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Pen pal paved way for alum’s interest in U.S.-China relations

November 16, 2015

D.C. conference
Carson Tavenner and Gregory Waldrop at the D.C. conference. Photo courtesy Carson Tavenner.

By Tina Lu
Special to the Jackson School

One retired U.S. Air Force officer and alumnus of the Jackson School is pursuing U.S.-China relations in a unique way.

In 2011, Carson Tavenner (MAIS, China, 2000) started the Tai Initiative, which helps build U.S.-China relationships between organizations at a local level. That means helping schools, corporations, or cities to work together to foster understanding.

Tavenner and the Tai Initiative provide knowledge of China and understanding of the larger trends in China-U.S. relations to local groups, said Donald Bishop, Tai Initiative’s informal adviser and Tavenner’s mentor, through an email.

Carson Tavenner

Carson Tavenner gave the opening remarks at a conference held by the Tai Initiative.Photo courtesy Carson Tavenner.

“Carson and the Tai Initiative have identified many different groups in the Pacific Northwest that have China ties,” said Bishop. “Conferences have allowed them to meet, compare notes, and understand more of the larger context.”

In July, the Tai Initiative held its annual conference in Washington, D.C. “The D.C. environment is largely known for being very high speed, very high level, and not having a lot of time to stop and listen,” Tavenner said. “So to have people stop and listen, and say, ‘Hey, this is good stuff.’ That was very satisfying.”

Seeking a pen pal in China

Tavenner’s interests in China started when he entered his senior year at Puyallup High School in 1987. He pitched his idea of starting a sister-school relationship with another school in China, and eventually brought his idea to the district’s superintendent.

“I wanted to reach out and have some kind of exchange between students with letters, or learning from one another,” Tavenner said. “And I wanted to have a friend begin a pen-pal relationship with me.”

[Tavenner talks about his vision about a sister-school relation]

Carson Tavenner and his pen pal.

Carson Tavenner carries this photo of himself (left) and Qian Jun (right) with him in the wallet.Photo courtesy Carson Tavenner.

When the superintendent visited China in 1987, he brought two letters by Tavenner: One to introduce himself to an unknown Chinese boy, and the other to the Chinese superintendent for helping with the sister-school relationship.

After graduating from high school, Tavenner didn’t follow that passion as a professional path, because he was entering the United States Air Force Academy in order to be a fighter pilot: “A fighter pilot that is preparing to go to war with the Soviet Union. That was my life at that time,” Tavenner said. “That’s what was going on in the world.”

By the time he received anything back from China, he was already in the academy. For four years, his pen pal, Qian Jun, and he wrote letters back and forth.

When he graduated from the academy in 1991, he backpacked through Hong Kong and China by himself, and met Qian Jun for the first time. Tavenner described the trip as “life-changing” and “the real hook” that snagged him for life.

Qian Jun later moved to the U.S. and lived here for 20 years. He just recently moved back to China to be a professor of finance at the Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance.

“Now I’m in the process of exploring what he and I might do together through the Tai Initiative,” Tavenner said.

At the local level, organizations aren’t tied down by politics that complicate U.S.-China relations at the national level. “National security and big governmental issues too often get in the way of building more constructive, positive relationships,” Tai Initiative board member Gregory Waldrop (MAIS, China, 2000) said through an email. “Commonalities often forge relationships and understanding with less facilitation and with by far fewer obstacles.” Waldrop has known Tavenner since 1998 when they were peers in the JSIS China Studies program.

In 1998, Tavenner was asked to teach history at the U.S. Air Force Academy. The Jackson School was his first choice to pursue a master’s degree, which he needed in order to teach. He graduated with a degree in international relations, with a focus on China. He taught at the academy from 2000 to 2003, an experience that gave context to what he had learned at the Jackson School about China.

Tavenner is still involved with the Jackson School after graduating years later. He has been a part of the JSIS mentoring program since it started a few years ago. He mentors his protégé about school, career choices, and even life choices beyond their years at the school.

“Mentoring is a very important process in any professional’s life,” Tavenner said. “It’s very difficult for young people to become leaders without a leading mentor.”