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Co-op students help Chinese factory go green

Made in China: physics students help factory go green

3/19/09

For juniors Mark Martino and Brendan Tanguay, a "Made in China" sticker conjures up fond memories of their international co-op 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.