Studying Abroad Helps Broaden Your Horizons

Professor Wai Kian Tan and Professor Minoru Umemoto are the authors of an article, International Industrial Internship: A Case Study from a Japanese Engineering University Perspective, that covers the international internship program carried out by Toyohashi University of Technology (TUT). Prof. Tan, Prof. Umemoto, and an international student kindly responded to questions by email about the program and takeaways.

Prof. M. Umemoto

Prof. M. Umemoto: Prof. M. Umemoto is currently a Professor Emeritus of Toyohashi University of Technology (TUT), Toyohashi, Aichi, Japan. Professor M. Umemoto obtained his bachelors in Engineering from Kyoto University at Kyoto, Japan, a Masters degree in Engineering from Northwestern University at Evanston, Illinois and a PhD in Engineering from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. From 2014 to 2018, he was involved in the international internship program development of TUT, promoting global education and exposure for the TUT students.

Dr. Tan W. K.

Dr. Tan W. K. is currently an Assistant Professor in the Institute of Liberal Arts & Sciences of Toyohashi University of Technology (TUT), Toyohashi, Aichi, Japan. He obtained his Ph.D. degree in Functional Materials Engineering in Toyohashi University of Technology, under a full scholarship from Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA). He completed his Master and bachelor’s degree from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), Malaysia. From 2014 to 2018, he was involved in the international internship program development of TUT, promoting global education and exposure for TUT students. His research interests and specialties are in the development of sustainable and advanced materials towards the achievement of sustainable development goals.

Prof. Minoru Umemoto (left) and Dr. Tan Wai Kian, during a visit to an internship company.

Toyohashi University of Technology (TUT) is actively promoting global education. TUT has been selected for the Super Global University (SGU) project, with the objectives to promote global education to both Japanese and international students.

In your paper, you recommend that “modern engineers must possess cross-cultural communication skills, team management skills, and ability to perform in geographically-distributed teams.” An effective way to cultivate characteristics such as this is “through vigorous internship programs that can stimulate global sensitivity and awareness in mutual multicultural understanding.” A global internship opportunity like this is likely waiting for students out there if they can successfully find it, but how can students also take initiative to focus on the development of these characteristics when the time comes to attain these skills?

From the perspective of a university faculty member, the planning of an overseas internship program that benefits and keeps students in mind during implementation is very important. In addition, sharing of information and outcomes obtained from overseas internship activities such as steps taken during planning, solutions to problems faced via article publication or online blogging can be good reference for educational institutions. As for students, through referring to the aforementioned information, they could search for an overseas internship program of their choice and prepare accordingly.

The opportunity for global internship is there and often the case is it’s just out of reach for the students. This is due to the barriers mentioned in our paper such as academic timeline and lack of administrative effort to provide the necessary support to interested students, allowing them to take the leap. That is why the educational institution must be proactive in breaking down these barriers, which in turn enables students to take initiative and channel their focus on the development of the important characteristics (cross-cultural communication skills, team management skills, and ability to perform in diverse situations). It is also crucial that the students are given adequate preparation and support such as language improvement, cultural introduction, expectation management and scenario simulation. With these, the students are more mentally prepared, to be able to recognize the opportunity to learn and adapt, and most importantly, come out with a proper solution during the given circumstances.

Japan is a country that is known for its exemplary work ethic and desire to perform at a high level within an occupation or undertaking. Generally, what can students in the United States or other countries learn from the attitudes, endurance, and dedication of Japanese students as it relates to internships? Are there any lessons to impart (from the field of engineering or just in general)?

Prof. Umemoto: Thank you for admiring the attitudes and ethics of Japanese students. The temperament of Japanese students has changed with the times, and Japanese unique characteristics are becoming gradually less affected by globalization. Since students in each country have different characteristics and backgrounds due to their upbringing, it is important to learn and to be influenced by each other. Japanese students are shy and probably lack the skills to appeal to others. Therefore, it is almost impossible for them to take initiative in group discussions. There are many points for Japanese students to learn from students and workers around the world.

Dr. Tan: I feel the upbringing of Japanese children with a culture to give their best and dedication to whatever they have decided to do is vital not only for internships but also in life, as general. Individual perseverance and teamwork endurance have been the keys for their achievements, which should be a good example to be followed by others. These positive traits and cultures are beneficial for students from other countries. Besides that, if they can find a way to assimilate these ethics in daily life, this would upbring their daily lives.

