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Alton Chow G’97

Life Is About Taking Risks, Seeking Experiences

Alton ChowAlton Chow G’97 has enjoyed a career remarkable both for its success and its widely diverse disciplines—architecture, engineering, professional music, fashion, design. “It is a pattern in my life,” he says. “I am always looking for bigger, broader, new.”

On October 1, Chow took on a new role for AECOM, as vice president, Asia Pacific, and moved from the Shanghai office to Hong Kong. AECOM, a multinational engineering firm, employees 87,000 worldwide. The firm is known for its innovation and integrated approach to building and design, incorporating planning, economics, engineering, architecture and project management.

Chow grew up in Irvine, California, the son of Chinese immigrants. While he knew from a young age he wanted to be an architect, he also liked music and was in a garage band he describes as “the kind of garage bad where the neighbors are always telling you to shut up.” But after a mother of a fellow band member videotaped the band, some of the members signed up for a talent show in Taiwan. They became a popular boy band, akin to the Back Street Boys in the U.S.

The band’s agent also signed on Chow, who made his own way as a pop singer, traveling to and from Taiwan to record and perform. At the same time, Chow lived at home and earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. When it came time to apply to graduate school for architecture, he felt schools in California would be too close and familiar. “Life would have been very predictable,” he says. “I don’t think I would have expanded my network.”

Syracuse University’s architecture school appealed to him because of its ranking as a top-10 architecture school, and also because of its study abroad program in Florence, Italy. At that point in his life, Chow had never been to Europe. He remembers clearly his first few hours visiting the Syracuse campus. “What was amazing was I remember walking into Slocum Hall, walking up the staircase,” he says. “The steps were worn by the inside rail. I felt, there’s a history here. I want this experience. I want to be here.”

Chow met faculty and advisors with what was most likely a unique request. He needed his assignments early, and he needed some flexibility, so that he could continue his musical career in Taiwan. He was counseled to talk to individual professors, who were encouraging. “The message was, ‘we’ll see what we can do to help you be successful,’” Chow says.

A highlight of Chow’s time at Syracuse was the much-anticipated semester in Florence, where he loved the city, its architecture, and the warmth of the people. He’s grateful Syracuse University provided him the experience.

Chow began work as an architect with AECOM in Los Angeles. In 2003, he moved to Shanghai, building his career in a variety of disciplines before returning to AECOM in 2014. Some 10 years ago, he received an email from Randall Korman, a longtime professor at the school, who was about to travel to China to lecture. The two spent a day talking and walking around Shanghai during a turning point in Chow’s career, and Chow remembers being appreciative of Korman’s counsel.

The meeting sparked his renewed commitment to Syracuse University. Chow served as a moderator for the Syracuse Around the World Program in Shanghai last May, when Chancellor Kent Syverud; David Van Slyke, dean of the Maxwell School of Public Affairs; and other university leaders met with alumni and parents of current students at different locations in China.

Chow is a board member of the School of Architecture and says he is happy to support Dean Michael Speaks with his outreach in Greater China. He enjoys annual trips back to Syracuse, which include board meetings, a trip to the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que restaurant, and a nostalgic walk around campus, reflecting on his decision to move far from home. “It was a time I really ventured out on my own,” he says. “The currency of experiences is something a lot of people undervalue. For me, coming to Syracuse meant taking a risk and putting myself out there.”

Published: November 2018