Bob Olson and Michael Szewczyk earned their UW-Madison mechanical engineering degrees in vastly different decades and what seem like different worlds. Olson (BSME ’60) helped teach calculus to freshman engineering students while earning his bachelor’s and then his UW-Madison MBA in the late 1950s and early ’60s, and retired from the Green Bay-based Little Rapids Corporation about 15 years ago. Szewczyk (BSME ’12) grew up in the more unpredictable era of international internships and the Sector67 prototyping space. But they agree on at least one thing: the importance of supporting international education and work opportunities for future UW-Madison engineers.
From Monroe to East Germany
Monroe, Wisconsin, native Olson never got to study abroad, but found himself facing some formidable culture shock during his career in the paper industry. In the late 1980s, he was working for the Little Rapids Corporation in Green Bay when the company decided to establish a plant in eastern Germany. The Berlin Wall had just come down, and Olson was tasked with scouting out a plant location in former Soviet territory where the dominant languages were German and Russian. Olson spoke neither. “I think engineers used to almost grow up in silos, without exposure to anything else,” Olson says. “They were really good at what they did, but you get them out of their element and they’re fish out of water.”
The company decided to establish its new plant in a small town outside of Dresden. Navigating a landscape of economic and political upheaval, Olson succeeded in assembling a team of about 55 people, and hired a manager fluent in English, German and Russian. He had the satisfaction of seeing his employees adapt to a new kind of economy and work environment and discover happiness in their jobs.
The experience is part of the inspiration behind the Robert B. Olson International Experience Fund, which provides support to College of Engineering students who study abroad, in addition to the generous support Olson and his wife Marilyn have provided over the years to the College of Engineering, School of Business, and School of Human Ecology. “It helped me realize the importance that any person getting a collegiate education should get exposure to another part of the world, whether it’s Asia or Europe or anywhere else, because business is conducted differently around the world,” he says. “I feel very strongly about promoting the opportunity for engineers to have an international experience.”
Studying abroad simply wasn’t as common when Olson was in college, though he still learned the value of being forced out of one’s comfort zone, both as a student and as a house fellow in the UW-Madison dorms. In the latter role, he helped his fellow students deal with discipline troubles and family issues. “That was a fairly rapid growth situation for me,” he says.
In the classroom, he gained a foundation that served him well even when he was out of his element. “It began to sink in on me in the middle of my career that a lot of my success is attributed to the background I have,” Olson says. “My engineering curriculum taught me how to solve technical problems. I took that concept, just threw out the word ‘technical,’ and I had a skeleton for how to solve all sorts of problems in life.”
Engineering in Portuguese
Mike Szewczyk graduated into a world where the workforce is much more international and multicultural. After earning his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at UW-Madison in 2012, he took a job as a mechanical engineer at Thermo Fisher in the Bay Area, where his co-workers are from all over the world. He came into the job adept at interacting with different cultures, thanks to the time he spent working and interning abroad during his undergraduate career.
With scholarships that helped him cover airfare and other expenses, Szewczyk spent six months studying abroad in Valencia, Spain, and later interned as a designer and engineer in Madrid and in Brazil. “Everything is international now, but I think interning abroad is especially helpful,” Szewczyk says. “It’s important to actually work there, as opposed to just going to school and having fun there.”
He also points out that internships serve as a “non-permanent test drive” for young engineers thinking about careers abroad.
While on campus, Szewczyk supported international experiences as an active member of the UW-Madison chapter of the International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience (IAESTE). He’s continued that involvement with a $500 gift intended to help UW-Madison engineering students offset some of the costs of interning abroad. In the future, Szewczyk would also like to help students purchase language software ahead of their trips abroad. He used the software to catch up on his Portuguese during his initial journey to Brazil, and also wants to help students overcome financial barriers to international experiences. He believes students shouldn’t miss out on the tremendous benefits of working abroad for lack of something like the money for a plane ticket. “The one thing about international internships is that they pay you less, because we get paid a lot in the U.S. generally, and you have to pay for your visa and travel,” he says. “If you need to make money over the summer, then that’s more stressful.”
Having worked in two countries where the language and culture were new to him, Szewczyk now believes international opportunities give engineers a stronger foundation, even if they end up spending their entire careers in the States. “Those experiences defined who I am and who I became,” he says.