Student 'Bridges' Cultural Gap on Scholarship Trip to Japan

Published 11.28.2001

Student News

While many college students enjoyed the final days of their summer break, Pennsylvania College of Technology student Michael S. Sebergandio was taking a crash course in high-tech bridge-building techniques and Japanese culture.

Sebergandio, a Welding and Fabrication Engineering Technology major from Lancaster, toured Japan as a guest of the Matsuo Bridge Company, Ltd., Osaka, which provided him with a $2,500 scholarship. He also received a $1,000 grant award from the American Welding Society Foundation.

Over a two-week period in August, Sebergandio viewed the world's longest suspension bridge and other record-breaking spans, observed the highly automated processes that have earned the Japanese accolades as cutting-edge bridge-builders, and steeped himself in Japanese culture, marveling at the order possible in an island nation of 125 million people.

"I was impressed by the organization," said Sebergandio, a Dean's List student each semester at Penn College. "It's so crowded, yet everything is very organized."

The order was evident even in the factory facility where Sebergandio was shown the high-tech, automated manufacturing methods for which the Japanese are revered. Welding flux was swept away almost as soon as it hit the floor, Sebergandio said.

"It's very clean that's the first thing I noticed," he said. "You could work there with new shoes and not get them dirty."

Another cultural shock was watching the factory employees begin their day with exercise to music, and Sebergandio concedes he wasn't accustomed to eating fish and tofu soup for breakfast, or octopus entrees for dinner.

While the cultural and language barriers were substantial, Sebergandio never felt unwelcome, saying his Japanese hosts were cordial and eager for him to enjoy his stay. Part of the trip was reserved for touring the country and taking in the sights, like temples, shrines and "bullet" trains.

"I was hesitant at first, because it's so far away and the language barrier but once I was there, I really enjoyed it," he said.

A special treat for Sebergandio, who would like to work in the bridge industry after graduation, was viewing 25-30 bridges, including the world's longest suspension span: the 12,828-foot Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, opened in 1998. "They have a lot of record-breaking bridges there," he explained.

Sebergandio learned about the Matsuo and AWS scholarships through James W. Fox, head of the Welding Department at Penn College. Fox noted that William Johnson, a Penn College alumnus working at Hempfield High School in Lancaster, helped influence Sebergandio's decision to attend Penn College, accompanying him here twice on campus visits before he enrolled.

Sebergandio said he gained valuable knowledge from the Matsuo scholarship experience.

"It made me much more open to new technologies and how they can help," he said. "In Japan, if something is outdated, it's gone."

Fox praised the exchange of ideas made possible by the program, saying it will benefit the College, too. He said Sebergandio will present a lecture to his fellow welding students sometime this semester, apprising them about what he learned during his stay in Japan.

"We are going to gain from this," Fox said. "It's going to better us, too."