IT WAS a hectic seven days packed with lectures, company visits and cultural activities, but none of the seven undergraduates from Malaysia and Hong Kong complained; instead they wished their study tour to Seattle in the United States, had been much longer!
And who would blame these winners of the HSBC Young IT Entrepreneur Awards 2003 for wanting to linger just a little longer in this vibrant city of views?
From specially arranged visits to Microsoft, Boeing and the Seattle Times to meeting successful entrepreneurs and doing some exploring on their own, they had their days packed, taking full advantage of daylight till 9pm.
Remarked Malaysian team member, Edah Chong, just as everyone had adjusted to the 15-hour time difference, it was time to head home.
''It has been an amazing experience and we have learnt so much. I don't think any of us will ever forget our time here!'' she enthused.
From the moment the group arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, it was a whirlwind of activities. After clearing immigration and customs and a head count winners Edah, Eileen Tey Yee Lin and Soh Lin Che, HSBC Bank Malaysia advertising and research officer Goh Sue-Ann and moi we were whisked off to the Hansee Austin Theatre at the University of Washington for a welcoming ceremony.
After a warm welcome from the university's staff, including Dr Tuen-yu Lau who had designed the study tour, it was time for food. Ah, what heavenly seafood, fresh from the Pacific!
After that, the group, including six from Hong Kong, was taken on a brief tour of the university campus. By this time, the effect of the food and time difference was making everyone drowsy. Even the beautiful campus with its red-brick buildings set amid lush greenery could not be fully appreciated.
Thankfully, we were soon bundled into the 15-seater van, which would be our mode of transport for the duration of our stay, and driven to University Inn. Mark Au, a recent business graduate from the university, had volunteered to be our chauffeur and impromptu tour guide.
Although we had to make an early start the next day we had to visit the university's health centre since we had flown in from Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) affected countries it did not deter us from checking out the ''The Ave'', a street near the university filled with shops and restaurants. Curiosity overcame fatigue.
After our temperatures were taken at the health centre the next day, we headed for our first lecture in the Communications Building. This would be our morning routine.
Our one-hour lunch break proved an eye-opener with most of us struggling with the huge portions of soup, salads, sandwiches and pizza. Big country, huge servings.
After lunch, we made our way to the Seattle Times newspaper office located downtown.
''I'm excited as I have never visited a newspaper office before. It should be fun seeing how everything works, '' said Eileen.
As usual all of us were armed with cameras, ready to document our every move.
''I am taking as many pictures as possible as I can't wait to share my experiences with my family and friends back home,'' said Edah.
Seattletimes.com managing editor Stanley Farrar briefed us about the newspaper before taking us on a tour of the newsroom. Seattle Times, Seattle's largest daily newspaper in Washington state and the largest Sunday circulation newspaper in the Northwest, has won seven Pulitzer Prizes, and is recognised for its in-depth, quality reporting and award-winning photography and design.
''We are the leading newspaper in the Northwest. We focus on the news in our local and state areas and always strive to reach our readers in new ways,'' he said.
The paper's online staff share the same newsroom with the rest of the editorial team, said Farrar, because ''we want to be seamless''. Farrar also answered many questions from the group.
After our exciting visit to the newspaper office, Mark took us back to the university. Dr Lau had arranged for the undergraduates to be given a briefing on how to use a digital media lab.
''The lab session was very interesting as we were taught how to put a video online,'' Eileen said. The group wished they could have had more time at the lab.
After returning to the inn, we made a beeline for our newly discovered shops at The Ave which remained a hive of activity till pretty late.
There was a sense of excitement in the air as we finished lectures on the second day; we were to visit the Microsoft headquarters. After the 30-minute drive to Redmond where the company is located, we discovered we had arrived too early for our appointment and had time to drive around the area or campus.
''Words can't describe how I feel! Our team is so excited about our visit to Microsoft. We have been looking forward to it so much. Computers play a big part in our lives and it is like a dream come true to be able to say I have been to Microsoft!'' Edah said excitedly.
