For juniors Mark Mar­tino and Brendan Tan­guay, a “Made in China” sticker con­jures up fond mem­o­ries of their co-​​op abroad rather than con­cerns about the world economy. That’s because for six months, they called home a plas­tics and elec­tronics fac­tory in Feng­gang, China.

At Eastek Inter­na­tional: Inte­grated Global Ser­vices, Tan­guay, a physics major, and Mar­tino, a bio­med­ical physics major, reported directly to the company’s pres­i­dent, who rec­og­nized their strengths and encour­aged them to take on projects that matched their inter­ests and exper­tise. Assign­ments included leading fac­tory tours for English-​​speaking clients and sup­pliers, uti­lizing their physics prowess to mend and main­tain a large, expen­sive steel machine crit­ical to man­u­fac­turing, devel­oping an improved production-​​tracking system to increase work­place effi­ciency and meet vital dead­lines, and con­ducting a cost analysis that was used—unedited and uncut—in a pre­sen­ta­tion by the pres­i­dent him­self to land a cru­cial busi­ness deal with a telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions company.

Their inten­sive work expe­ri­ences have trans­lated into suc­cess in the class­room. “Han­dling a lot of projects simul­ta­ne­ously and being forced to keep orga­nized has been the biggest reason why I am doing so well aca­d­e­m­i­cally this semester,” Mar­tino said.

The pair’s most ful­filling project emerged from observing the factory’s envi­ron­mental prac­tices. “With the economy going down,” Mar­tino said, “they needed to cut back on small waste and try to reuse when possible.”

So, he and Tan­guay imple­mented a stronger recy­cling system for paper, bot­tles, and cans; gath­ered data to reduce the factory’s carbon foot­print; and planted roof gar­dens for fruits and veg­eta­bles that could be used in the canteen.

The hours were long, the pay was short and the adjust­ment to a for­eign cul­ture proved chal­lenging, but the two ably inte­grated with their new com­mu­nity. In addi­tion to drop­ping in to teach Eng­lish classes that the com­pany offered (and taking some Man­darin lessons them­selves), they quickly befriended their native coworkers, eating, playing bas­ket­ball and watching YouTube videos together.

Both stu­dents lived in the factory’s campus dorms with coworkers who spent many months of the year away from their fam­i­lies in order to sup­port them. “The level of com­mit­ment and hard work that these friends of ours were able to ded­i­cate to pro­viding for their fam­i­lies was amazing,” Mar­tino said.

During their time off for Chi­nese Inde­pen­dence Week, Mar­tino and Tan­guay took a week­long tour of Northern China, which included a stay at their coworker’s home, where they enjoyed home-​​cooked meals and whizzed around on a scooter, shocking the locals who had never before seen a for­eigner in their rural village.

Observing natives’ hard­ships caused Tan­guay to reflect on his life.

Living is a lot sim­pler in China,” he said. “A lot of people don’t have the same oppor­tu­ni­ties we have here—especially with edu­ca­tion. It’s been moti­vating to apply myself and appre­ciate everything.”

As the first co-​​op stu­dents to work at Eastek, Tan­guay and Mar­tino hope that future co-​​op stu­dents can pick up where they left off. “We really saw the com­pany grow over six months,” Tan­guay said. “It was a very intense, but incred­ible, work expe­ri­ence,” Plus, he con­tinued, “One inten­sive two-​​week project we worked on [with a telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pany that pro­duces surge pro­tec­tors] was huge and is going to extend for 10 years, bringing in hun­dreds of new jobs.

That was a huge moti­va­tion during those late nights and long hours, knowing that so many people from the farm­land could help sup­port their families.”

Added Mar­tino: “The inter­na­tional expe­ri­ence is a huge strength of North­eastern. I gained so much per­spec­tive on how I can live my life, on how I can live humbly and work hard. I am more focused with my studies and doing a lot better job of man­aging my time,” he said.

–By Allison Tanenhaus