Scaling new heights on co-op

Ryan Tang (he/him) is a third-year Geological Engineering student with an unwavering spirit for adventure. He narrates the thrilling story behind the photo that won him first place in the “Where in the World?!” photo contest, recaps valuable lessons from all three of his work terms and provides insight for students considering an international experience of their own.

Ryan's co-op journey

Work term one: Ryan’s kickstarted his co-op journey at SRK Consulting in Vancouver. As a geotechnical engineer, Ryan analyzed data for multiple projects including work on the Faro mine remediation project and Las Cuevas dam construction.

Work term two: Working as a field archeologist for Ridgeline Archaeology, Ryan got to experience archaeology and the forestry try firsthand. For three months, he lived up north in the Canadian wilderness, constantly travelling between towns and living in motels, cabins and forest camps along the way. During this time, Ryan assisted with field surveys and sampling, often working twelve-hour days.

Work term three: Wanting to explore the research side of geotechnical engineering, Ryan accepted an international position within the Department of Geotechnical Engineering and Construction Management at the Hamburg University of Technology. His research focused on designing an automatic fluidized sand bed to aid modelling interactions that occur between soil and building foundations.

Q&A with Ryan

You’ve had a couple of adventurous co-ops, one international and one that involved off-the grid fieldwork. What made you want to embark on these experiences?

Ryan looking back while climbing.“Growing up, I was always an outdoor person. I enjoyed camping, mountain biking and hiking. Hence, why I chose to study geological engineering. The chance to do an international co-op spoke to me because it felt like a once in a lifetime opportuntity in Europe. My main objective, outside of work, was to travel, sightsee and do a bit of solo backpacking. I wanted to test myself and see how I would cope with stress and travelling alone.”

“I always thought of myself as an introvert, but going to Germany and meeting all these amazing people really opened me up. I ended up living like a local and honestly, I would choose to do another international co-op to live in a different culture again.”

“As for the field job, I really wanted to experience the wilderness of northern Canada. While working at SRK, the team there really encouraged me to go out into the wild and see what it’s like to do field work. I remember them inspiring me with stories of their youth working in the bush and picking up a variety of life lessons.”

“Field work is tough. It's not for everyone. I spent three to four months working there and I don’t think I would go back; not because it wasn’t fun, but just because it was a lot of stress and had a certain loneliness that wasn’t particularly up my alley. It's hard to describe, but to excel at the job you had to maintain hyper-alertness for long hours, paying attention to the archaeology, as well as terrain and wildlife hazards. That being said, I think it's worth pushing your boundaries.”

Two people climbing the side of an icy mountain.What have you gained from your experience abroad that you will carry with you in the future?

“From an academic point of view, working in a different environment and culture broadened my mind. Germany is very multicultural, so there was a mix and match of different cultures. In a research environment, this builds versatility and adaptability to different standards of workplaces.”

“Again, I did a lot of traveling in Germany and across Europe. We were blessed with a lot of vacation days and weekends off, so being able to time manage and organize my work schedule was something that I picked up really well. I learned not to worry too much because everything always works out. For instance, I remember travelling across the Netherlands; my wallet was misplaced, the trains were cancelled at 3 a.m. and I had work at seven that same morning. I had to wander around the streets, cold, with nowhere to go, but it worked out in the end and I grew from it.”

“But you don’t need to travel to grow. By pushing your boundaries, you’ll realize that everything works out in the end. The world's not out to get you. No one’s trying to ruin your day. It's all in how you approach things. To summarize what I learned from my experience abroad, having a positive outlook on life, keeping an open mind and building resiliency is the best way to get through difficulties in life.”

Can you tell me about your photo in Hell’s Valley that won you first place in the “Where in the World?!” photo contest?

Ryan's picture of Hell's Valley.“The story behind that photo is one of the most impressive things I've done. I bought the camera for €50 at a flea market. I took this photo with my last exposure as we were reaching the top of the mountain. It was a very significant moment, so the picture has a lot of sentimental value. The photo itself was taken on top of the tallest mountain in Germany, bordering the Austrian and German Alps.”

“There were three of us going on this little adventure; one mechanical engineering student from the University of Waterloo and another Canadian who we met in Berlin. We did a similar trip a couple weeks prior and spent the night in a cave on the side of a cliff in Saxon Switzerland, so we were pretty confident going in. This trip took us two days and one night to summit the mountain. At the gear shop, where we rented our harnesses, climbing equipment and crampons, we were warned that there was a storm coming. We decided to continue on.”