Our host for the afternoon was Microsoft entertainment business development director Paul Campbell. He spoke to us about Microsoft's role in media and entertainment. He also explained about the Windows Media 9 Series and streaming.
This was when Edah and her team became very excited streaming (sound that is played as it arrives) was something that could be used to enhance their idea of setting up a karaoke satellite channel. They asked numerous questions and Campbell was most informative.
''We think streaming is very relevant to our project since it involves music,'' said Edah.
To illustrate what he was saying, Campbell's colleague Harry Goodwin demonstrated what could be done on a computer.
And to cap a most memorable visit to Microsoft, we were given free software and a pen as mementos.
The visit to the Boeing factory in Everett was an eye-opener; unfortunately, we were not allowed to bring in any cameras or bags. We were told later that we would be on balconies overlooking the factory floor and they did not want us to drop anything that could damage the planes.
Since our guide explained the planes cost several hundred million dollars each, we could understand why everyone had to be careful inside the factory!
We were accompanied by Terry Leers who is from Boeing's Globalisation Services who had driven down to meet us at the university.
The visit began with a short video of the history of Boeing. After that we were led to a waiting bus that would take us to the actual factory which is recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest building in the world by volume. It is 13.3mil cubic metres as Boeing had to construct a building large enough to accommodate the world's largest jet airliner, the 747.
While we were in the factory, we saw a Singapore Airlines 747 cargo plane being fitted out. It certainly looked enormous from where we were standing!
Fun and sight-seeing
Our visit to Seattle was certainly blessed in that the weather (which tends to rain) held up while we were there. We enjoyed sunny days, which gave us time to explore our surroundings after our programme ended each day.
The group had time to explore the waterfront, downtown, university district as well as do some shopping. Eileen shared that besides buying souvenirs and chocolates for family and friends, all three girls from the Malaysian team bought jeans.
''We thought it was a good buy as we paid US$23 (RM87) for a pair of Levis jeans, a lot less than what we have to pay back home,'' she said.
Since Seattle is known as the coffee capital of the United States and is also home to Starbucks, everyone had to try the coffee. And even as we waited for our flight home, we were having our last cuppas.
There was also time to explore the original Starbucks located at Pike Place Market where members of the group bought souvenirs and tried the latte. However, everyone was disappointed that there was not enough time to explore the market before it closed for the day.
''We had read in a travel guide that fishmongers at Pike Place Fish pass the fish from person to person to fillet and pack for the customer. We wish we could have witnessed the sight,'' said Edah.
The market is a made up of historic buildings and open-air vendors' stalls selling fresh produce, flowers and seafood as well as many little shops. There is even a life-size bronze statue of a pig named Rachel in front of the market. On the group's free afternoon when no company visit had been arranged, there was time to visit the Space Needle and the Experience Music Project (EMP).
Described as a one-of-a-kind music museum, the EMP is dedicated to capturing and reflecting the essence of rock and roll, from its roots in jazz, soul, gospel, country and the blues, to its influence on hip hop, punk and other more recent genres. It was originally planned as a memorial to Seattle native Jimi Hendrix and is the brainchild of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
Edah said it was fun to look at the various exhibits and memorabilia on display as well as experience what it is like to perform onstage. Again no cameras were allowed so the students had to make do with a memorable visit inside.
Another highlight of the trip was our visit to the symbol of Seattle, the Space Needle, a 184-metre tower which offers wonderful views of Puget Sound, Mount Rainier, the Cascade and the Olympic Mountain Ranges and of Seattle. The group soaked up the sights and the sunset while dining at its revolving restaurant.
So much to see, learn and absorb in seven short days. No doubt, every member of the winning teams from Malaysia and Hong Kong will want to have another shot at the next HSBC Young IT Entrepreneur Awards if it brings them back to sleepless Seattle.
o More stories next week.
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