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Mobilising motivations at Meinhardt : What I learnt from my internship experience in Asia

21 Dec 2016

By Thomas Da Jose,

New Colombo Plan Thailand Scholar (2016)

 

 Working in Asia is not a common path for Australian engineering undergraduates. Even the idea of it can be intimidating – technical jargon within a new region, different workplace cultures, and for civil engineers, applying an entirely new set of design codes. I was initially caught off-guard because prior to 2014, I had never thought of working outside Australia. It was not because I didn’t want to – I just hadn’t yet realised what the region could offer to my future career.

I believe everyone should mobilise their motivations and take their passions with them wherever they go. And if you were to ask me where to go, I’d tell you to go to Asia. The Asia-Pacific is fuelled by growth, innovation, realised potential and its rich diversity.  My desire to immerse myself in the region began through the Beyond UTS International Leadership Development Program (UTS:Build), which then led to my involvement in the Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan (NCP) program.  Both experiences have transformed my life.

Through the NCP program, I was fortunate to secure a 3-months placement in Bangkok as a Civil and Structural Engineer Intern at Meinhardt Thailand Limited (MTL). MTL is at the heart of transforming the physical landscape of Asia because of its people, leadership, and multidisciplinary approach to engineering.  During my internship, I experienced frustrations with learning curves, exercised my curiosity to discover, and a developed a sense of belonging.  Such elements cannot be learned from textbooks.  Shared below are three key lessons from my internship, which I believe all young Australians should embrace, especially when talking about the Asia-Pacific.

Continuous learning: Everyone should push their limits and broaden their scope of learning. What you learn in Australia is different to what someone else in Asia would learn in an equivalent field of study.  An internship overseas taps into this broader knowledge. And it must be emphasised that learning in another country may not at all be that easy.  Rest assured, I experienced a confidence crisis at work, gutted at how hard it was for me to grasp some understandings in Asia. 

But such a challenging environment is one where growth thrives.  Reflecting on my experience, I learned and applied technical concepts ranging from reinforced concrete design to use of software that was in compliance with American Concrete Institute (ACI) Standards, which are used in most Asian countries.  For design subjects back at university, I ‘studied’ for exams as opposed to learning to understand dynamic concepts.  This internship allowed me to overcome that thinking, as it framed the significance, methodology and often, the ‘schematics’ behind the way things are done, why they are done, and how things can be done differently – including from an Asian perspective.  And I discovered that even a person like me can be magnetised to learning technical processes.

It was also the first time I worked in the private sector!  This was eye-opening because I was able to observe the different ways business was carried out in Asia, whether it be design work or business meetings. Thai culture was present in every aspect of the workplace – my favourite being the unceasing smiles and friendliness from Thai colleagues, which made the long number-crunching days much more enjoyable.

Teamwork: Working with my Thai colleagues was a great experience. In many Asian cultures, there is a sense that you are “adopted” by your team – you joke with each other, eat together, that it feels somewhat like a family.  Those who studied international business management will know exactly what I am talking about when I say the Asian workplace ethos is very much real.

I was lucky to have Dr. Wissawa as my supervisor and be teamed with Khun Prakit and Khun Pimprapa, who were my direct mentors.  I was adopted as a ‘Nong’ (a Thai prefix signifying ‘younger brother’).  I felt welcomed because they gave me the time to develop my knowledge in design, which I had already found quite challenging.  They also encouraged (or made) me deliver presentations in front of the team so they could see what I had learnt and understood.  Granted, it was an exercise I dreaded but it helped me feel comfortable asking them for advice and their guidance.  In fact, I am no longer completely overwhelmed by design problems. I am more confident than ever with my design thinking skills.

The future is in Asia: My experience at MTL has shown me that I still need to dig much deeper if I want to become a technical engineer. But what will distinguish me from the average candidate when applying for jobs is my Asia-literacy and continuous learning, even beyond the end of my NCP program. This is because I have forged a connection with the region, having developed an Asian perspective of business affairs and practices and because I will continue to learn about Asian cultures. We live in an exciting time with overlapping global issues, emerging economies and new technologies. The Indo-Pacific region is the focal point of these opportunities and challenges, so why not embed Asia into your roadmap to grow and discover?

In all, I highly-encourage all Australian undergraduate students to engage with Asia, no matter how risky it may seem. There is so much potential in the region and Thailand has motivated me to make a lasting difference. I aspire to ‘engineer the world’ by improving the livelihoods of communities in Asia and strengthening relationships between Australia and the Asia-Pacific. All the skills I have developed in MTL are invaluable to my lifelong learning and translatable to any opportunity.  Right now, this means bringing everything I have learnt to my subsequent internship with the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) Asia-Pacific.  This synchronises my degree with my passions to drive positive change in the world.

I would like to express my deepest thanks to Meinhardt (Thailand) Ltd.  Special thanks to Wissawa Chakpaisarn, Prakit Kaewkaorop, Pimprapa Khwanpuang, Swann Wynn Htet, Jerawan Srepetchdanond, Karouna Sunthorn, Seree Thongkamtang, the HR staff, and John Pollard & John Anderson. And of course, I would like to thank the Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan along with UTS:Build and University of Technology Sydney (UTS), for making this entire experience possible.

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