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My Experience Abroad was Invaluable

September 14, 2018

Emma Boutcher, a senior BS student in bioengineering, remembers New Student Orientation like it was yesterday. I remember my anticipation for what lay ahead, the possibilities promised by Northeastern’s Co-op Program. I remember leaning over to my friend Rosie as we sat in Ell Hall and saying, “I’d like to do one co-op in Boston, one in California, and one overseas.” Hah. What an ambitious freshman I was. Little did I know these aspirations would later come to fruition.

I am currently in my 5th and final year at Northeastern and have completed three co-ops. The first was at Boston Scientific in Marlborough, MA, the second at Specialized Bicycle Components in Morgan Hill, California, and my final co-op was at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) in Winterthur, Switzerland.

Upon returning from my second co-op in California I was inspired to complete my third co-op outside of Boston. My experience in California pushed me in more ways than I could have imagined: physically, mentally, emotionally, and I was a happier and stronger person as a result. My eagerness to challenge myself in new environments was heightened, and I was determined to have my final co-op experience be nothing short of challenging.

With a global co-op in mind, I reached out to a former professor of mine, Professor Shefelbine, expressing my interest in working abroad. She responded a day later, asking the important questions; “Do you speak another language,” “Do you have to get paid,” “Do you want to do research or work in industry?” A few weeks later she sent me an email with a contact in Switzerland who heads the Biomechanics Lab at the ZHAW. I reached out immediately, and after infinitely long email exchanges, three months later, I arrived in Switzerland and was finally meeting my boss in person.

I was one of twelve staff in the Institute and spent the majority of my time working on an in-house mountain bike simulator. This device, whose purpose was still not defined, could be used for rider testing, bike component testing, among various other research projects. Inspired by a medical conference to be held in the US, I carried out my own research project to better understand the effects that biking has on the shoulder muscles, and how this information can be used to help those recovering from a shoulder injury who wish to return to cycling. As a result of this study I was able to attend the International Shoulder Group Conference at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN this past August where I presented my research findings.

View of Old Town in Zurich in winter

Alongside starting a new job, getting settled in a country where I knew no one and didn’t speak the language was intimidating to say the least. I remember my feelings of frustration, when I was unable to buy groceries because the stores closed at 6 PM, or when I would go to the wrong station, thinking that I was catching the train instead of the bus. I felt alone, but I was okay with that. I told myself that things would only get easier, and they did. Before long, tasks that were once frustrating became second nature, and I finally felt like I lived there, that I wasn’t just on a temporary vacation. However, the one thing that I still struggled with was the language barrier.

I lived and worked in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, however, the formal “high German” that one would hear in Germany is not used there. In Zurich and the surrounding areas, Swiss German is spoken, a similar yet different enough language that native German speakers can understand but cannot speak. In working in Winterthur, a small city just outside of Zurich, I encountered very little English.

My 2nd to last day in Switzerland I rode up and
over the famous Passo San Gottardo from Airolo
to Andermatt

While I was able to speak in English with most of my coworkers, I was presented with work documents and emails that were all in high German. However, the conversations and discussions I would hear daily were all in Swiss German. I was fortunate enough to set up a weekly one-on-one tutoring session to learn conversational German, and I encouraged my coworkers to speak to me in German, but I always felt guilty not being able to speak their native language. My persistent use of German and my desire to learn as much as possible made communicating easier, and my efforts were appreciated by my coworkers.

In my life outside of work, I was able to meet people in Zurich from all over the world. I made an effort whenever possible to meet new people, whether that was through roommates, coworkers, or by joining a weekly group ride hosted by my neighborhood cycling shop. These connections led to what I know will be lifelong friendships and connections all over the globe.

NU students hiking in Flims, Switzerland

While it is hard to sum up my emotion in just one blog post, I will conclude by saying that there is not one moment I doubted that my experience abroad was invaluable. I was presented with challenges and experiences I never thought I’d encounter (especially as an undergrad), and have returned to Boston with a greater confidence in myself, and my ability to navigate and adapt to a foreign culture. While this co-op has given me insight into my career path, it has given me a greater insight into life, where I want to live, what type of people I want to surround myself with, and what it is that truly makes me happy. In my time abroad, I’ve learned that being uncomfortable is okay. By putting ourselves in unfamiliar situations we allow ourselves to grow in ways we never thought possible. It is in these unfamiliar situations that we develop a clearer sense of self, by questioning whether our values are developed from within, or if they have been imposed on us.

For those who are considering a global co-op, I will leave you with a piece of advice that helped me, and I hope will help you in your decision. In my emails with Professor Shefelbine before I left she wrote: “It is not about earning money right now, it is about experiencing.  You have the rest of your life to earn money.” And that was all I cared about. Experiencing.

September 14, 2018 2:45 pm