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A Bridge for Engineers: Studying Abroad as a McCormick Student

By Gabriela Czochara (WCAS ’21)
November 30, 2020

When Northwestern senior and engineering student Cole Corbett realized he could study abroad at the Hong Kong University Exchange during fall quarter of 2019, he jumped at the opportunity. He broke down his reasoning into a simple sentence:Cole’s favorite restaurant Pork Chop Spicy Rice Noodle with the restaurant’s host

“What’s the difference between getting on a two hour flight and 12 hour flight? I’m already away from home, might as well make it further away from home and learn something new.”

Engineering students do in fact study abroad. Oftentimes, students not taking language courses worry that study abroad is always language-oriented and knowing or studying a language is essential for each program. Furthermore, studying abroad as an engineering student usually requires some proactive planning surrounding coursework. Cole explained the process he had to go through to ensure his study abroad would be feasible, from contacting professors in Hong Kong for class availability and syllabi to gaining approval from advisors and department chairs at Northwestern. 

Although McCormick students typically have packed schedules, it’s worth reaching out to GLO advisors to figure out how it may work, as Cole says that study abroad is a “low hanging fruit of an opportunity” that he couldn’t pass up. While it may seem difficult or intimidating to navigate tight course loads and scheduling abroad, he pointed out that the most important step is to simply plan ahead; making an appointment with a study abroad advisor to see what may be possible allows for time to organize courses ahead of time. Even if certain classes could only be taken at Northwestern, Cole found that studying abroad was worth any course rearrangement, recognizing that the value of studying at Hong Kong University was an invaluable experience, “no matter how many hoops you have to jump through.”  

The Hong Kong program is one of the most popular among engineering students at Northwestern. When narrowing down his options, Cole turned to GLO advisor Lauren Worth to find the best program for his track. The Hong Kong program allowed him to take several major requirements with pass/no pass grading. The courses provided a similar structure to the ones he took at Northwestern and were all taught in English. 

“All the stuff that I learned there I feel that I learned equally as well as I would have at Northwestern, I haven’t found any gaps in my education.”

Still, the English-taught and similarly structured engineering courses in the program did not hinder cultural engagement. Although English is widely spoken in Hong Kong due to its British colonial history, about 90% of its population speaks Cantonese, among other Chinese dialects. Cole recalls how at times during his English-taught class the “room would just erupt in Cantonese,” exhibiting the linguistic diversity of the region. The university's rich international student population (about 43%) also allowed Cole to interact with students from all over the world. Learning to “go out of his way to ask” others to be in his group in the classroom setting led him to make connections that are still present today, “from doing that, I made some friends that I still message every once in a while, one lives Taiwan and one is from Hong Kong.”

While Hong Kong University Exchange does not include group excursions, exploring Hong Kong and traveling to nearby Asian countries was feasible and worth organizing. A relatively small area, Hong Kong is easy to navigate on foot, an excellent way to experience the city, while great hiking trails and beaches surrounding it provide a natural respite. Additionally, Cole and his friends even managed to visit Japan, Thailand, and Vietnam, but his favorite memory still remains within Hong Kong, when he went on a hike called Dragon's Back.

"You hike up through the tropical jungle over this mountain and get to see views of the ocean and some of the city. Then when you hike down the other side of the mountain all of a sudden you're at this little surf beach where we went swimming.” 

Perhaps one of the most valuable parts of studying abroad is being able to branch out from your major. Taking courses outside of engineering allowed Cole to better understand and immerse himself in the culture he interacted with daily. Breaking out of a US-centered perspective through these courses led to a different approach to cultural, political, and linguistic engagement,

“I don’t get to take a lot of political science or history classes and I felt like by going to a university close to a lot of Asian countries, I learned a lot about them that way. I learned a lot about China, its history and rise to power, as well as the political aspect of what’s currently going on. That was really useful to me to get to know and understand an entirely different side of the world that I really would have never had exposure or access to if I would have stayed at Northwestern.”

They were especially useful when it came to understanding the protests that led him and other students to return home from the program earlier than expected. Protests in Hong Kong started in June of 2019, as a response to plans to allow extradition to mainland China. Protesters argued that it would give China greater influence over Hong Kong, limiting their freedom. While the bill was withdrawn in September, the protests continued.

“Within the first couple of days we were there, there was a pretty big protest. Most of the time it would be people dressed in black peacefully marching with black umbrellas down the streets.”

As tension between protesters and police escalated, study abroad students were sent home a couple of weeks early; even so, seeing the protests firsthand during that time led Cole to reflect on what he had learned, both in and outside of the classroom, for the past couple of months.

Acquiring a new global perspective and reflecting on his experience, however, is not the only way studying abroad has impacted Cole. Going abroad often inspires students to continue their studies or pursue their career after Northwestern abroad; Cole is already thinking where he’d want to go next after graduation, something he had never even considered before studying abroad, with New Zealand being among his top choices. Whether you are a McCormick student or not, and you’re on the fence about studying abroad, Cole encourages “definitely go, it’s so worth it. You’ll learn a thousand times more there than you ever would in your classes at Northwestern.”