For Penn Sophomore Michelle Lu, a Unique Internship Fosters Musical Connections, ‘Bridge Across Cultures’

When the Philadelphia Orchestra and Chinese amateur group Starry Sky Orchestra performed a side-by-side concert in Beijing in May, University of Pennsylvania sophomore Michelle Lu watched the performance — but not as an audience member.

When she attended meetings with the orchestra’s chief executive and an international ambassador, she was more than a fly on the wall.

When the tour manager visited the Penn Wharton China Center in Beijing, she accompanied him and participated in high-level business conversations.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Lu had these opportunities, unique for a 19-year-old, because for six weeks this summer, she interned with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The job description tasked the New Jersey native with logistics and personnel for the group’s visit to China, everything from planning host gifts to checking hotel accommodations. But the internship became much more, reinforcing Lu’s love of music, allowing her to see another part of the world, even providing an opportunity to foster connections between orchestra members, who didn’t speak the country’s language, and their hosts.

“On the trip, my main job was to be support. But I was also the only one traveling with the orchestra who could speak Mandarin fluently,” Lu said. “I did a lot of informal translation.”

It was Molly McGlone, Lu’s Benjamin Franklin Scholars advisor, who told her about the opportunity, but initially Lu wasn’t sold that the experience would align with her future career goals; she recently declared a double major in urban studies and economics.

“Then I realized that the ability to form a bridge across cultures is something I’m really interested in,” she said. “Economics is the study of how people interact with each other, their needs, their demands. They can’t exist without culture.”

Plus, Lu has an undeniable connection to music.

She’s been playing flute since fourth grade and attended the Manhattan School of Music in New York City. At Penn, she’s part of the Symphony Orchestra, and as a freshman took McGlone’s “Music in Urban Spaces” class. This Academically Based Community Service Course run through Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships pairs students with local music classes in mentor-mentee relationships. Once a week for an academic year, Lu played piano for the choir at Lea Elementary School in West Philadelphia.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​“I saw Michelle’s care for the students at Lea so I knew she was a good collaborator,” said McGlone, assistant dean for academic affairs in the School of Arts and Sciences. “She knows how to work with other people and how to think about a program’s long-term musical goals. In the class, we read a piece about a Taiwanese rock band from New Jersey. In those discussions, Michelle talked about her experiences growing up, the conflict between identities and how music becomes this focal point. It was such a powerful conversation.”

Lu applied for and got the internship, offered through Penn’s Global Internship Program and facilitated by Penn Abroad.

She’s brought home lessons she learned while traveling in Asia, like the one gleaned by watching Kensho Watanabe, assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, lead musicians from opposite sides of the world who speak different languages. Given her Mandarin fluency, Lu was ready to translate, but, as she described in a blog post, some things simply transcend words.

“It turns out,” she wrote, “that his conducting style and communicating through gesturing were enough.”

Recalling the events later, she said, “We may be worlds apart from each other, but music is something that brought us all together.”

Sophomore Michelle Lu spent six weeks interning with the Philadelphia Orchestra, including planning logistics for the group’s trip to China.