Ever since first arriving in the United States from China eight years ago, nothing has been particularly easy for Yachao Fan.
Nearly every step of the transition has posed new challenges – from communicating to forming professional connections in a new country.
But he found a way to barrel through the obstacles. With the weight of his parents’ and sister’s future resting on his shoulders, moving forward was the only direction he could go.
“I’ve always wanted to work hard,” said Fan, 25. “I feel like if I didn’t accomplish anything it was a waste of time. I’ve come too far to go back to where I was.”
On Sunday, Fan will graduate from UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.
One of the more than 2,000 Tar Heels who will graduate at the annual Winter Commencement ceremony at the Dean E. Smith Center, Fan will receive his bachelor’s in business administration while also becoming the first person in his family to earn a college degree.
“This is an accomplishment not just for me, but my family as well,” he said. “There is now someone in the family that has gone to college. I’m proud of the fact that I finished college and graduated from UNC.”
Providing the opportunity for their son to graduate from an American university was always the plan for Fan’s parents, who immigrated to the United States when he was in first grade.
“They came here because they wanted to provide a better future for me going forward,” said Fan.
Fan remained in his hometown in Northern China with his grandparents until he was 18 years old. He then moved to the United States to rejoin his parents who had opened a restaurant in St. Louis.
After arriving in Missouri, Fan began working at the restaurant as he transitioned to life in America. But it was his sister Yafang that motivated Fan to enroll in community college.
“Her birth really gave me a new perspective of things,” he said. “My parents were working at this restaurant, they barely made ends meet every single month. I’m the only brother in the family, so my goal was to do well for myself and to do well to the point where I can take care of my parents and my sister. That was my goal. I was just working towards that goal even though I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
Before he could make strides towards a career, though, he first needed to teach himself English.
“I still remember the first couple times I went to a restaurant by myself, and I couldn’t order anything because I couldn’t read the menu,” he said. “I made goals for myself. There were a number of vocab words I needed to memorize, or there were a number of books that I told myself I had to read before a certain day.”
Two years after arriving in the United States, Fan enrolled in St. Louis Community College where he spent his first year finishing his English language requirements. After that, he advanced to higher-level courses and earned a 4.0 GPA.
Fan began his search for the next step in his education with the one American university he had recognized since his childhood – the one Michael Jordan went to.
“Growing up in China, I was a big fan of Michael Jordan,” he said. “The Chicago Bulls were the only team that was televised in the late 90s. So when I came to the U.S., I had always known that UNC was there because I followed Michael Jordan.”
But it was the prestige of the Kenan-Flagler Business School and opportunity to graduate through the Carolina Covenant – a program that gives eligible low-income students who earn admission the opportunity graduate from Carolina debt-free – that brought Fan to Chapel Hill in 2013.
“I felt doing business was something interesting to me, so I thought I would give it a shot,” he said. “I could take this opportunity to learn from professors at the business school and surround myself with people that have something in common with me.”
It was at the business school that Fan’s interest in investment banking grew into a desired career path despite already being at a disadvantage in the highly competitive industry.
Bill Moore, a finance professor at the business school and former investment banker, said connections inside the field are key to understanding investment banking and then landing interviews for internships.
“He was told that he didn’t have a chance to get into investment banking, that he didn’t have the experience for it,” Moore said. “A lot of people grow up around that business and have that advantage. He had none of that, he just learned it all on his own.”
Unlike many students who could leverage connections to get a foot in the door, Fan had to find a new way to break in. To do so, he turned to his professors and the UNC alumni network.
“Yachao was diligent about leveraging various resources made available to UNC Kenan-Flagler students to learn what an investment banker does, what skills are required to be successful in that role and how to best optimize the path to obtaining a highly competitive internship with a Wall Street firm,” said David Vogel, director of career development and employer relations for the business school’s undergraduate program. “Networking with investment bankers is a very critical component of the process of obtaining an internship. Yachao was persistent in ‘putting himself out there’ in order to learn the lingo, make the connections and build the relationships.
“Yachao is beyond persistent. He did not let the rollercoaster ride of recruiting get to him. He remained focused on his goals and consistently leveraged his advisors – both at UNC and within the alumni base – to help him course correct along the way.”
Fan’s efforts and newly made connections led to an internship as an investment banking summer analyst with the Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s leveraged finance group – an opportunity that then turned into a full-time job with the company.
“I’ve been in school for so many years, this is definitely the point for me to move on to the next chapter,” he said. “I’ve worked so hard to get to where I am, so I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
The job, he said, is putting him on a path to achieve his ultimate goal of taking care of his parents and sister – the group that pushed him to succeed in the first place.
“Everything I’ve been able to accomplish is because of my family and my sister,” he said. “I don’t think I would have had the motivation to first learn English, then come to UNC, then go to business school, then do investment banking at a great company. I don’t think I would have had that drive to accomplish all these things without my family.”
Ceremony: Sunday, Dec. 13, at the Dean. E. Smith Center.
Speaker: Kelly Hogan, director of Instructional Innovation for the UNC College of Arts and Sciences and an award-winning Senior STEM Lecturer in the College’s Biology Department.
Graduate info: To date, 2,113 students applied to graduate in December or were awarded degrees in August. Administrators expected to award degrees to 974 undergraduates, 802 master’s students, 286 doctoral students, 18 professional students and 33 certificates.