My Overseas Internship in England
My First Plane Flight
"Sir, are you ok?" asked the air stewardess on the Singapore Airlines flight to London. I was flying to England for my internship at Hydraulics Research(HR) Wallingford. And it was the first time that I ever flew on a plane! I was quite anxious and visibly nervous, not so much about the flight but the thought of arriving in a foreign land. I wondered what would it be like in England. I flew in during the peak of winter and I have never experienced cold weather before.
This was in 1995 and I just finished my third year of civil engineering at the National University of Singapore. I was surprised to hear that I was selected to take part in the Overseas Industrial Attachment Program. Yes, it may be due to my excellent performance at the University but without the blessings of the University and Hydraulics Research, this would not have been possible. I was given a choice of France, Japan or England for my industrial attachment. I chose England so that I didn't have to struggle with languages! Also, at that time, my brother was pursuing his PhD at Cambridge University. So, England was the most sensible location.
Landing at Heathrow
The thirteen hour flight left my lips dry and sore. When I landed at Heathrow airport in the wee hours of the morning, I could feel the cold air even though I was indoors. I calmly walked up to the UK immigration officer to submit my work permit. After collecting my luggage, I was warmly greeted by a British gentleman from HR Wallingford. He took control of my luggage and ushered me to his car. The drive to Wallingford was amazing as I took in the sights of the rolling meadows and leafless trees. This was my first experience of the English countryside.
First Week Blues at Oxford
The chauffeur brought me to HR Wallingford to meet and greet my supervisor, Dr. Jane Lawson. I got to meet the team I will be working with and Jane took me on a short tour of the Howbery Park grounds. The Hydraulics Research Station, which was originally owned by the British Government became privatized and renamed as HR Wallingford in 1982.
I was quite tired since I didn't sleep much on the long flight. Dr. Jane was kind enough to allow me to start the next day. I was transported to my temporary bed & breakfast accomodation at Oxford city. Here, I had my first English breakfast, complete with baked beans, scrambled eggs, toast, hashbrowns and free flowing coffee!
During my first week at Oxford, I felt a bit lonely and worried. I was anxiously waiting for my third year examination results. The Mathematics paper was insanely difficult and I feared that I would fail it. On a Friday morning, I got a phone call from my dad, who told me that I got a B for Mathematics and several As for the other subjects. This was a big relief! The other challenge I had, was to find a permanent place to stay at Oxford. Luckily, the bed & breakfast owner told me that there were several rooms for rent at an apartment nearby at Iffley Road.
Apartment at Iffley Road
My room was small and spartan and I shared the apartment with an American who was pursuing his studies at Oxford, a Sudanese taking his Advanced Level exams and a Welsh guy who got a job at Oxford. This was my first time staying with strangers from different countries which took some time for me to get used to.
I still remember telling Gareth, my Welsh flat-mate that I had problems understanding what he was talking about. The Sudanese flat-mate was quite reclusive and did not speak much to us during my stay there. This could be due to cultural and religious differences. While the American was affable, he was extremely untidy!
Despite our differences, over time, we became good flat buddies. I remember the evening conversations we had after dinner and watching X-Files together. Gareth, eventually moved to London after he landed a job at a prestigious advertising firm. The Sudanese did very well and went on to Cambridge University.
Working at the Hydraulics Station
Working at the station was fun! Since most of the student interns lived in Oxford, HR Wallingford was kind enough to have a shuttle bus to transport the students from Oxford to Wallingford. The bus was largely filled with extroverted and lively Italian and French students. I was the only person from Asia!
HR Wallingford was a company that came up with practical solutions to complex water challenges. Hydraulics and fluid mechanics were my favorite subjects at university. As a result, this internship was an opportunity to experience the practical side of the subject.
The company undertook both physical and computational modeling. I was attached to the Ports and Harbours Group which dealt with problems such as wave climate prediction, harbor wave disturbance, ship mooring and manoeuvering, siltation and dredging.
While I liked computational modeling, I preferred rolling up my sleeves and working on physical models because it was more tangible. Using computers to simulate the impact of water waves on coastal structures such as breakwaters and cities is the first step in coming up with solutions. This was then confirmed by building a physical model.
Falling asleep at the wheel
My time in England gave me a chance to explore the Scottish Highlands, Paris, Cambridge , and London. During the long Easter break, some of my intern friends mooted the idea of driving up to Scotland. While the idea was good, it was a big mistake driving at midnight when human concentration drops and sleep sets in. One of the interns who drove the car fell asleep for a few seconds and as a result, the car spun a few times before landing at the side. This happened near Lake District where it was cold and dark. It was a wonder that a police car came to the scene within five minutes and checked if we are fine. We were unscathed but a bit shocked. We had to make arrangements to tow the car to Edinburgh!
The six months industrial attachment at HR Wallingford was a good total learning experience for me. An important aspect of my experience was the opportunity to make friends with people from different parts of the world. I had a sheltered life in Singapore. This experience taught me how to handle myself in a foreign country, negotiate with life's ups and downs and, explore foreign cities.
Looking back at life from now, this initial visit to England, led me to my Master's degree at Cambridge University, a work stint in London and an international career in risk management. It also taught me to have a global mindset and be open and respectful to different cultures.
© 2019 Sivakumar Sathiamoorthy