Name: Tom Connelly
Year of Graduation: 2008
Major: Environmental Studies
Current Position: Climbing Guide/Office Coordinator, Summit Experience, Beijing, China
Please provide a brief description of your current position and what your work entails.
I work for an adventure tourism company headquartered in Beijing, China called Summit Experience. Our company’s primary focus is to plan and lead trips to the Seven Summits and the North and South Poles. I wear many hats for the company: I guide climbing trips, I develop new marketing strategies, I create new climbing plans, and I am responsible for trying to develop our company from a well-known Chinese company to a world-renowned adventure tourism operator.
What path did you follow to arrive at your current job?
Since I was young, I have always been interested in the outdoors. In the last 5 years, I have particularly taken an interest in more serious mountaineering and climbing endeavors. This is in large part due to my arrival in China where I first served as an English teacher. While teaching English, during my summer breaks I would go climb in China’s mountainous west. There the idea sparked that I could somehow combine my native English speaking skills, my improving Chinese speaking skills, and my passion for climbing, into some kind of job. Destiny met fate when I was climbing Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina (one of the seven summits) with my brother in January 2017; we coincidentally happened to be climbing essentially the same route at the same time with a Summit Experience (my current company) expedition. I had my interview on the mountain and secured my job with Summit Experience then and there!
What is the most challenging and satisfying part of your job?
The most challenging part of my job is the business and marketing side of things. I have never done anything like this before in the professional world and now I have expectations on me to help the company develop new business strategies to open it up to the world at large. So, I have had to learn by doing and by simply using good critical thinking skills.
The most satisfying is the climbing that I am able to do professionally and recreationally! I get to spend a good amount of time outdoors and spend that time with good quality people exploring parts of the world that few people get to see!
What skills are important in your field?
Several skills are important including being self-motivated, open to learning, and being open to correction. I am given many tasks with a playbook without any plays in it to accomplish the task. I have to figure out many things. As I am in China, things are done differently and culture and cultural values also come into play. I am reminded about this every time I think I have something figured out and then have done it entirely wrong! Therein, my colleagues are able to kindly point me in the right direction.
How has your liberal arts education been beneficial to your career path including your current job?
My liberal arts education has been very, very helpful. At CSB/SJU, I learned how to learn and I learned to love this process. Here in China, so much of what I do is discovery and figuring things out. My CSB/SJU education taught me to see things big picture, to break this into smaller pieces, and to effectively work on what needs to be done.
What activities/experiences were you involved with at CSB/SJU and how have they been helpful in your career?
I worked at the OLC (Outdoor Leadership Center) and was an Assistant Manager my senior year. There I learned many skills including how to make my passion for the outdoors into enjoyable experiences for others. Particularly, I organized an ice-fishing tournament for 100 people that gave me a foundation for the kind of business/marketing skills that I use now.
Also, some friends and I created the CSB/SJU Fishing Club. In the process, we learned about funding, organization, development, and at the same time enjoying what you are passionate. In many regards, I am doing the same type of things at my current job but on a higher level!
How has your Peace Corps’ experience been beneficial to your current position?
I will always be grateful for my Peace Corps experience in the West African nation of Benin. There I learned arguably the most important skill in life, patience. The people I worked with helped me learn that in life some things do not always work out in exactly the way you had hoped they would. Yet, with patience, they helped me realize that for the most part when things take unexpected turns it is not life and death! In China, I have to be patient here as things often take twists and turns I would have never imagined! As well, in the Peace Corps I learned that relying on others is important to do things efficiently. In the language I learned in Benin (Dendi), we say that, “no one can lift a stone alone.” This means teamwork is necessary, and I rely on my colleagues all the time for help, advice, and feedback as I learn how to work efficiently in China.
How does your graduate degree from Catholic Theological Union fit into your current work?
I graduated with a Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies from Catholic Theological Union. This degree helps in many unimagined ways that I would have not expected while working in China. First, I continued a liberal arts-like education at Catholic Theological Union, where I had to manage my own time, organization, and make decisions — these all help in the real world. Second, I learned how to listen to people’s concerns and worries and meet them where they are in offering insight into their situation. Being in nature and away from cell phones and the internet does a good job of bringing people together fast and divulging aspects of life that are dear to one’s own heart. Finally, I learned a great deal about Christian theology in my studies. Here in China, many people have questions and are intrigued by Christianity and I am able to share with them the truths and reality of Christianity, as I know it.
What advice would you give a student wanting to live and work abroad?
If you have a passion and want to do something outside of the USA, take the risk and follow it. It will probably lead you down paths you would have never expected and you will be shaped along the path. In the process, you will find where you are meant to be. Overall, I think living and working abroad allows for continual growth that is in many ways impossible in the USA.
Many may fear being away from home or isolated, but with modern technology it is easier than ever to be connected with those important to you. Don’t let the fear of being detached or losing those important to you in your life deter you from following your dream.
What advice would you provide a student who is thinking about a career in the outdoors including as a climbing guide?
Put yourself in outdoor situations with outdoor people and therein you will begin to create a network of professionals and acquaintances that can help you as you grow into the professional world. These include professional trainings, clinics, competitions, expos, sports extravaganzas, personal trips, etc. As well, don’t be afraid to take an entry-level position with outdoor companies such as trip organizer or working with gear organization as these often are part of the stepping stone process to better positions. If you are more certain of what exactly you want to do (e.g., Rock Climbing Guide or Mountain Guide), professional credentials from the A.M.G.A. (American Mountain Guide Association) can be achieved by successfully completing their courses.
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