A wise elder speaks

  • September 25, 2014
A wise elder speaks

Pete Manasantivongs, Director of Global Engagement at Melbourne Business School, was one of the first Gates Cambridge Scholars and he says the experience transformed his life and career.

I know many people say that the Gates Cambridge scholarship has been life changing, but I really mean it,” says Pete Manasantivongs [2001].

He was one of the first intake of Gates Cambridge Scholars in 2001 and played a role in shaping what it has become and so significant was the impact of Gates on Pete that he has been involved in setting up events for alumni in Australia as a way of giving back to the Gates community and Trust. He also supports Scholars Elect. “I want them to have the experience I had at Cambridge and to give back to something that was so meaningful to me. Being part of the inaugural intake was important. We feel like we are the stewards of the programme, the wise elders or grandparents. We have a deep emotional investment in a programme which has so positively influenced us.”

That influence included both the values that guide his current career and his interest in global citizenship and cultures. His career could have developed very differently. Pete was born in New York City, but grew up in Los Angeles. His parents are both from Thailand – his father is a doctor and his mother was a nurse until she became a stay at home mother. With such a background, a career in medicine was something that Pete was encouraged to consider as a child, particularly since he achieved good marks in maths and science. At high school, in addition to playing junior varsity tennis and piano, he volunteered at a local hospital every Monday evening to prepare him for a medical career.

When he started at Harvard, though, he realised he could not see himself doing the additional science courses he would need to get into medical school. He was doing a major in applied maths on a partial scholarship for the first year, but was able to take elective courses in linguistics. “I was able to explore and I fell in love with linguistics,” he says. Although his parents spoke Thai at home, he says it was not until he started to learn Spanish and French at secondary school that he became interested in how language was constructed. “It was like maths in that I was looking for similarities and differences between languages and for patterns in families of languages. I became deeply fascinated,” he says.


Pete applied to a master’s in linguistics at Cambridge which was one of only two universities in the world where you could do linguistics without having taken an undergraduate degree in the subject, but he didn’t go straight after Harvard.

At Harvard he also became very actively involved in student governance and sport.  He graduated in 1999 and received a travelling fellowship from his house for the following year because of his contributions to house life. He used the fellowship to explore the world, spending two months in Belgium studying Dutch, doing cookery in Italy, travelling through Asia and going on his first trip to Australia to watch the Australian Open tennis. There he fell in love with the accessible, green nature of Melbourne. “After Los Angeles it was refreshing to come to a city which did public transport and green spaces well,” he says. It was a place that stuck in his mind as somewhere he would like to live at some point in the future.

“The fellowship set me up very well for my MPhil,” says Pete, “and if I hadn’t deferred my MPhil to travel I would not have been in Cambridge in the lead-up to the inaugural year of Gates and I would not have found out about Gates and done my PhD in Cambridge.  Doing my PhD with the support of the Gates Cambridge scholarship has really influenced the rest of my life.”

For his PhD he used optimality theory to study the syntax of six different European languages. With the help of native-speaking students, several of whom were Gates Cambridge scholars, he analysed how grammatical their spoken language was and how tolerant they were of, for instance, dropping subject pronouns.

Pete says being one of the first Gates Cambridge scholars was exciting. “We were given a lot of leeway to create a community. We had a lot of ideas about building the social component of Gates and we had a clear vision of the importance that social impact played in the scholarship’s aims. Even now some of my closest friends are Gates Cambridge Scholars,” he says.


After Cambridge Pete moved back to California and got a job for Lexicon Branding, a consultancy specialising in brand names. They needed a linguistics specialist who could do a risk analysis of potential brand names to see whether certain names had negative connotations in other languages. Among the products he worked on was the Blackberry Curve phone. “Curve described the shape of the phone and phonetically the name suggested speed and luxury,” says Pete.

In 2007 after just over two years he decided to move again. He wanted to learn more about business and he had never forgotten his trip to Melbourne. He applied to Melbourne Business School to study for an MBA and marketing masters on a partial scholarship. His first job after that was as a research associate for a marketing professor at the Business School, conducting research into whether labelling food as palm oil free would encourage people to buy it. In 2010 he got a job as markets insight manager at the School, doing data analysis and international student recruitment. He was then promoted to the post of Director of the full-time MBA programme and in 2013 was appointed Business Development and Research manager at the Faculty of Business, Economics and Law, La Trobe University in Melbourne.

Two months ago he took up the post of Director of Global Engagement at Melbourne Business School. The role involves international student recruitment and managing relationships with partner schools and organisations like Engineers Without Borders.”There’s a strong social impact element to the full-time MBA. The aim is to get the students to use their MBA talents and skills to help NGOs,” he says. “It fits a lot with the Gates values that were instilled in me. Because of that exposure that is how I approach my life and career. I believe that the global community that comes to Cambridge furthered my ideas about global citizenship. My study of linguistics made me aware of different cultures and Gates showed me that the type of life I want is to be a global citizen and to work towards the betterment of society. The scholarship was truly life-changing. There is no way I would be close to where I am now without the opportunities that Gates gave me and I will be eternally grateful.” “

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