This two-week trip to South Korea was an extraordinary whirlwind. From the beginning we were surrounded by extensive history, exciting technology, and a culture so different from our own. While our scheduled activities were separated into cultural and company visits, the values of the Korean people developed over centuries of trials and resiliency was inevitably integrated into the companies and universities we visited. When we asked various foreign businesspeople about what struck them most as different working in South Korea their answers seemed to get towards the same idea – the culture. Some of the challenges that our presenters talked about were understanding the communications within their work environment in the context of the culture which focuses heavily on respect and collectivist concepts. Similarly, the technological excellence of the country showed itself in our cultural and historical visits as well. For example, on our first full day of activities we learned about the ondol system of heating floors used in the Joseon dynasty which influences the heating systems used today.
A particularly effective and fascinating aspect of the trip was that while we were learning about various aspects of Korean culture and society, we were of course experiencing it, and what we learned built off each other and recurred throughout the trip.
One of the things that really struck me during my time in South Korea is something that I had heard countless times, but I do not feel I recognized until this trip because every other place I have traveled I have spoken the language to at least a passible extent. Only around seven percent of communication is verbal. That is something that I find so easy to when you are speaking to someone in the same language, but it quickly became apparent especially when we were left to our own devices in South Korea. Somehow, even when the only things I had any minor degree of confidence saying were hello and thank you, we could do things like order food and take taxis by communicating with people who spoke little to no English.
The cultural immersion of this trip combined with the integration between the business and engineering schools contributed to my professional development. One of the ways was by bringing up ethical issues that can arise in various cultures. For example, at Trainor we learned one of the issues faced in engineering in Korea, but which also applies globally, is the tradeoff between and the temptation to sacrifice quality of work and employee safety for speed of product output. There is also an opportunity for companies and employees to skip safety precautions when it is simpler. Trainor attempts to counteract this temptation through employee safety training and certifications and some countries are also working to combat this by requiring training.
Because this experience was so unique with regard to the ordinary engineering curriculum, it also expanded the breadth of my education which also contributes to professional development. This trip also offered a broader, more global, perspective on business and engineering practices. It brought up cultural similarities and differences across these fields that I might not have otherwise considered. Being aware of international viewpoints will be invaluable as I continue to learn about engineering in the United States and as I enter the workforce, especially because it is something that can only be gained through experiences like this one. This will also be something I can continue to build on through the lifelong learning that occurs within professional development. The learning and immersion into another culture that took place on this trip will create a foundation for future opportunities to increasingly globalize the way I look at engineering throughout my career.
Being able to hear from presenters at a wide variety of companies also provided insight into the social environment of professional life. Especially our presenters who had worked outside of South Korea we were able to explain some of the similarities and differences that exist within both American and international work environments. At Trainor, where our presenter was from Sweden, we learned that some of the workplace challenges, particularly in South Korea and with an international team, are communication through the language barrier and in the degree of directness people use, hierarchies and their formality, and customer service especially with the tension between speed and quality. A particularly interesting communication issue that was discussed was the struggle to achieve codetermination because the culture of deference could conflict with true participation. It was also intriguing to learn how the social environment of workplaces and professional life in South Korea have changed over time. Particularly at Samsung Biologics and Naver we learned that in the past South Korean work environments have been extremely rigid in their hierarchies and that people regularly worked extremely long hours but that companies are now actively trying to move away from that strict vertical structure and encourage employees to maintain a more sustainable work schedule.
Finally, this trip to South Korea offered me an opportunity to work on a multi-disciplinary team. The group consisted of a combination of engineers and business students, and throughout the trip the differences in our focuses as a whole group was evident in the questions different people would ask during the company visits. It was interesting to be able to gain insight into other people’s reactions to what we learned and what they were curious to know more about at each site. In particular team four, of which I was a part, consisted of three business students, two computer engineers, and a mechanical engineer. Our different skills and perspectives were especially notable with regard to our final presentation. Each person could contribute uniquely to the project given their individual backgrounds and it was opportunity to be able use those skills and perspectives to create something that I doubt any of us could have created on our own. .