Chapel Hill alumni Sandy Alkoutami and Yusheng Zhang named Schwarzman Scholars

Sandy Alkoutami, a 2018 graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Yusheng Zhang, a 2019 graduate of the University, have been selected for the Schwarzman Scholars program, one of the world’s most prestigious graduate fellowships, located at Schwarzman College at Tsinghua University.


A Morehead-Cain Scholar, Sandy Alkoutami graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in May 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in public policy and economics and a minor in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies. She graduated with highest distinction and was awarded honors for her public policy senior thesis, “Understanding Insurgent Behaviors: The Effect of External Support on Insurgent Violence in Civil Conflicts.”

During her time as a Carolina student, Alkoutami worked as a Student Foreign Service Intern at the U.S. Department of State and the Embassy of Lebanon, interned for the House Committee on the Judiciary and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and interned at the State Department’s Global Engagement Center.

After graduating, she served as an English teaching assistant at the Islamic Educational College in Amman, Jordan, while interning with the refugee resettlement agency Questscope under a J. William Fulbright Scholarship. As a Fulbright Fellow working in refugee camps, Alkoutami was able to initiate and implement resettlement programs while observing China’s investment in Syria.

For the past year, Alkoutami has been a James C. Gaither Junior Fellow with the Middle East Program run by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. Her research has focused on sub-state militia integration and proxy war intervention in Libya and the electoral state of affairs in Algeria.

Alkoutami feels invested in conflict resolution and matters relating to political, economic and social change in the Middle East and North Africa. Her language skills and cultural understanding in addition to her academic and professional experience made her an ideal candidate. She believes U.S. and Chinese policies toward the regions are central to conflict resolution in Syria and its Arab neighbors. According to Zeina G. Halabi, an UNC-Chapel Hill assistant professor of Arabic literature, “As a Syrian-American, [Alkoutami] is very much acquainted with the notion of difference, whether linguistic, religious or cultural. Her ability to smoothly navigate different cultural settings impresses her interlocutors.”


Yusheng Zhang is one of two UNC-Chapel Hill alumni from the 2020 cohort, selected from a worldwide pool of over 4,700 candidates. According to Kenan-Flagler Professor and Center for Entrepreneurial Studies Director Ted Zoller, “[Zhang] combines both rigor from an academic perspective and an entrepreneur’s versatility to put his ideas into practice. [His] unique life experiences as a Chinese-American passionate about building bridges between the U.S. and China will allow him to contribute to the success of the Schwarzman Scholars program in countless ways.”

Zhang graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in May 2019 with a major in business administration and global studies and a minor in music. As an Honors student and GLOBE Scholar, he studied at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, Copenhagen Business School and the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

At UNC-Chapel Hill, Zhang founded 180 Degrees Consulting-UNC, served as Carolina International Relations Association president and co-organized the 2018 Duke-UNC China Leadership Summit. After graduating, Zhang worked as a research associate for the Global Entrepreneurship Network, a Fortune 50 company, and a microfinance nonprofit. He is currently a consultant at Ernst & Young.

Zhang is passionate about helping nonprofits that address social causes, from poverty eradication to food access and in creating a unified vision for governments, nonprofits and investors. While working as a China Analyst for Fortuna Holdings, Zhang drafted a government grant pitch for an indoor hydroponic greenhouse startup that would quickly and economically produce fresh fruits and vegetables in the Beijing suburbs. However, he soon realized that the company could not fully realize its social mission of reducing the local community’s reliance on imported produce unless mentors and investors understood Beijing society. As a result of experiences like this, he believes that when investors don’t understand an emerging market’s culture and history, their subsequent reluctance to invest in the region’s entrepreneurs both weakens financial infrastructure and smothers innovation.

Therefore, he hopes to help investors and entrepreneurs overcome these cultural barriers and connect Chinese entrepreneurs with global audiences. Zhang’s experience in cross-cultural, cross-sector entrepreneurial collaboration made him an ideal candidate for the Schwarzman Scholars Program. “His visionary leadership, grit and determination, and global, entrepreneurial mindset certainly provide him with the abilities to respond effectively to the geopolitical landscape of the 21st century and serve as a bridge between China and the rest of the world,” according to Anna Miller, UNC Kenan-Flagler Undergraduate Business Program’s assistant dean.