned that food is so important — we all need it, and most of us like to share it and learn from it. But more generally, I learned that if we’re curious and open, people will often be more than willing to share their lives and experiences with us.
Describe your ACE experience in as few words as possible.
Exactly not what I expected (in a good way!).
What’s one thing you want people to know about ACE?
Curiosity shall be rewarded — don’t be afraid to ask questions.
What’s your hope for the ACE program and advice for future participants as we look ahead to the next five years?
I hope ACE continues to attract student-athletes. Too often we miss out on formative college experiences like studying abroad due to sports schedules. ACE altered my life path and my hope is that more student-athletes get the same opportunity as me.