Staff Q&A/Kenric Tsethlikai

Text by Tim Hyland
Robert Preucel, professor of anthropologyPhoto credit: Mark Stehle

After completing his Ph.D. in French at Stanford University, Kenric Tsethlikai accepted a position with Credit Suisse in Switzerland.

And though Tsethlikai was just one of many promising young minds to join the bank, he quickly found out that his background in language set him apart in the eyes of his managers—and opened up opportunities that some of his colleagues simply didn’t get.

“What I saw in Switzerland when I went to Credit Suisse is that language abilities were often the determining factor in terms of job promotion and opportunity,” says Tsethlikai, who was recently named director of language and culture programs for Penn’s Lauder Institute. “Given two candidates who are equally competent [in business], it seemed the person with demonstrated language skills would get the mission to go represent the company.”

As business goes global, language competency is more important than ever. Penn’s Lauder Institute has recognized this for years, and offers an extremely challenging business-and-language program that demands that students complete the coursework necessary for an MBA, but also demonstrate a high level of language mastery before being able to graduate. The program is one of the most highly respected in the country.

As director for language and culture programs, Tsethlikai will oversee all eight of Lauder’s language programs and ensure that those programs continue to prepare students for the real-world application of language. He will also work as a consultant for the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business.

Q. How did you end up here at Lauder?

I was in charge of the French language program at the Stanford Language Center for about three years, and then I was nominated to this position. Stanford was in a sense the training ground for everything that goes on here at Lauder. My work at Stanford was on a smaller scale, as I was working on a language-specific program. But my background is in French, and I’m a tester for the Oral Proficiency Interview, which is a mainstay cornerstone of the Lauder Program—and a graduation requirement. Along with my background in language teaching and administration, I also have an interest in the field of business and economic development. So I think my expertise matched up well with what Lauder does.

Q. What is the reputation of Lauder nationally?

I think in the national context, it’s viewed as an exceptional program in that there area very few programs that teach to the superior level [in language] on a national scale. And those that do aren’t necessarily focused on language in the professional context, on the business language context, as Lauder is.

Q. Given that business is so global today, are business schools taking language more seriously?

Strategically, it would make sense. Especially given the fact that the United States has to now rethink its position with regard to other countries and other cultures. We’re not in a position any longer to be able to assume that other people share our language or our system of values. I think we at least have to have the insight and the curiosity to understand people on their own terms, and in their own language.

Q. What are you charged with here?

The main charge has to do with language education. In the Master of International Studies program, one of the central components is language and cultural training. So that’s to prepare students for [the business world] and provide them with a framework for understanding the social, political, economic and professional context in which business takes place. The fundamental difference between Lauder and [other language programs] is that we are preparing students for a professional context, and a formal context, and preparing them with the skills they’ll need to deal with the concrete business situations they’ll find themselves in, whether that means interpreting financial data or developing a marketing plan.

Q. Are there any other programs out there that do what Lauder does?

I would say there’s probably one or two. I think a lot of business skills offer language training, but it’s more for general purposes. It’s not as focused and certainly not at the level that Lauder teaches to, and there’s no specific graduation requirement. To have language taught at this level in an MBA program, it’s really an exceptional program, both within MBA programs and within language education in general.

Q. What kind of students does this program attract?

Mostly they are students who already have a significant international background. They are students who have either participated in a program like the Peace Corps, or have worked overseas, or had a mission in their target languages. I think in most MBA programs the language aspect is just an appendage. They’re not integrated into the curriculum and they’re not the focus. … Here at Lauder, students have to arrive at a superior-level rating on an academic rating scale.

Q. Your position puts you at a unique intersection between language and business. How did you craft this unique career path?

Well, I had two interests in my Ph.D. program. One was more literary studies-based, and the other was language acquisition and pedagogy—the teaching of and training for language teaching. But I also had a parallel interest in economic development, as I’m from the Zuni Pueblo tribe in New Mexico and, on a general level, am very interested in economic development issues for Native American communities. I had worked in a bank, and I had worked in an internship with Credit Suisse in Switzerland, and that’s what took me to Switzerland for five years.

Q. Tell me about your time with Credit Suisse. Was that a challenging cultural transition for you?

I was coming out of a Ph.D. program at Stanford, which was more of an academic endeavor, and once I got to Credit Suisse, I was put right into the risk analysis sector. And I was put there because my French was strong enough to allow me to engage in number crunching and the interpreting of data. At that point I was allowed to see a different level of operations within the bank, solely because of my level of language skill. And once I was there, that allowed me to develop my language skills even more.

Q. Why did you choose French? And where does your general interest in language come from?

I studied Latin before I studied French. And so I had a real traditional, classic education in the sense of the Great Books—“The Iliad” and “The Brothers Karamazov.” And with that background and that foundation, and the background of being exposed to post-colonial literature, it gave me a new way of understanding the situations and the history and the context of the Native American people in the United States, through the lens of post-colonial phenomenon.

I think [my interest] in language came from my sense of trying to understand the world around me. I grew up on the Zuni reservation and that reality had its own sense of circumstances and codes, and I also grew up with my native language. I wanted to understand why people do the things they do, how they do the things they do, based on their set of values and based on what framework they are in.

Q. Have there been any efforts in the Zuni community to preserve that language going forward?

I don’t think they have approached it from the framework that we know now, and have been developing in foreign language education and language education in general, per se. They started from the dictionary standpoint, with developing word lists and thematic lists. But I don’t think they have necessarily matched what was happening in language acquisition studies and how to teach languages and how to foster a language beyond simply preserving it through dictionaries.

That’s definitely a long-term project for me—to look at how my background might be able to contribute in a way that I would hope would go beyond language preservation, but also include the enrichment and transmission of native languages.

Q. Finally, I know you’ve just
started here, but what has your experience been so far working with Lauder students?

I’d have to say that the students of the Lauder program are, I think, perhaps the most diverse students I’ve ever encountered, in terms of their life experiences and their professional experiences and their intellectual curiosity. I think it takes a real personal commitment to try to arrive at a superior level rating in a language alongside an already rigorous MBA program. I think this challenge speaks to the character and curiosity and motivation of these students.

Originally published Oct. 2, 2008

Originally published on .