You point out some of the values of undergoing internships: “…students acquire invaluable skills, such as corporate culture assimilation, career decision-making, and smooth adaptation to new working environments (mitigation of reality shock). Moreover, the knowledge and wisdom gained during internships benefit students’ growth significantly when they return to their educational institutions.”

Can you think of any success stories where you witnessed a student do well at an internship and return with the traits listed above? How did the students manage to have such a beneficial experience?

Prof. Umemoto: There are limited opportunities for Japanese students to experience and gain first-hand working exposure overseas. Students could learn from the experience gained during overseas internship, considering their future prospect of going for business trips overseas, working as expatriates in either a foreign or Japanese company overseas in the future. The students could gain a lot of knowledge from their overseas internships, such as business English conversation at workplaces, working with different ethnic groups, and adhering to workplace’s cultures and rules. Students can also witness how the knowledge they have gained during their studies is applied in real engineering practices. By experiencing international internships, students could realize the issue faced with understanding English conversation, how to communicate with local people, adaptation to living abroad and lessen the barriers of working abroad. Therefore, even after returning to Japan, the Japanese students who had undergone international internships are more proactive in liaising with international students and continue to develop their English proficiency. In addition, they also actively plan their future and career with a broader horizon such as furthering their studying abroad, participating in business trips, and working overseas as expatriates.

Dr. Tan: We have witnessed that students became more proactive in their activities and there are cases where the students proceed to graduate school and completed their Ph.D. studies. During their postgraduate studies, the students demonstrated good traits such as international conference participation, authoring internationally recognized journal publications and ability to blend in well with international students and collaborators. One good example is Mr. Keiichiro Maegawa, who is currently a Ph.D candidate at TUT. He carried out his internship in Intel Technologies in Penang, Malaysia. Mr. Maegawa kindly co-operated and willingly share with us his story and his experience of international internship, and how this experience benefited him.

Keiichiro Maegawa: I did my international internship for two months back in 2015 at Intel Technologies, Penang, Malaysia. During my internship in Malaysia, I learned and improved my communication skills, enabling me to blend in and work in an international environment. Moreover, I have broadened my career horizon to be a global researcher. From the experience gained from this internship, I have developed self-confidence to take on a variety of challenges.

After my internship, I completed my undergraduate study and proceeded to graduate school. During my Master study, I had opportunities to present my research results at international conferences and I also authored an international research article in collaboration with international students enrolled under my supervisor, Prof. Atsunori Matsuda. These achievements could not have been accomplished without the improved communication skills that I gained from the internship.

Using the experiences and confidence gained from the internship, I have developed a desire to stay abroad (outside of Japan) for a longer period to carry out my research. I took my opportunity by spending one year at Lehman College, The City University of New York in New York City, USA as a research exchange student. Initially, it was challenging for me to prepare a research plan and implement them by myself, but I made use of my internship experiences, which came very handy to solve the problems that I faced during this period. In the end, my research went well and I presented them in an international conference that was held in Oregon, USA. Currently, I am a 2nd year Ph.D. student at TUT and I have decided to continue my studies and research, in collaboration with the research attachment supervising Professor at Lehman College, Prof. Andrei Jitianu. Besides that, in my current Ph.D study, I am now working on my Ph.D. collaborating with people from all around the world, which I could not have imagined before participating in the internship. I am convinced that the international internship provided me with the opportunity to learn new things, take on a variety of challenges, and as a result, led to a broader horizon and wider career possibilities.

I am convinced that the international internship provided me with the opportunity to learn new things, take on a variety of challenges, and as a result, led to a broader horizon and wider career possibilities.

Mr. Keiichiro Maegawa during his final internship presentation in TUT campus, Penang, Malaysia.

How can students gain firsthand experience in industries that are aligned with current demand and technological advancements?

The students need to do their homework and research on the internship companies that they are interested in. The faculty member/administrator can also be helpful in the initial process of theme-matching, given the prospective interns’ information of the related companies. First, they need to figure out that the company that they are applying to is dealing directly with the field they are interested in.

