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Internship in China brings true test and true reward

Profiles , Stories Stories from Abroad | Jul 17, 2012 |

By the time summer ends, Balt Heldring (GSB ’14) will know more than most 20-year-olds about the safety-equipment industry, having spent six weeks as an intern at a division of Honeywell that manufactures, tests and markets products such as sensors that detect smoke, heat and gas.

That alone makes Balt’s summer different from those of many of his peers.

Now add in the fact that he did this internship in Xi’an, China.

During June and July, Balt lived on the 19th floor of an apartment complex in the capital of the Shaangxi Province and commuted to an internship rotation at the Honeywell plant. He had dinner nightly during the work week with contacts from the office, who took him to Chinese and Korean barbecue places, as well as to dumpling, noodle and rice restaurants. He played badminton with the drivers who dropped him off at the factory each morning and picked him up each evening. And through the internship itself, he witnessed the internal functions of a multinational corporation.

Balt originally planned to have this internship as part of a team of two: He was supposed to work in Xi’an with his friend Michael. Both had been accepted into the Honeywell rotation program, which cycles interns through five major functions of its System Sensor product division: production, sales and marketing, engineering and quality control, purchasing and materials, and finance. Sadly, however, Michael passed away before the internship began, and Balt ended up heading to China alone.

It was a gutsy move — leaving his friends and family in the United States and going, all by himself, to work overseas — but it proved a life-changing experience. It was an education not only in business, but in culture.

Balt learned to use body language and hand signals to successfully communicate with Chinese workers on the System Sensor production line. He saw how a safety product moves through the chain from concept to finished item. He struggled to cook rice. He discovered that his Chinese coworkers did respect him even though they’d never instinctively offer the firm handshake that characterizes all American business. He saw first-hand the quirks of a country that is grappling with an enormous population explosion and unparalleled urban growth — including rules in Beijing where drivers with even-numbered license plates are permitted to drive on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, while drivers with odd-numbered plates can drive on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. (Everyone can drive on Sundays.)

Outside of work hours, there were amazing sights: the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. Balt got to see the Terracotta Warriors, the statues created for the tomb of the first emperor of China. They are headquartered in Xi’an in a special exhibit. Balt saw what a 6,000-year-old community looks like in Banpo Village and checked out the markets, shopping centers, bars and clubs of a culture very different from his own.

Not that it was all easy. “The hardest thing for me was being alone, especially after knowing that one of my best friends was supposed to experience this great opportunity with me,” Balt said. “The language barrier is extremely hard,” he continued. “Not only hard to understand, but hard to read. There is not one word of Chinese except for ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ that I know.” Skype conversations with people back home helped him through, as did the amazing hospitality of his Chinese supervisors, coworkers and hosts.

The result is enrichment that will stay with him for years. Balt said his Honeywell marketing rotation made him think about that field in a new way — it hasn’t beaten out his current Gabelli School of Business focus on finance and management, but it’s definitely a contender. He now understands the level of inner strength and emotional fiber needed to thrive on one’s own in a foreign cultural environment, many miles from home. He also realizes the value more than ever of family and friends.

“Working six weeks in a foreign country is not an easy thing to do,” Balt said. “In the months leading up to my internship, I was extremely excited to be in a new setting in a culture unlike anything else I have experienced before. However, when I arrived in China and started to get settled into my apartment, I realized that I was about to be detached from everything that I had ever known for the past 20 years.”

However, he said, “I highly recommend anyone interested in international business to take the opportunity to look into internships abroad because there is so much to learn from business in an international setting. It might even change a couple of things that you thought you wanted to do in life.”

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