By Stephanie Sokol
Charon Morgan never thought about moving away from Michigan — the place where she grew up, started her family and started her career.
Now, the 1996 Oakland University mechanical engineering graduate lives and works in Shanghai, China, where she took an executive job with General Motors over a year ago — and she said it was one of the best life choices she ever made.
“It’s important for people to really stretch themselves and get out of their comfort zone to experience something they never thought they’d do, because that’s been the best experience for me,” Morgan said. “I never thought two years ago that I’d even be here.”
Growing up in Romeo, and going to school in the area, Morgan lived in Michigan her whole life.
Immediately following her graduation from OU, she began her career at General Motors in technology and validation.
“Oakland was such a great experience,” Morgan said. “I recall working very, very hard, spending many hours every day in the library with teams — I remember working in a lot of teams. The one thing that sets OU apart from discussions I’ve had with my colleagues and experiences with other schools, is spending a lot of time in the labs. The fortunate part of that was you had the theoretical message in the lecture, but then you really got the hands-on experience when applying it in the lab, and that also taught you to work very effectively with teams, which is really what you do in the real world.”
What started as a primarily technical and chassis career led to more design and management work.
Morgan’s current position focuses on “optimizing the way engineering functions are run” at General Motors, working to boost efficiency with the company there.
Being with the company for almost 20 years, she had rich experience that made her a good fit for the job. In this position, she is working to better the market’s needs, which vary in other
countries based on fuel economy regulations among other criteria.
“As a global company, GM has engineering centers located around the world, and China is where the industry has high growth projected,” Morgan said. “There’s growth now, but there will be an even more rapid pace of growth in the future. With that in mind, understanding how we can operate the business on the other side of the world to be as efficient as in the U.S where we have such a mature automotive industry, is great for us as a global company. Being able to collaboratively spread regional knowledge and apply it to our emerging countries is key.”
The move to China wasn’t easy, however. Morgan has three sons, and nobody in the family spoke Chinese. Professionally, verbal communication wasn’t an issue, since most of her Chinese peers speak English, but interacting in society was a bit more of a challenge.
However, Morgan said communication goes beyond speaking, both in the professional world and through personal interactions.
“You can learn a lot about people and how they feel based on their emotional and physical mannerisms, so you learn how to communicate with them without speaking as much,” Morgan said. “Chinese culture is very different. But China ultimately wants the same thing as the U.S., Germany, Brazil and other countries. Globally at GM we all want to design, build and sell the world’s best vehicles. We’re really focused on utilizing the global capabilities that we have to build our company to be the best it can be.”
From college to the present, Morgan has been involved with the Society of Engineers (SAE), and currently serves on the Board of Directors.
“My transition from student to professional life was seamless because I had great experiences with the OU staff and professors. Plus, with all of the labs that were required, I learned how effective teams can work together,” Morgan said. “I was able to bridge some of the student-to-professional gaps through my involvement with SAE, which was how I met up again with Brian, one of my first professors at OU.”
When Charon first became an SAE board member, she ran into a former professor and fellow OU alum, Don Hillebrand, a 1984 mechanical engineering grad and current Director of Energy Systems Research at Argonne National Laboratory.
Hillebrand said he remembers Morgan’s ambition and dedication from when he taught her as an undergrad.
“I remembered Charon because she was a very good student,” Hillebrand said. “She stood out as the one who got all her work done and left, as opposed to everyone else who just goofed off, which is why I remembered her. When I saw her on the board, it was clear she had done very well for herself.”
Through SAE, Morgan has done various projects, including leading a group in the reinvention of SAE’s mission, and consistent involvement in the board-sponsored education outreach programs.
While on the board, Morgan has continued to be very involved even after her relocation to China, continuing to attend meetings and participating in calls.
“While she (Morgan) was on the board, she was called to go to China on assignment, first temporary and now permanently,” Hillebrand said. “But she’s continued to attend all board meetings and all calls. It’s amazing how much she’s doing and she’s a tremendous asset. There’s that saying if you want to get something done, find a busy person and ask them to do it. That’s the definition of Charon — she has so many things going on but if she volunteered to take something on, it was done quickly, it was done very well and it was done very efficiently, with a really good attitude.”
Though she sometimes misses home, Morgan is enjoying her career in China, and said it was one of the best decisions she’s made. She recommends taking the time to experience something new at least once in life.
“Hard work pays off and it’s so important to step outside of what you’re used to and do something a little different — take a risk, put yourself in an uncomfortable situation, or stretch yourself, because those are the times in your life, and in your career, that you’ll cherish those experiences..... you will cherish them the most and learn the most,” Morgan said.