The students need to do their homework and research on the internship companies that they are interested in.

For example, for huge multinational corporations, the hiring departments vary such as production, research & development, and so forth. They need to know what core work is carried out at the department and equip themselves with the necessary knowledge and skills accordingly. With this, they would be able to learn fast and gain good first-hand experience. Besides that, they should always have the curiosity to ask questions and always be willing to jump at the opportunities to assist with problem-solving tasks that are available, whether during a meeting or on-site. Not only will they be able to learn the technological skills, but they will also learn to convey their ideas effectively in a real corporate working situation.

You mention that “technical, professional, and global skills are core elements of engineering education that can shape-up students to become global talents.” Does this apply to other career fields as well, and if so, what makes engineering unique in terms of the importance of global competency?

There are some differences in people’s preferences depending on the country, but it can be produced with the same technology. In areas other than engineering, it is necessary to understand the differences in cultures and traditions between countries.

Yes, we believe that these core elements contribute to students’ shape-up toward global competency, even in other career fields. What makes engineering unique compared to other fields is that natural sciences and technologies such as mathematics and physics are universal. The fundamentals of engineering stem from natural sciences that enable the advancement of technologies. Having said that, technological advancement only is not sufficient as it is also important to assimilate cultural and human values in creation of smart technologies. For example, in our society nowadays, Internet-of-Things and sustainable development goals are heavily emphasized. Emphasis is not only given to performance improvement, but also in added value of the technologies such as reusability, environmental friendliness, safety and cultural savvy. This can be achieved through a blend of engineering and liberal arts education.

Liberal arts education, which is attracting attention nowadays, promotes new ways of thinking and new perspectives, which lay the foundation for creativity and highly sought-after skills such as critical thinking, analytical, evaluative ability. In our opinion, an overseas internship is one effective liberal arts education. From their internship, students get invaluable lessons in global understanding that could promote global awareness in their subsequent engineering projects by incorporating these values. This makes engineering unique as it presents tangible materials and technologies development with added values, contributing to global competency and achievement of SDGs.

From their internship, students get invaluable lessons in global understanding that could promote global awareness in their subsequent engineering projects by incorporating these values.

Can you please touch on the importance of different communication patterns, also known as “intra-science-community communication,” perhaps as it might apply to Arab-American students in the United States or Japanese-Americans as students navigate new environments?

In a community that is bound together by a specific field/specialty, communication can be achieved due to the familiar terminology being used in the communication. For example, in a technical discussion or conversation, technical terminologies are used as the pivotal foundation for communication. As technical terms are universal, this enables easier opinion exchange and better understanding. In the field of engineering, this mutual understanding can be promoted using diagrams, sketches, or even mathematical formulas. Despite their backgrounds, either Arab-American or Japanese-American, if they share a common background in a specific field, it would be easier for them to navigate themselves in a conversation and convey their intended message across.

In what ways do overseas internships help to stimulate significant growth in students’ educational development?

During overseas internships, the students are put in unfamiliar territory in terms of culture, language, and environment. Outside of their comfort zone, this would heighten and stimulate their senses toward learning from any event or challenges that they encounter. Linguistic wise, being in a foreign country, a constant consciousness to adopt a different language for communication helps to form a strong communication pattern (in our case, English language for Japanese students). Moreover, from these experiences, the students develop newfound confidence to be more global minded and willing to take on new challenges from various perspectives during their postgraduate studies. These contribute immensely to their educational development and growth.

What is your advice for how host companies or universities can better design clear internship strategies? You noted recommendations for improvement: virtual internships, online databases, internship blogging, follow-up feedback, and a second internship experience.

To achieve a fruitful internship program that can benefit all parties (students, companies and universities), the matching of research themes through preliminary discussion between universities and companies are very important. From this discussion, the expectations from both sides can be managed, besides providing the students with a clear internship goal to achieve at the end of their internship. During theme matching, if both sides can set an achievable problem-based solving project for the internship timeframe and lay out all the required basic knowledge required for the project, the students may equip themselves with the necessary preparation toward a fulfilling learning experience. The progress during the internship can be tracked through online blogging. This would promote creativity as the students may freely express their thoughts and ideas. Most importantly, the students’ supervisor may also monitor the progress in an unintrusive way.

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