Up for the challenge
Graham McConnell - Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
“I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, among a family of avid sightseers and hikers. We ventured all across the United States, visiting dozens of national parks, museums and historical sights, so the lure of traveling was instilled in me from a young age. Despite my many travels, it wasn’t until I went to school at WVU that I had the chance to venture outside of the country.
I was enticed by the College’s summer study abroad program in Mexico because it offered a blend of cultural and industry experience.
This program was unique in the fact that it was designed to expose you to the real culture of Mexico while working alongside native citizens to solve real engineering problems. It also allowed me to earn nine transferable credits upon completion, three of which count as a capstone class, which was immensely helpful for dual majors like myself who need two capstones to graduate.
From the moment our group landed in Mexico City, I noticed several shocking differences. The streets were crowded with a combination of trucks and cars all quickly dodging in and out of lanes and driving erratically. There were several small favela or shanty town-style neighborhoods dotting the sides of the road, and street performers were walking up to cars stopped at red lights. There was also a noticeable language barrier that I knew would be challenging to overcome, especially once I discovered that my host family only spoke Spanish.
Shortly after arriving, I received my full-time work placement at an aerospace engineering company called Safran Group. I was paired with a Mexican engineering student, and we were assigned to work on a top-secret project related to landing gear systems for commercial airlines. In the engineering world, projects can last for months or even years, but we were given only eight weeks to develop a prototype that would increase airline safety procedures. Although we knew it would be difficult working on a strict deadline to complete a project that neither of us had experience in, we were up for the challenge and got to work.
While we worked full time during the week, our weekends were spent traveling to historic Mexican towns and archeological sites. My personal favorites were hiking a mountain trail at Pena de Bernal, a small town at the base of an enormous rock face with a lot of interesting markets and foods to try, and the pyramids of Teotihuacan, an ancient city that dates back to the time before the Aztecs. One weekend we even got to take a cooking class where we learned how to make corn tortillas and Pan de Reyes, a bread used in the ceremony of the Dia de Muertos. Most of my other free time was spent watching Mexico compete in the World Cup. There were several days I remember sitting in a restaurant watching Mexico face South Korea or Germany. The energy of the crowd cheering each time Mexico scored and celebrating after a win is something that is hard to forget.
Within a matter of weeks my Spanish greatly improved and I was able to discuss my day with my host family and hold conversations with my new friends. I met many wonderful people from all over the world including Brazil, Oman, Rwanda, Mexico and the United Kingdom. It was great being able to share our different perspectives over dinner every night using a common language that we all worked hard to learn.
By the end of the trip I was also able to communicate with my work partner using his native tongue, which helped us meet our project deadline. We managed to successfully design a prototype that would help detect foreign objects in airplane landing gear and were able to present it to our bosses at the company. They praised us for our hard work and innovative designs, which filled me with a huge sense of accomplishment.
Working in a real professional environment helped me learn important lessons about prioritization, trust, leadership and teamwork. I found myself actively planning out each day and setting goals for the team, as well as prioritizing tasks that were the most important to the project and leaving the others alone. This program was designed to highlight your strengths, so I learned to trust my teammate and the strengths and knowledge he possessed, and let him control those areas, while I focused on the tasks where my talents were best used. This is something I believe every engineering student needs to experience firsthand in order to understand how to succeed in a professional environment.
Although the program was challenging, studying abroad in Mexico was one of the best decisions I could have ever made. I gained a great understanding as to why persistence is such a beneficial trait to have as a professional and learned the value of immersing yourself in new cultures. I am confident that the lessons I learned will guide me during my career and that the memories I made will stick with me forever.”