Willa Brennais SEAS'21

Students in Seoul

Creating Connections While Abroad

Willa Brenneis SEAS'21

"A study abroad experience is blanketed in a sense of adventure, as you are in an unfamiliar place with few expectations and the complete freedom to try new things."

Above all, studying abroad allowed me to engage in activities I never would have had the time, or the courage, to do while on the Columbia campus. A study abroad experience is blanketed in a sense of adventure, as you are in an unfamiliar place with few expectations and the complete freedom to try new things. This sense of adventure defined my experience at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), where I spent my sophomore spring.

The experience that stands out to me as emblematic of my desire to try new things was participating in the school-wide annual hackathon at HKUST. I had never participated in a hackathon before, where you are asked to build a prototype or program to solve a given business problem. I registered for the event with fellow exchange students in the spirit of stepping out of my comfort zone. This hackathon ended up being one of the best memories from my time in Hong Kong, as my team and I built a prototype of a fried-chicken vending machine in under 48 hours. After presenting to a panel of judges and restaurant industry experts, our design was crowned the champion of the hackathon.

In the span of a hectic 48 hours, we created a frankly ridiculous product, but had a blast selling it. This spirit of whimsy and adventure has followed me back to Columbia, where I joined new clubs and explored new areas of the city. The hackathon has also benefitted me in searching for internships, as interviewers love hearing about how I was able to work together with such a diverse team and create a successful solution in such a limited time frame. Though I was nervous signing up for the hackathon, it ended up being one of the best choices I made while at HKUST. This parallels my decision to study abroad: though daunting, by far the best experience I have had through Columbia.