Internship opens door for FED employee

Far East District
Published July 8, 2019
Benjamin Ellis,  Project Engineer, Central Resident Office, U.S Army Corps of Engineers, Far East District

Benjamin Ellis, Project Engineer, Central Resident Office, U.S Army Corps of Engineers, Far East District

When I signed up for the Pathways internship program in September of 2014, I expected to expand my horizons and skillset, but as my plane landed in South Korea for a two-year tour, I quickly learned that this wouldn’t be an ordinary internship experience.  But what I never expected is that I would gain so much more than just experience as a result of working at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Far East District (FED) in Korea.

One of my first introductions to the FED staff was through my sponsor, a fellow intern who helped me with on-boarding and getting an apartment.  Our home office during our internships was Osan Air Force Base’s Central Resident Office, located just outside a community boasting some excellent Korean food and unique shopping experiences. Throughout the two-year program, I met over 20 employees who first joined USACE through the intern program. I decided within the first few months that I intended to do the same.

The goal of the internship was to learn as much about USACE as possible. The program was successful. I spent my first six months shadowing project engineers and construction representatives at the construction office. By my last three months, I was working as a full-fledged project engineer.  The middle fifteen months were my rotation months. The rotations are what gave me a unique view of the entire Corps, and helped shape me into successful member of the team. I was amazed and how much the organization was willing to invest in developing my skillsets.

I spent weeks to months rotating to almost every department within FED. I helped organize the Paperless Contract File at Contracting Division, ran energy-load analyses at Design Branch, corresponded with architectural engineering design firms alongside our design managers, and helped in little ways at Geotech, Environmental, and Tech Review. In addition to rotating through FED, USAG Humphreys Department of Public Work’s Master Planning section took me in for three months. My final rotation was also my longest; five months with Programs & Project Management Division. My most memorable experiences while working with FED’s Project Managers was participating in a design charrette at Kunsan Air Force Base and sitting in on a negotiation for a contract Termination for Default. During the rotation, I saw projects at every stage of the project life-cycle.

While the practical experience at each department was helpful, the real value of the rotations was meeting people. At each division, I was briefed on how the division fit into FED’s mission; how each branch helps deliver engineering solutions in Korea in order to secure the U.S. and our allies. It quickly became clear that due to the scale of FED’s operations it would take many years to truly understand the internal processes of each division. To work as part of a large organization like FED, I learned it is far better to know who knows what. The rotations gave me those networking opportunities. Knowing who to ask for help made transitioning to a GS-11 project engineer at the end of my internship, smooth. 

Outside of work, I was able to explore Korea. I had never been before, but I had heard all about how Korea is a country for the progressive and tech-savvy. Technology is integrated into daily life far more than in the U.S.  Korea is also one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It was easy and cheap to travel from Osan Air Force Base to Seoul by either charter bus ($4 to sit for a 45-minute trip) or train ($2 to stand for a 1-hour trip). Besides spending time in Korea’s famous capital city, I traveled extensively around the peninsula, to include a trip to the northern border – the famous DMZ. I spent weekends at Sokcho beach on the east to learn surfing. I rode Korea’s high-speed train to Busan in the south to experience their famous street food. And I took multiple trips to the various mountain ranges scattered around Korea to hike, rock-climb, and camp with friends. Everywhere, even at the top of Korea’s tallest mountain on Jeju Island, I maintained a strong 4G connection with my inexpensive, unlimited-data cellular plan.

Looking forward, I intend to stay in Korea as long as I can. Not only did I gain well-rounded work experience, but I met my future Korean wife shortly after arriving in 2015. We married three years later in 2018. If I’m required to return back to the continental United States as a result of the “five-year rule,” which rotates staff back to the U.S., typically five years into an assignment, we intend to come back as soon as possible. But I’ll be putting in for a waiver for sure! The country and FED employees make Korea a wonderful place to work. State-side, it’s not hard to find scores of people dissatisfied with their job. I honestly don’t see that at FED. I feel extremely lucky to be part of an incredible team. The internship has been nothing but positive. It gave me everything I needed to jumpstart my career with USACE. The free housing and meeting my wife were nice too.