UW alum creates internships that link professional skills, Japanese language

More than 20 years ago, Jason Shin made a life-changing decision. Shin, then an engineering student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, decided to study Japanese.

“I knew if I had Japanese language skills as an engineer there would be many opportunities for getting a good job working on international projects,” Shin says.

Today, Shin runs his own company, Takamoto Electric, based in Tokyo, Japan. Shin’s company designs and produces LED lamp modules for many Japanese car models.

Last fall, the 45-year-old CEO returned to his alma mater, where he spoke with students about his career. Before leaving, he began making arrangements to help UW–Madison students advance on their own professional paths.

Through the International Internship Program (IIP), he set up two internships – one focused on engineering and the other on office management and finance – with Takamoto Electric. In addition to professional and technical skills, Shin required his interns to have at least four semesters of Japanese language instruction.

“Since learning Japanese at UW helped me so much in my career, I wanted to give back to the students studying Japanese and guide them to good career paths,” he says.

For two months this summer, Shin’s company will host the first two interns from UW–Madison, Matthew Reagan and Elisa Yanagihashi, in Tokyo. They also will accompany Shin to Shanghai, China – where the company’s products are manufactured – and to meet with potential customers in Japan.

“Creating internships is a wonderful way for successful UW–Madison alumni to give back to their alma mater and support current students,” says Maj Fischer, IIP director. “We are delighted to be working with Jason Shin to offer opportunities that allow students to combine their professional studies and language skills.”

Path leads to UW–Madison

Born in Korea, Jason Shin came to the United States with his family when he was 12. The family settled in Milwaukee, where Shin attended middle and high school.

“I didn’t know any English so I just went to school and picked it up,” he says. He became a U.S. citizen when he was high school senior.

“As new immigrants who spoke no English, we weren’t very comfortable financially,” Shin says. “I knew that the only way out of being a poor minority is to excel in academics.”

Financial considerations weighed heavily in his decision to attend UW–Madison – “I chose the best school in my own state” – and to major in engineering.

“I wanted to get a good-paying job after graduation so that I could pay my school debt. Besides, I was good in math and interested in how things were made and worked,” he says.

Through his college years, his financial struggles continued. He recalls, “I worked at factories in Milwaukee every summer and saved every dollar for the school year.”

After graduation, Shin set out to fulfill his dream of one day running his own automotive technology and international trading company.

“After working for major companies – Caterpillar, Pioneer Electronics, Motorola, Bose, and Philips in Sheboygan, Detroit, Japan, Boston, Los Angeles and San Jose – for 15 years and gaining the necessary skills and network in engineering, marketing, sales, and manufacturing, I had the opportunity to start my own company in 2006,” he says. “I never thought that it would be in Japan.”

Since its inception, Takamoto Electric’s annual revenues have grown from $1 million in 2006 to $10 million in 2012.

Mindful of his own path, Shin, 45, now sees himself well-positioned to give current students a boost up their career ladders by offering overseas internship opportunities.

“I was clueless when I graduated in 1991, but my interns will be well prepared,” he says. “They will get to know exactly what goes on in the real world working for a technology company with overseas manufacturing. My company is small, but it works exactly like Apple. They will get a good idea on what to expect in the future.”

Linking engineering, language

Matt Reagan, the student selected for the engineering internship, is a sophomore from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, majoring in biomedical engineering and Japanese.

“I was attracted to this internship because it ties together my two intended majors perfectly,” Reagan says. “I will be able to learn a lot about engineering while being immersed in the Japanese language and culture. I am extremely excited to gain skills in various aspects of engineering, like design and communication, and learning how to interact with the Japanese engineering and business culture.”

He became interested in Japanese language and culture before he came to UW–Madison.

“I started studying Japanese in high school because my older brother studied it in high school, and I thought the characters in his homework looked fun to draw. My teacher, Hiroko Nagai, from Eau Claire Memorial High School, did a great job teaching and encouraging my class. After my senior year she took our Japanese class on an awesome trip to Japan, where I fell in love with the people and the culture.”

That trip – to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima – was Reagan’s first and, thus far, only experience abroad. But his upcoming internship isn’t the first time Reagan has seen his two majors come together.

“I work in a stem cell research lab for Lou Gehrig’s disease,” he says. “The PI (principal investigator) of my lab is Japanese and he collaborates with a Japanese lab. One of the researchers from the Japanese lab came to Madison, and I was able to show him some methods that we use for research. This experience made me very interested in learning more about what Japanese engineers and researchers are doing and how we can learn from them.”

Exploring family heritage

For Elisa Yanagihashi, of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, the finance/office management internship will enable her to return to Tokyo, where she was born.

“After moving to Wisconsin when I was about 6 years old, we used to visit family and friends every summer; however, since starting school at UW-Madison, I have not had time to go back to Japan. This summer will be my first time back in about three years,” says Yanagihashi, a junior majoring in economics and international studies. She also is pursuing a certificate in global health.

“I decided to study the Japanese language at the college level because of my family heritage,” she explains. “I really want to be able to read and write the language fluently as well as be able to speak it, so I decided to study Japanese at Madison.”

She also sees her Japanese studies as a good supplement to her major. She adds, “To someday live and work in Japan, embracing the culture, is a dream of mine.”

Yanagihashi saw the internship with Takamoto Electric as an opportunity to make her dream closer to reality.

“The fact that Mr. Shin was a UW graduate himself and started his own company combining the Japanese language and his area of study was the most attractive aspect of this internship,” she says. “From this internship, I would like to gain a better understanding of the inner workings of a transnational business, and I hope to strengthen my Japanese language skills. “

UW–Madison alumni who might be interested in hosting internships may contact Michelle Kern Hall, IIP assistant director, at (608) 261-1017, kernhall@international.wisc.edu.

— by Kerry G. Hill