Communication Major Tests Her Limits Abroad
By Kylie Gray
May 21, 2018
As the plane hovered 13,000 feet above the Earth, Kathy Chen didn’t feel fear until the adventure-seeker beside her hurtled out. Moments later, she and her skydiving instructor were free falling as well, the countryside of Japan and a distant view of Mt. Fuji unfurling beneath them.
Over the previous few weeks — even as she worked long hours at her event planning co-op in Hong Kong — the Drexel senior and New York City native had spent her weekends traveling and testing her personal limits: paragliding in Taiwan, bungee jumping in South Korea, skydiving in Japan.
“With the act of going abroad, I was already outside of my comfort zone. I wanted to further expand that comfort zone and overcome my fears,” she says.
Chen, who is pursuing her BA in communication and MS in communication, culture and media at Drexel, says that bold approach translated to her professional life. Supported by a $10,000 grant from the Carl M. Freeman Foundation, she took on challenges as a project coordinator at Clearwater Communications Limited, a corporate event planning and marketing agency based in Hong Kong. She was the only student worker at the company, where her colleagues conversed in multiple languages and worked long hours.
She says, “I was inspired by the work ethic of my colleagues, their dedication, their motivation and their passion. They always said, ‘If you don’t love what you’re doing, then why do it?’”
Though she produced most of her work in English, Chen often collaborated with colleagues in their native Cantonese and Mandarin languages. She had background knowledge of Cantonese and had studied Mandarin at Drexel, but says she was initially “limited conversationally” due to the distinct Hong Kong dialect.
“In previous co-ops, I had focused on learning hard skills like Excel and marketing platforms, but in Hong Kong I learned soft skills, too,” says Chen. “I had to adjust to a very different working environment. I came out of the experience with more knowledge than expected — not only of the field, but also of the culture.”
As she navigated cultural and linguistic nuances, Chen helped plan and execute the company’s events for government officials and business leaders. A highlight of her co-op was organizing a multiday conference attended by 1,800 people from 57 countries.
“In a career sense, the experience opened my eyes to the fact that Hong Kong is a place I could see myself living and working,” she says. “One of my greatest assets is my energy level: I want to work in an upbeat, fast-paced environment — maybe not to the extreme of Hong Kong, but somewhere in Asia. I had never thought of living abroad prior to my co-op.”
As Chen returned to Drexel for her senior year, it wasn’t long before she was tapped to organize another huge event: the national conference of the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers. She had joined the organization two years prior to build leadership skills and make connections with her STEM counterparts. Never one to let expectations or labels hold her back, she became president of Drexel’s SASE chapter despite not having a STEM background.
“My larger goal with the role was to make sure that the rest of the executive team were themselves becoming leaders,” she says. “We created small teams within the group to focus on skills like creativity, public speaking and taking direction. Building their skillset through mentorship is a joy I didn’t know I had.”
Chen and her vice president successfully bid to host SASE’s northeast regional conference, which would require them to raise $60,000. Leading a team of eight Drexel students, Chen pounded the pavement to generate corporate sponsorships and support from organizations within Drexel — even inspiring President John Fry to make a video in support of their efforts. The team raised more than their goal and pulled off a successful event attended by roughly 500 people from over 30 colleges.
“I wrote a 90-page report that was the epitome of everything that I had learned — including writing a press release to the governor, learning the communication skills to talk to presidents and CEOs, and delegating roles to my teams. I learned that my greatest strength comes from building relationships with people,” she says.
She has continued to build her marketing and interpersonal skills as the public relations chair of SASE’s national division, training a team of students in crisis communication, and as a digital marketing intern at Drexel’s Office of Alumni Relations. As she finishes her dual degree, Chen says that her travels in Asia have led to her consider a digital marketing career in China.
“When I was in China, I realized the regional impact that the country has on its markets, and I wanted to learn more about it. If I understood the Chinese market, it would be applicable to a lot of countries in the region,” she says.
Her fearless attitude will help her make her mark in her field as she has at Drexel’s Department of Communication, which awarded her a $2,000 merit-based scholarship following a nomination by a professor. She encourages future communication majors to embrace all that Drexel and the department have to offer — whether that means jumping out of a plane, or jumping at the opportunity to try something new.
“A lot of my unexpected encounters with success came from being curious. I did have long-term goals based on what I wanted to get out of my degree, but my experiences were mostly driven by curiosity,” she says. “The field is so flexible — it’s important to come into it with an open mind.”
Kathy’s Travel Tips
1. Choose only three “must-dos” in each country. “If your schedule is too structured, it won’t allow the flexibility to explore.”
2. Pack light. “Try to pack one pair of shoes that will work for all occasions.”
3. Get comfortable with public transportation. “Google Maps and Uber don’t work in all countries!”
4. Translate important information. “Have emergency contact information and addresses in English, as well as the local language.”