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Lunch with Mimi: Barash Media’s new GM, Vilma Shu

on February 01, 2018 10:34 AM

Sometimes dreams do come true with hard work and the courage to pursue them. After 11 years at Town&Gown, Vilma Shu took over as general manager of Barash Media in December 2017. In her new role, she oversees the day-to-day operations of Town&Gown and The Centre County Gazette.

She started at Town&Gown as an editorial intern while pursuing her bachelor of arts degrees in English, French, and economics at Penn State. Upon graduation in May 2007, she was hired as an editorial and advertising assistant. Over the next 10 years, she was promoted to various positions including assistant editor and operations manager.

A world traveler with a traditional Chinese upbringing, she was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, and spent much of her teenage years traveling throughout Europe, spending three years at Leysin American School, an international boarding school in Switzerland.

Although she speaks Chinese, French, and Portuguese, she thinks and dreams in English. Town&Gown has given her the opportunity to combine her two passions – writing and learning about different food cultures – by giving her a creative outlet in her Taste of the Month column.

In a leadership role, she brings to Town&Gown an international perspective and understanding of our ever-changing diverse community. Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Shu in The Dining Room at The Nittany Lion Inn to discuss her background, what brought her to State College, and her new role at Town&Gown.

Mimi: Vilma Shu. My goodness. The fact that I’m interviewing you today as general manager of Town&Gown is kind of a dream come true for me. I remember sitting in our conference room when you came seeking an internship as a writer and you were an instant hit in my mind, and you didn’t have any trouble getting that internship. Can you think back and remember how you felt then?

Vilma: I was very nervous, I can tell you that. I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I was an English major looking for internships. My internship coordinator at Penn State, Elizabeth Jenkins, said, “You should go and apply at Town&Gown. They would love you there.” So, I interviewed with David Pencek, who was the editor at the time. I wanted to get published and get some clips. Luckily, I got the internship and I just fell in love with Town&Gown from day one. I have an interesting story about how I got introduced to Town&Gown. When I first came to Penn State to take a look at the campus, it was March 2001, right before I started my fall semester. My father and I took a college tour, and Penn State was the last stop on our tour.

Mimi: Who were the other colleges?

Vilma: I got into Yale, Tufts University in Massachusetts, Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, and Penn State. My dad said, “You can go to any one of those colleges.” But I had my mind set on Tufts University because I had a lot of friends going to Boston. However, I was willing to check out Penn State. I remember riding in a Handy Delivery Taxi cab, getting out of the University Park Airport, and as we passed through the farmlands, the taxi driver said, “Don’t worry, there is a town, I promise you.” We got onto College Avenue and we were dropped off at The Corner Room. We stayed in a little room at the Hotel State College, just me and my dad, and we toured the campus. After a few days in State College, it started to grow on me. It is a small town, but there are a lot of people here. We had lunch at the Allen Street Grill the day before we had to leave and he said, “Well, where do you want to go to college?” I knew deep down inside my father wanted me to go to Penn State. So, I said to my dad, I’ll go to Penn State under one condition: if I hate it the first year, I’m transferring. He hands me the March 2001 issue of Town&Gown. He said, “I looked it over last night when you were sleeping and there is a wonderful section on Women in the Community, you should take a look at it. You never know if one of those women will be influential in your life here.” And I had no idea that 11 years later, I would be here being interviewed by the one and only Mimi Barash Coppersmith, founder of Town&Gown (laughs).

Mimi: Well, I’m glad you came here. You have made such a difference along the way in the magazine. And it isn’t often that any small organization – and ours would be considered a small organization – can nurture someone from start to finish in terms of the level of positions. But you’re a living example of how that works. In my life experience with working together, it’s interesting for me to reflect that I don’t think we’ve ever crossed swords. Why do you think that is?

Vilma: We are very much alike in many ways. We’re both strong women who are self-motivated with a good work ethic, and we get things done.

Mimi: Get ’em done, and get ’em done the right way. Those of us who work as hard as we do, we do it because the first rule for us is to be able to feel like we can give ourselves good grades at the end of the day.

Vilma: We both also had very strict parents. I came from a Chinese family where good grades were expected. My dad expected me to get straight A’s.

Mimi: I remember when my mother said, “What’s this A-minus?” Some would argue today that that’s not right to put that kind of pressure on children, but it seemed to have worked for some of us. I think another similarity between us is that we are always thinking about how you might be able to do things even better, because one is stimulated to work harder if the results can be better and more meaningful to the world around you.

Vilma: I’m very self-critical. As a perfectionist, you always find flaws or things you could have done better.

Mimi: And that’s when you grow. You seem to be able to do almost anything, at least almost anything I’ve ever asked you to do. And in the organization, you’ve been the go-to person. “Ask Vilma, she can solve it.” You have an ability to interact, work, and bring a group together. It’s contagious in a way. How did you get that way?

