Gaining a global perspective of engineering was important to Amanda Chen, but it wasn’t the engineering junior’s only reason for spending a semester in Hong Kong. “I wanted to become fully immersed in a culture through living, taking classes and traveling with local residents,” she says.
Chen, a biomedical engineering major from Reston, Va., was Vanderbilt’s pioneer engineering exchange student for a new program with City University of Hong Kong. She spent spring semester 2010 studying in Kowloon. At the same time, mechanical engineering major Nick Pappalardo studied in Singapore, and in fall 2010, Vanderbilt engineering junior Yi-Chin Sun became the second exchange student at City University.
Vanderbilt University School of Engineering students first participated in exchange programs with City University of Hong Kong and the National University of Singapore in 2010. For spring 2011, the school added three engineering exchange programs, with direct-credit programs at Budapest University of Technology and Economics, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and a mechanical engineering exchange with the Politecnico di Torino in Italy.
Students who choose to study in Asia are forward-thinking, says School of Engineering Associate Dean Cynthia Paschal. “Hong Kong is a sophisticated economic powerhouse. Employers with worldwide operations will seek out students with international experiences,” Paschal says.
Exchange programs are negotiated between specific schools rather than the university as a whole. The Hong Kong program grew from a relationship between administrators at Vanderbilt and the president of City University.
“The hope is that a variety of locations outside the English-speaking world will be appealing to our engineering students,” says Isabelle Crist, senior program coordinator of Vanderbilt’s Global Education Office. “Classes in these programs are taught in English, which makes study in these countries possible.”
Chen was surprised to find that teaching styles and educational environment in Hong Kong were similar to those at VUSE. “The teaching strategy was nearly the same. The professors used PowerPoint presentations and would give weekly quizzes to make sure students were staying on top of their work,” Chen says.
On the other side of the exchange was computer science student Yuan Zhuang of City University. Zhuang embraced the exchange program during spring semester 2010 as an opportunity to broaden her outlook and learn more about other cultures.
At Vanderbilt, she found class sizes to be smaller and the atmosphere more relaxed than her home university. “I was impressed that most of the students are willing to express their ideas. I liked the feeling that professors are not just telling you things. Instead they discuss and interact with you,” Zhuang explains.
Challenges and Triumphs
Foreign college life can present obstacles whether in the U.S. or abroad. Now a senior, Chen recalls the challenges of adapting to Hong Kong. “My main difficulties arose when communicating with the local residents because I cannot speak Cantonese and not everyone can speak English,” she says. “The communication breach made group projects a bit frustrating.”
City University’s Zhuang also recounts occasional feelings of isolation at Vanderbilt. “By being alone I don’t mean physically being by yourself, but the situation that you put yourself in a place where everyone else has the same culture, similar habits and familiar things except you,” she recalls.
Chen has considered graduate programs that incorporate international experiences. “Studying abroad is a truly unique opportunity to learn what cannot be taught in a classroom,” she says. “It reveals capabilities you may not know you had and introduces you to people with drastically different backgrounds.”