Push the envelope to engineer an adventure

There’s a world of opportunity available to young engineers if you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone, writes Jotham Young.

Of the many notable individuals I met during a 13-month stint studying and working in south east Asia, it was an encounter with a thief in Kuala Lumpur that proved to be the most memorable.

Imagineering: Jotham YoungI’d just arrived in the country and it was very late by the time I made it to my on-campus dormitory room. Faced with an ominously stained mattress and no other options at that hour I was forced to improvise bedding using the room’s curtains. Proud of my problem-solving skills (developed over three years in the world-class UNSW Engineering faculty) I feel asleep still quietly smiling to myself.

Eight hours later I woke in the fright of my life. A giant monkey was staring into my eyes and noisily smacking its lips. The simian burglar had pried open a window and plundered my store of confectionery, which it sat brazenly consuming while I looked on too stunned to move.

Salamat Datang ke Malaysia - Welcome to Malaysia!

Thanks to the New Colombo Plan (NCP) scholarship this is just one of my many weird, wacky and wonderful stories. The NCP is a signature initiative of the Australian Government, which aims to lift knowledge of the Indo-Pacific in Australia by supporting Australian undergraduates to live, study and work within the region. Valued at up to $67,000 dollars, the scholarship allowed me to do and achieve things that I never dreamt of as a country kid growing up in little ol’ Taree on NSW’s Mid-North Coast.

Engineers have the entire world at their fingertips, and I was determined to use my NCP program to see and experience as much of it as I possibly could. I spent two weeks in rural Cambodia learning about humanitarian engineering design, completed a month of intensive training in Bahasa Malay (an official language of Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei) at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, did an exchange semester in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Malaya, held a research placement within the R&D department of Beijing OriginWater, a multi-billion dollar water engineering firm in Beijing, and landed a five-month internship with a consultancy in their Singapore and Kuala Lumpur offices.

My time abroad definitely kept me on my toes; I never knew what circumstances I would find myself in. One day I was sitting on a wooden floor with the village chief and three other families watching Cambodian Idol on the village’s only television after a hard day of planting rice, then the next, I was drinking cocktails with our Prime Minister, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, and the Governor-General in the High Commissioner to Malaysia’s lounge room.

From eating dumplings for 14 days straight in China because that was the only word of Mandarin I could pronounce correctly, to being invited off the street in Malaysia to attend a stranger’s Bollywood-inspired wedding, the sojourn taught me to go with the flow because you never know when a once-in-a-lifetime experience awaits.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the program was the opportunity to work with various companies throughout Asia thanks to UNSW Engineering’s global industry connections. Ever eager for more experience, following my internship, I spontaneously accepted a research placement with a partnered water treatment and engineering firm in Huairou, 60km north of Beijing.

A week later I was in China — and in extreme culture shock. Seven days is not enough time to learn one of the world’s most complex languages. My first few days were spent nervously exploring the area, eating at restaurants whose unidentifiable culinary “delights” remain a mystery to me, and baffling the locals who were surprised to see some random Australian dude wandering around their sleepy provincial town. Perhaps most bewildering was the district’s abandoned replica Swiss alpine village complete with eerily empty hotels and ski hire outlets (we were 300km away from the nearest snow). 

It was a truly fascinating experience to work in such a foreign environment! Work culture in China is very different to Australia’s; for instance, in my host company, there was no divide between work and life — all employees lived in the company-owned hostel, travelled to the compound together on the company bus, and ate breakfast, lunch and dinner in the company dining hall. One aspect of Chinese work culture I’d like to import to Australia is the post-lunch nap that company workers enjoy every day.

It wasn’t all smiles though.  At times, the language barrier made things incredibly difficult. For the first three days of my placement I endured cold showers in -10 degree weather because I was unable to ask the dorm supervisor to turn the hot water on!

All the same, it was a fantastic experience and I’d recommend it to anyone. But the NCP scholarship is just one of a million opportunities available to young engineers. My only advice is don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. No good story ever started with someone twiddling their thumbs sitting on the couch at home. Push your boundaries because, after all, isn’t pushing the envelope what being an engineer is all about.

Jotham is a fifth year Civil Engineering with Commerce dual degree student at UNSW Sydney.

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  • Origin Water - Industry placement in China
  • Buka Puasa Ramadan
  • New Colombo Plan Scholarship Presentation
  • The Malaysian wedding
  • With the Governor General
  • With Malcolm Turnbull