Vilma: I’ve always been an ambitious, organized, and methodical person. I lead by example and a large part of it is in my upbringing. As the oldest of three children in my family, I always had to take care of my younger sister and brother. My father was an international businessman, who had very high expectations for his children to be successful individuals in the world. His father, my grandfather, left China with nothing and managed to build several successful businesses in Brazil and in Nigeria. Before my father passed away from cancer in June 2007, a month after I graduated from Penn State, he told me that when he is gone, I needed to spread my wings and hold the family together.

Mimi: That also is a strong motivator to do better. That’s a big responsibility to put on a child’s shoulders. I can remember that you went through what some would call sheer hell to get your citizenship, and with immigration being in the news these days, I think it would be interesting to our readers to get a capsule view of what you had to go through to become a U.S. citizen.

Vilma: I was born in Brazil to Chinese parents and I grew up living in Nigeria. I went to high school in Switzerland for three years, and then I came here to Penn State as an international student on an F1 visa. I graduated from Penn State with degrees in English, French, and economics – I was a 5½-year student. After I graduated, I applied for a one-year work visa and started working full-time at Town&Gown. My ex-husband is an American, and after we got married, I started the process of citizenship. It took almost six years, from applying for a permanent residency (green card) to finally becoming a U.S. citizen. I had an immigration lawyer here in State College and I did everything legally. I was basically going to York, PA, to get fingerprinted every six months during that period and was told that they needed to run background checks through all the different federal agencies. It was a very long and expensive journey.

Mimi: That had to make you feel a little unwanted, didn’t it?

Vilma: Yes, but all that didn’t deter me. I remember going to Philadelphia after I got married and presenting my marriage certificate. I had to bring an album with pictures of my wedding. They separated us in two rooms and asked us very personal questions to make sure we were indeed living in the same household. That was just the initial interview with an immigration officer. And then after six years of waiting, paying all sorts of processing fees, I finally got a letter of invitation to take the entrance exam and interview in Philadelphia in March 2013. You are given a booklet of 100 questions about U.S. history to study beforehand. When you arrive in Philadelphia, the immigration officer asks you 10 of those questions, and then I was given an English verbal and written skills exam, which I passed with flying colors (laughs). After passing the exam and interview, I had to wait a couple of months (until July 2013) before I had my oath ceremony in Philadelphia. Even though it was a very long process, I was so happy to become a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Mimi: It makes you wonder why they do it that way.

Vilma: It makes me wonder about how scary it must be for undocumented people living in the U.S. They don’t have the same legal paperwork that I had or the financial backing to go through this long process.

Mimi: So, now you’re the boss of a team of how many people?

Vilma: We’re a small staff, about 15 and that includes Town&Gown and The Centre County Gazette.

Mimi: I look at Town&Gown as one of the vital citizens of the community. We’re this unique magazine that has a model, it’s free. As its leader now, what are you going to do differently?

Vilma: We have a really talented team. It’s time for them to all shine, and do what they do best. Town&Gown has highlighted this wonderful community and its businesses, capturing its history for more than 52 years. We’re blessed to be in a community where people are willing to lend a hand, whether it’s volunteering their time or donating to great nonprofit organizations. Town&Gown serves its readers by telling those wonderful stories. What we haven’t done for a while is get feedback from our readers and advertisers. For the next six months, to better serve and understand our advertisers and readers, we invite everyone to participate in our reader survey in print or online. Let us know what we are doing well, what stories you want us to tell, and what businesses you want to see featured.

Mimi: We haven’t done that in too long a time. Good for you.

Vilma: It’s also important for Town&Gown to connect with our growing international population here. At Penn State, there are international students from over 130 different countries.

Mimi: Now that you have many more responsibilities, and you’ve done a little bit of everything in Town&Gown along the way, what are you going to do about having time to do some writing?

Vilma: To be true to my heart, I am a writer. My love for cooking steered me to writing the Taste of the Month column 10 years ago and I want to continue doing that. I started learning about pickling, canning, and fermenting recently. I love learning about different food cultures. I really enjoy writing food-related stories, meeting people and chefs in this community who are doing interesting things with food.

Mimi: Good, continue that because they’re very interesting to read, too. And they are helpful to the people that you’re writing about, which is also an important role for the magazine, especially for new restaurants.

Vilma: There’s a lot of restaurants and new food-related businesses in State College now and I am excited to explore and educate our readers about what they offer.

Mimi: Well, you kind of expect that in a college community, so it’s a good sign. Vilma, as the founder of my third child (laughs), I wish you the best. I know you’re going to bring a wonderful new vigor to the magazine and the newspaper and I wish you only the best. Our readers can’t see, but I’m hugging you.

Vilma: Thank you so much. This has been a dream come true.

 

 

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