GEARE IASTE Alumni Panel
GEARE students had the unique opportunity last week to hear from two Purdue engineering alumni with more than a decade of experience. Dr. James Sørlie graduated with a Bachelor’s and Master’s of Science in Mechanical Engineering Systems and Control in 1988, and Mr. Matt Edwards graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in 2000 and again with a Master’s in Business Administration in 2007. Because the GEARE program had not yet been created, both of these alumni created their own experiences abroad. Dr. Sørlie studied abroad and did a co-op in both Sweden and the Netherlands, and Mr. Edwards did an international program for his business degree, spending a few weeks at a time in various countries. He also has worked abroad in both Puerto Rico and China.
Going into the panel, several students wanted to hear about how their international experiences affected their engineering careers, how work culture differed in other countries, and how they made the most of their time abroad, and they did not disappoint! Mr. Edwards said that employers are most looking for the soft skills that students gain from an experience abroad – things like commitment, willingness to get out of your comfort zone, and the ability to rise to any challenges faced while abroad. After all, if engineers can successfully communicate about complex topics in another country, they can do it anywhere!
Dr. Sørlie also mentioned that he felt his time abroad definitely made him more confident in his skills as an engineer. Because Purdue is so competitive, he worried that his skills might not be up to par in the workforce. However, his classes and his work abroad made him realize that Purdue truly does prepare students for their work as a professional. On the topic of workplace differences, he had noticed a difference in the reasons for working and the ways they connect with coworkers. The Dutch seemed to embrace a more work-to-live style with a lot of teamwork, while the Swedes were very empathetic (except towards the Dutch!).
Mr. Edwards also noticed this difference. In China, there was a very hierarchical structure where employees do what their bosses say and not much else. In Puerto Rico, people were overly friendly and typically would greet each other with a hug. With significantly different cultures like these, adaptability and understanding is particularly important. Foreign students need to understand that the culture that they are living in is different than their own, but that’s certainly not bad! When working abroad, students need to be able to adjust their expectations and their typical behavior to avoid being misunderstood and make the best connections possible.
Finally, both Dr. Sørlie and Mr. Edwards wanted to make sure that students would be getting the most out of their time abroad. Mr. Edwards said to make friends, particularly the locals, and travel a lot. Dr. Sørlie took a cooking class and a few ballroom dancing classes at a local community college where he met a lot of local people – and as a bonus, that’s how he met his wife!
As you can see, the GEARE program can be very enriching, and part of what makes the program so valuable are the challenges that students abroad face. Dr. Sorlie pointed out one such challenge: language. This can be a sticking point for students, but learning a new language can be a game-changing asset. Instead of treating the learning process as a burden, try looking at yourself as a safe space for your international peers to practice their English. And admittedly, immigration is a disaster. But once you get through that, there’s a whole world of experiences to have, places to see, and people to meet! Make sure that you keep an open mind and remember that nothing that you experience when abroad is wrong, just different, and can help you mature. These are just some of the ways that the GEARE program prepares you for the world and evolves your outlook on life.