“Day one wasn’t really a problem. We got to the mountain hut—a 30-40 person sleeping hut with three story bunk beds—pretty early. Since the hut is in such a strange spot, they deliver meals by helicopter. That night, we planned how we were going to tackle the final ascent. We spoke with some of the other hikers, and they said they were going to leave the hut at 3:00 AM. We decided that we might as well do the same thing. We went to bed at 7:00 PM, but I couldn't sleep at all because of the storm.”

“The Romans gave Hell’s Valley (Höllental (Wetterstein)) and the black forest its name because of how unpredictable the weather can be. It has a reputation for freak weather events; lightning storms happen out of nowhere because you can’t see the storm trails over the mountains. We heard a story that in June, a month before we went out, somebody got struck by lightning and died. On the night of our ascent, there was a crazy storm. We were on the edge of our seat, worried that we were going to have to head back, but when we woke up at 2:30 AM the storm was gone.”

“The last 200 meters elevation, just after our glacier ascent, I fell. Luckily, I was attached to a rope, but I fell so far that when the rope went taunt, I knocked two other guys down. That was the scariest thing that happened. The rest of the way up was all rock climbing. We were running on pure adrenaline.”

“Getting to the top was such an achievement. It took about 10 hours from the hut to the top, including getting lost in the dark. In the photo, the valley looks daunting and terrifying because that’s where the storms pass, so you can see the storm from last night fading away. That’s also where the sunrise came from the east, so it was gorgeous in the morning.”

What advice would you offer to a student considering a co-op term abroad?

“If you’re even considering a co-op term abroad, just go for it. If you disregard financing, it's 100% worth it. If you’re working overseas, the pay is usually significantly lower. It might be competitive pay in the region, but if you’re comparing it to Canada—which you shouldn’t—it is lower.  If you’re not able to make an international co-op opportunity happen, you might as well do an exchange instead. They’re very similar, but financially you’ll be paying domestic school fees for an exchange.”

“Specific advice, keep an open mind and have humility. Take the time now and make your own adventure.”

Mountainous region.What are the most memorable experiences from your work terms?

“My very first term was a pretty standard office job. The most memorable part of that position was talking to senior consultants and like-minded people. They inspired me to go further, push boundaries and not just sit in an office forever.”

“The most memorable experience during my second term was working with the Xatśūl First Nations people. I was working with First Nations representatives and got to spend days in the bush hearing stories about their culture, their childhood and their ancestors. They have a very spiritual perspective on life and it was amazing to spend time with them.”

“In Germany, the whole experience itself was memorable. I loved being in a foreign country, having full independence and learning about myself. Co-op is the best time to learn because you can see the world while exploring different careers. I am really grateful to have so many stories at such a young age.”

Ryan's friends setting up camp on a mountain ledge. Switching gears to your degree, what do you love about geological engineering?

“What I love most about geological engineering is the potential for adventure. At its core, it has allowed me to explore amazing opportunities and experiences. The job prospects of geological engineering could lead to more work in remote places and exotic countries.”

“I originally applied for environmental engineering because I love nature and wildlife. I also wanted to do engineering. I switched to geological engineering because a co-worker at SRK recommended the program and I was already working as a geotechnical engineer. I don't necessarily love anything related to geology, but I see the potential of where it could lead me in the future. I see my peers having these amazing opportunities to go up north to remote areas in the Yukon, Nunavut and NWT working in diamond and gold mines and I think to myself what other job has this kind of option?”

Ryan sliding down an icy mountain.What’s next for you?

“Long term, I may look into graduate school because I enjoyed the research environment and I feel like I could work as a professor. That's something that came to mind after my most recent co-op job.”

“In the short term, I accepted another international co-op job for winter 2024 as a teaching assistant at the Industrial University of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. I am really grateful for these experiences across a variety of workplaces, there’s just so much to see and do.”

“I’d also like to do a co-op term back in Hong Kong. I grew up in Hong Kong and I think working there would be awesome to spend some time with extended family. I also don't really want to spend the winter here anymore. It’s terribly cold, so I think I’ll go somewhere warm.”

“Career wise, I’m not sure exactly what I want to do. I’m still young. I believe that you can do whatever you want with your life as long as you put your mind to it. Getting your degree doesn't have to be the end of the world. I may get my degree and post-graduate school decide I don’t want to be an engineer anymore. Maybe I'll become a journalist or something. I think it's important to have a strong foundation, so I might as well finish my degree, right?”

“So, I don't really know what I want to do, but we'll see, I’m pretty spontaneous.”

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