Charlie Melvoin

  • October 6, 2010

When he was a young boy, Charlie Melvoin developed what he calls “an inexplicable attraction” to Chinese characters. This attraction grew over the years and has already resulted in him acting as a guide to Rupert Murdoch at the Beijing Olympics and a Gates scholarship for a masters in Development Studies at the University of Cambridge.

“I didn’t know what the Chinese characters meant at that age, but I copied them and then I found out that each character had a story and history,” he says. He had an inspiring teacher at high school who mentored him in Chinese. “He had an incredible knowledge and passion,” says Charlie. “It was a hard language to learn so though there were eight of us on the programme to begin with only four were left by the end and we got a lot of attention.”

The teacher, Dr Zhou, had high expectations. “He was hard on me and I loved it. I could see the progress. It ignited a spark in me,” says Charlie.

That spark led him to travel the world and explore other cultures as well as his own – in his gap year he visited 22 countries before taking an undergraduate degree in American History and Literature at Harvard.

Charlie grew up in Los Angeles where his father was an executive tv producer and his mum a photojournalist. He says the family did not travel much as his dad had to be around in the summer producing tv dramas such as Remington Steele. Charlie was anxious to travel and, at 14, went to China on a school trip. After that, he took any chance he could to see the world.

Unsurprisingly, with his background, Charlie was interested in drama and writing and did several intensive theatre summer schools as a child. Through these he got work doing voiceovers for programmes such as the cartoon Recess. The voiceovers were well paid and he used the money to fund his travels.

China is his main love, despite the fact that he has been exposed to a broad range of different opportunities, which he has enthusiastically explored.

He got a taster of working life in China during one summer vacation from Harvard when he got a job in broadcaster NBC’s client hospitality programme at the Beijing Olympics. Because of his knowledge of Chinese, he was appointed to mind a range of well-known figures, including media mogul Rupert Murdoch. “It was the first time I got to really use my language skills,” he says, “and I was able to feel the benefits of all my years of schooling.”

The following summer he worked in Uganda for the United Nations World Food Programme. He had been to Africa in his gap year and had always viewed the UN as a potential option for a future job. When he got to Uganda he was assigned to work on a climate change project, talking to people in rural areas about the impact on them. Again, he was thrown in at the deep end and says he was shocked at how much responsibility he was given, but he clearly thrived on it. “I would not have considered climate change an interest of mine before this,” he says, “but I could see the creative potential in green energy and it gave me an insight into the UN, both of which could be useful in China.”

This summer, he says, he has not travelled much, then lists trips to Israel, Croatia and Turkey, the latter two with his older brother who has just finished the Teach for America programme.

Charlie, who will be doing an MPhil in Development Studies funded by a Gates scholarship, says he has always had an interest in development issues. He took American History and Literature at Harvard simply because of Harvard’s reputation as a liberal arts college and because he “wanted to get the most out of Harvard”.

His interview for the Gates scholarship was conducted by phone because he could not get to a snow-bound Annapolis where the panel was being held. “It was an interesting conversation, though,” says Charlie. He had tried for other scholarships but found the kind of questions asked in the phone interview broader and more interesting. “In other interviews you talk about what you have done. The Gates interview is more forward-looking and challenging,” he says.

As you would expect from someone so young and so keen to make the most from every opportunity which arises, Charlie has no fixed plans for the future yet. He believes, however, that whatever he does it will be in some way linked to internationalism and diplomacy, although this could be more at the informal level linked to his love and appreciation of foreign cultures. He says: “I hope to wage my own independent diplomatic mission to promote a love of travel.”

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