Alex Chen: Applied Learning


Alex Chen is the first UBC student ever to win the Canadian Association for Co-operative Education Student of the Year award for his work terms with the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD) Canada.  In light of his achievements, Alex reflected on how his academic, co-curricular, and work experiences have complemented each other to create a holistic and rewarding university education.

“I chose UBC over other universities because there were opportunities to join the Arts Co-op Program, to go on exchange, to conduct student research, and more,” Alex said about his decision to complete his International Relations major and French minor at UBC.

Alex was drawn to International Relations because of his passion for current events and news.  Eventually, he chose it for the supportive advisors, the flexibility, and the interdisciplinary nature of the program.  The technical knowledge that Alex learned through his major contributed to his role at DFATD, conducting research and analysis on North East Asia.

“Research, writing, and communications skills are important and I needed those skills to do my job, but there was also a technical aspect to it,” said Alex.  “Without a basic knowledge of politics and economics, I would have had a very steep learning curve.  If I hadn’t taken foundational courses in international trade or international organizations, for example, reading policies and synthesizing them into clear briefing materials would have been very difficult.”

Alex worked in a francophone division at DFATD, where he communicated entirely in French.   He attributed landing the position to his French minor, as well as Go Global experiences in Montreal and France, because they allowed him to practice and become comfortable with the language.

Working at DFATD also allowed Alex to identify limitations in his academic learning.

“While I was at DFATD, I realized that I didn’t actually know a lot about Canadian politics, natural resource development in the context of federal-provincial relations, and foreign aid,” Alex remarked. “I finished this work term aware of this learning gap, so when I planned my courses for this year I specifically looked for courses in development (FNH 355), Canadian politics (POLI 460A and POLI 303), and energy policy (POLI 404A).  Co-op offered me a way to recognize those gaps before I graduated, and I was able to improve my academic performance.”

During his time at UBC, Alex got involved with the UBC Debate Society, Model United Nations, and the Undergraduate Journal of International Affairs.  Through these experiences he connected with people with similar interests.  Alex also applied skills that he learned in the Debate Society to his academic and work life.

“In debate, you get a topic fifteen minutes before you need to make a 7-minute speech,” Alex said.  “You need to think quickly, decide what is relevant and what is not, and focus on the argument. It is a great training exercise, and many of the skills that I used in debate to formulate arguments were transferable when I wrote papers.”

Alex took advantage of many of the opportunities that UBC offers.  One piece of advice that he would tell his first year self would be to remain flexible and open to unexpected experiences.

“You have to recognize that opportunities will pop up and that everything will turn out fine,” Alex advised. “That is my new approach to my upcoming job search.”

Regardless of where Alex’s future career path takes him, he knows that he will be able to use the skills that he learned during his time as an undergraduate student.

“The amount of growth that occurred during my time here, and all of the skills that I learned, will be with me for the rest of my life.”

For more information about Alex, and his Canadian Association for Co-operative Education Student of the Year award, check out the article on the UBC Arts Co-op Website, or visit the blog of the Dean of the Faculty of Arts.