Industrial engineering student embraced traveling abroad for personal growth

Miranda Buckheit
October 01, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Many students hear the advice to travel and study abroad during their college years to learn more about other cultures. Yijia “Doris” Xu, a fourth-year industrial engineering major, took this advice to heart by going abroad twice during her Penn State experience.

“Traveling is so exciting for me,” said Xu, who grew up in Qingdao, China. “I go in with no expectations. Is there a delay? No problem. Setbacks? I don’t care. Traveling is amazing and rewarding because it allows you to personally grow in countries that you don’t know.”

Each year, approximately 300 College of Engineering students study abroad to expand their perspectives and learn in a new country. To get students involved, the Office of Global Engineering Engagement talks to interested students and their families, holds a college-level fair, and hosts speaking engagements throughout the academic year. In addition, the office meets with students on a daily basis to answer their questions.

Xu is now a Global Engineering Fellow, discussing her experiences with other undergraduate engineering students interested in studying abroad. She offers office hours and speaks during college-hosted seminars throughout the semester. 

Xu also serves in the exchange study buddy program. “Buddies” are available for students who are coming to Penn State from other countries. They act as a point of contact, a friend and someone to lean on when getting to know the area. Currently, Xu is “buddies” with three students from Israel.

Xu is glad to participate in these programs because she feels a duty to give back to the undergraduate engineering community.

“It changes lives to study abroad, so I don’t want anyone to miss out on learning about what goes on across the world,” Xu said.

Spain … and bicycles?

Xu first studied abroad in San Sebastian, Spain, with the School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs (SEDTAPP) faculty-led Summers by Design program at the Tecnun University of Navarra. 

Christopher McComb, assistant professor of engineering design and mechanical engineering, leads the study abroad experience in Spain. McComb said that the program is a great first-time travel experience for many students based on the timeframe of the trip and the location of the stay.

“It’s in Basque Country, which has thousands of years of history and a non-Romance language,” McComb said. “There’s just enough familiarity for students to feel comfortable, but also lots of opportunities for them to safely step outside of their comfort zone. Different students come away from the trip with different lessons. Some students develop a more adventurous approach to food, some feel more confident in themselves, some have a better sense of what it means to be an empathic designer, and some realize that they can’t wait to leave the United States again!”

During her trip to Spain, Xu was placed within a group tasked with conducting field studies to design a new bicycle accessory. To do so, the students questioned cyclists in San Sabastian to figure out what kind of improvements they could make to enhance the cycling experience.

By law, cyclists in Spain are not allowed to use headphones or earbuds while riding. This gave her group the idea to make a portable speaker that would easily mount on the bike, as well as a cellphone holder that would double as a charger.

“It’s very diverse in State College but Spain was a new environment, so I was trying to navigate it and respect their culture,” Xu said. “I also liked seeing how students in Spain were being taught engineering principles. Industrial and manufacturing engineering at Penn State is like home for me, so to see another perspective was incredible.”

Interning and traveling and class work – oh my!

Xu’s second study abroad experience during the spring semester of 2019 was spent at Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel. She spent the first two months of the semester with an internship and began classes in March.

“That internship helped me with my communications skills because I had to get comfortable talking to people that I didn’t know,” Xu said.

After her two-month internship with the small, consulting start-up that was looking for international cooperation to build industry networks, Xu began classes at Technion. Xu said that she enjoyed how her professors were easy to talk to and willing to help. Outside of the classroom, Xu enjoyed experiencing different parts of the country.

“I enjoyed traveling while I was in Israel,” she said. “I visited the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Golan Heights and the West Bank.”

Xu said that her best memories involved talking to people and “just living in the moment.” She noted that her study abroad experiences helped her reflect on her time spent in the United States.

“We are a very developed country with many privileges. Not everyone has that,” Xu said. “I valued going to Israel because the people there taught me to be more down to earth and to show more compassion for others. The people that I met work very hard, so it’s important to appreciate what you have. I felt very small when I was abroad.”

Xu added that it was important to study abroad not only to be enlightened on other world views, but also because she believes that international affairs impact everyone, which creates a critical importance of understanding other cultures.

“I was glad to meet so many new people and learn from them,” she said. “It’s really important to constantly work on being a globally-minded person, especially in our generation. It helps you stand out but also makes you more of a critical thinker because you have been other places than your own country.”

For students that are considering studying abroad, Xu’s main piece of advice is: just go and have an open mind. For her, traveling is a form of learning that is ever evolving.

“Be ready for the cultural differences, but it’s okay to take some time to adjust,” Xu said. “Make sure you study the area, the language and just generally do your research before you leave. Be ready to accept new things.” 

  • Young woman in a white t-shirt, white jeans and white sneakers blows bubbles with an older woman wearing a floral skirt and red t-shirt on the street.

    Xu noted that one of her favorite aspects of studying abroad was meeting new people and learning more about the cultures.

    IMAGE: Doris Xu
  • A camel with a saddle and decorative blanket on its back looks away from the camera while standing in the desert.

    “It changes lives to study abroad, so I don’t want anyone to miss out on learning about what goes on across the world,” Xu said.

    IMAGE: Doris Xu
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Last Updated October 08, 2019