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Beyond Borders:

How a Co-op Can Show You the World

A story showcasing student learning experiences at UBC — ways for students to participate in community service learning, research, internships, mentorships, international opportunities and co-op experiences.

Engineering undergrad Ryan Hirakida thought he was going to Japan for an international co-op work term. But the experience was richer than that: he learned a new language and a totally different work ethic. He learned to think critically — about everything. His empathy broadened and he returned home with a changed view of how we do business back in Canada.

As a third-year engineering student, Ryan understood the value of a co-op experience. He knew it would help get his feet under him and give him some chops in the engineering world. But securing a co-op placement isn’t a guarantee — it’s a competitive process for students, as companies often cross-post jobs at multiple universities.

So Ryan pivoted and took a more targeted approach. He’d never considered working abroad before. But when he became aware of The Canada-Japan Co-op Program facilitated by the Engineering Co-op Program, he realized it was a perfect match. From his experiences exploring different places within Canada, he knew about the life-changing power of travel. As a fourth-generation Japanese-Canadian, he also knew there was a lot he didn’t know about his ancestral country, its language and its way of life.

“I figured if I throw myself into a situation where I’ve never done anything like it before, I’d definitely walk out with a new perspective,” says Ryan. “I wanted to see a new way of living and go through my day-to-day life in a way that would give me a new lens on things when I returned.”


I wanted to see a new way of living and go through my day-to-day life in a way that would give me a new lens on things when I returned.

When Ryan touched down in Japan — a country of cutting-edge technology rooted in centuries of tradition — he was open to all experiences and ready to engage. Through the UBC Engineering Co-op Program, and specifically The Canada-Japan Co-op Program, Ryan had secured a placement with Dai Nippon Printing (DNP), a leading printing and information technology company. Once he had the job, The Canada-Japan Co-op Program team helped steer him with visas and travel documentation assistance, and put him through an intensive training week where he learned about etiquette, business culture and what to expect while living in Japan.

“It was really helpful,” says Ryan. “The Canada-Japan Co-op Program has a dedicated advisor, Yuko Nemoto, who works with the students in Japan — and it’s not a really huge pool of people,” he says. “She knows you personally, and she wants you to succeed.” Ryan felt more empowered knowing that help was just a phone call away.

Ryan went to work, exercising his technical skills in data analysis, experimental design and product development. He even tried his hand at designing a plastic bottle from the ground up. And he did it all while being immersed in a totally different way of doing business. “There was this attitude of group-mindedness,” Ryan recalls. “It’s not always about trying to advance yourself so that you can be the best that you can be.”


The Canada-Japan Co-op Program has a dedicated advisor, Yuko Nemoto, who works with the students in Japan — and it’s not a really huge pool of people […] She knows you personally, and she wants you to succeed.

Japan Mountains

Wearing the steel-toed boots, blue shirt and pants reminded him of the goals he and his fellow coworkers all shared. Scheduled workplace cleaning times where everyone, regardless of position, swept the floors, took out the garbage and organized supplies reinforced the value of shared responsibility.

The learning was a two-way experience for Ryan. While navigating the language and absorbing a more team-oriented way of working as he cycled through different departments and assisted with projects, he was also sharing his own knowledge and background as a Canadian. Although he didn’t know it at the time, DNP had brought him on staff to be a teacher just as much as he was a learner. Always forward-thinking, the company understood the value of introducing its employees to someone from a distinctly different culture, and of having the group muddle through conversations and interactions together so that all parties could arrive at a better understanding of each other’s perspectives.

It was a daily thing, this butting up against the language barrier, whether Ryan was figuring out table manners or conducting microbial analysis or organizing a weekend snowboarding trip. While at times it was more expeditious at work to use English, Ryan sought every opportunity to work on his second language.

“Working in a non-English speaking country gave me a deeper understanding of how communication preferences can differ,” says Ryan, who was named The Canada-Japan Co-op Program Student of the Year for 2015-2016. “Now I feel more attuned to the communication styles of other people, and also have a better understanding of how to cater to these differences. I’ve developed more empathy for people who want to communicate their ideas but have to do it in a second language. I can relate to it!”

As a result of his co-op experience in Japan, Ryan’s view of his engineering degree is much broader: “It opened my eyes to aspects of international business and the importance of effective cross-cultural communication. I'd love to have a career in the future that would give me international opportunities to build on the communication skills that I developed in Japan.”

There’s an enormous breadth of variety in the programs UBC offers its students to gain tangible real-world experience. Ryan Hirakida’s story is just one example of the kind of enriching, transformative learning experiences available to UBC students who want to deepen their experiential learning and take their careers in new directions.

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Watch Ryan talk about his first earthquake experience.

Engineering Co-op: Facts and Figures

Discover how the co-operative program, the largest of its kind in Western Canada, performed in 2015-16.



jobs posted



student applications submitted



jobs secured



of placements were international opportunities



the number of countries where Co-op students found work

Co-op Programs Across UBC

In 2015-2016, the Co-operative Education program had over 5,000 annual work terms available in various programs.


Exploring beyond the comfort of a known geographic border opens up more than new vistas, tastes and smells — it opens up the world to students and at UBC, that’s when new thinking leads to ideas that can change the world.

Ryan Hirakira

Student, Integrated Engineering, Specialization in Transportation Engineering, Faculty of Applied Science.

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Story Credits

Special thanks to our story partners: Ryan Hirakida, Integrated Engineering student, Faculty of Applied Science; Jenny Reilly, Director of Co-op and Professional Development in the Faculty of Applied Science.

Team credits: Communications & Marketing — Cindy Connor, Online Producer; Margaret Doyle, Digital Storyteller; Michael Kam, Web Developer; Adrian Liem, Manager, Digital Communications; Mark Pilon, Communication Designer; Jamil Rhajiak, Communications Coordinator; Laura Stobbe, Communication Designer; Aida Viziru, Web Interaction Designer; Matt Warburton, Manager, Graphic Design; Alex Van Tol, Writer; David Leidl, Copy Editor.

Published: September 2016