Student placement abroad – A case study in Hong Kong

Thanks to the small project funded by the Digitally Ready project, I have been able to conduct my first interview with a student earlier this year. And Tee has very kindly taught me how to use Adobe Premiere Elements and write down my case study.

Let me now set some context for the case study. I interviewed Sam Leonard who is a finalist undergraduate in the School of Biological Sciences. In the summer of 2012, (when Sam was in his Year 2) he undertook a 6-weeks placement at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

The placement was primarily lab-based and Sam conducted various experiments, including establishing crystallisation experiments, site directed mutagenesis, PCR and affinity chromatography purification of proteins.

Although Sam has been in Hong Kong several times, he still had apprehensions about the work placement. But these quickly dissolved once he joined his placement. He found the working environment very friendly.

His colleagues were quite happy to communicate in English and he had previously learnt Mandarin Chinese as part of the Institution-Wide Language Programme (IWLP), and has been learning Cantonese in his spare time.

Now let’s hear from Sam about his placement experience abroad. (Video transcript available here), what support he got and how.

Student Profile

Name: Sam Leonard
Nationality: British
Gender: Male
Degree: BSc Biological Sciences (Biomolecular)

Placement Details

Year: 2012
Duration: 6 weeks
Company: Hong Kong Polytechnic University
Country: Hong Kong SAR

Placement Process
Who arranged the placement/work for you?
Self arranged via an “IAESTE” Exchange programme.

The International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience (IAESTE)

Did anyone help you in any way?
The change was organised by the IAESTE student exchange organisation.

I received a reference from my personal tutor as well as support from both my tutor and the Head of School for a travel award.

Work Environment

 How did you feel working with the other natives in that country (language barrier, culture barrier) ?
Initially the prospect of working in another country seemed daunting (although I had spent a lot of time in Hong Kong previously). However, once I had started work I found my colleagues to be very supportive. With some perseverance and after a short period of adaptation we were able to communicate as competently as colleagues from the same country; communicating in English supplemented with Mandarin.

How did your colleagues behave towards you? Did they come forward to speak to you in English, or was there a resistance to speak in English?
My colleagues were very forthcoming and more than willing to communicate in English. Although they were much more competent in speaking English than I was in Mandarin we assisted each other in learning to communicate better in our second/third languages.

Anything particularly positive?
The work environment was extremely friendly and very supportive in general and was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the placement.

Placement Challenges

Did you require a visa? Yes

Type of visa: Student/Training Visa

For how long was the visa valid? (whole duration of work, beyond that, or you had to renew in between)
The visa was valid strictly for the period of training.

Did anyone help you during the process (family/friends/RUSU advisors, etc)? N/A

Briefly describe how the process was and what you felt during the process (was it easy, difficult, challenging, etc.)?
The process of applying for the placement was comparable to any job/placement application albeit with an extended statement substituting for an interview. The placement itself was extremely rewarding, enjoyable, informative and flexible in terms of hours worked and tasks undertaken and proved to be an excellent opportunity to develop both technical skills and transferable skills (e.g. communication and interpersonal). I am unsure how the experience would have felt if the city was unfamiliar to me but I felt immediately part of the team and other exchange students seemed to agree on this fact.

If you had to repeat the placement experience, what would you have done differently?
 I wouldn’t change anything about where I worked or the application process. I would have liked to be able to extend the placement to spend more time working but this would not have been possible given strict visa regulations.

Any other comment with regards to your placement?
In general, undertaking a placement abroad proved to be an excellent and highly formative experience which has led to my employers in Hong Kong sponsoring my application for a postgraduate fellowship in the city.  While gaining extensive technical experience I was also able to experience a new research culture and develop other key skills, with little conscious effort. I would highly recommend any interested student to gain experience abroad and believe that foreign country placements offer a wealth of “added value” above home nation placements.

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