A Journey of Transformation: From Mayberry to Marunouchi to the NC Japan Center

Stephen Sumner (BSIE ’96), now the Director of the NC Japan Center, embarked on a transformative journey from a rural North Carolina high school to becoming a successful industrial engineer. His story is a testament to resilience, the power of education and the impact of international experiences.

Early Aspirations and Choosing NC State

Sumner, a self-proclaimed “science and math kid” in high school, had a clear goal of becoming an engineer. Applying to only one college, he chose NC State and initially enrolled as an aerospace engineering major. However, the path took an unexpected turn.

“I was accepted and came in as an aerospace engineering major, but soon realized it was not what I expected,” he shared. His pivotal moment came when he had the opportunity to intern in Japan as a manufacturing engineer over the summer. The experience resonated with him, leading to a change in his major to industrial engineering (IE), where he thrived and never looked back.

Transitioning to Big University Life

Coming from the small town of Mount Airy (affectionately known as Mayberry from the Andy Griffith Show), where the student population was a minuscule fraction of NC State’s, Sumner initially felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of people. Financial challenges added to the stress, as his parents declined to provide income information for FAFSA. Despite these obstacles, he found support from individuals like Bill Babcock and Phyllis Mohr, who helped him navigate the difficulties of the first year. Reflecting on his transition, Sumner said, “A story like mine could not have happened anywhere except NC State.”

Stephen Sumner speaking to the Advanced Japanese FLJ 401 class
Stephen Sumner speaking to the Advanced Japanese FLJ 401 class

The Impact of Industrial and Systems Engineering

Despite the teasing of industrial engineers as “Imaginary Engineers,” Sumner asserts the value of the IE degree. His background in industrial engineering equipped him with skills crucial for business leadership, efficiency, optimization and understanding the intricacies of manufacturing processes.

His career path, from Intel Corp to Entegris, Inc., was a testament to the breadth of disciplines ISEs need to master. Sumner’s ability to articulate complex materials science concepts in Japanese was pivotal in securing a critical patent for his company during a final appeal at the Japan Patent Office.

Life-Changing International Experiences

International experiences at NC State were transformative for Sumner. Two summer internships in Japan shaped him as an engineer and broadened his perspectives, challenging his beliefs and biases. The experiences abroad became a foundation for his subsequent 15 years living and working in Japan.

“I now have two countries that I call my own, two cultures and sets of wisdom to draw upon, and twice as many friends and people I love in my life,” he reflected. “All because I dared to look beyond my own borders and had NC State there to provide opportunities.”

Sumner enjoying traditional Japanese "amazake" at the Japan Center's "Otsukimi-kai"
Sumner enjoying traditional Japanese “amazake” at the Japan Center’s “Otsukimi-kai”

Returning to NC State as the NC Japan Center Director

Sumner left his corporate career in 2019 to seek a meaningful opportunity. His experience with the Caldwell Fellows and tutoring high school students led him to a role as an academic advisor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. However, he accidentally discovered the open NC Japan Center’s director position, which sparked a deep personal connection, prompting him to apply.

His dedication to the NC Japan Center stemmed from its impact on his origin story. His goals include:

  • Raising the center’s visibility.
  • Fostering academic pipelines to Japanese companies in North Carolina.
  • Facilitating economic development activities with Japanese enterprises in the Old North State. 

A Career Devoted to Supporting Students

Sumner’s desire to change lives fueled his post-corporate career shift to higher education. He aims to introduce students to new worlds and ideas, increasing their chances of transformative experiences. “I want to increase students’ chances of having those life-changing experiences they could have never even dreamed for themselves,” he expressed.

Sumner with Governor Roy Cooper and a JETRO delegation
Sumner with Governor Roy Cooper and a JETRO delegation

Advice for Current ISE Students

Sumner advises current ISE students to understand the meaning and principles of their coursework, think cross-disciplinaryly, and seek help when needed. He encourages them to be patient and grateful for the support they receive and emphasizes the importance of using that help to shape their outcomes.

Full Circle Gratitude

Sumner expresses deep gratitude for his role as the Director of the NC Japan Center, a full circle moment central to his origin story. He hopes to inspire students to embark on adventures that NC State made possible for him. Open to meeting students interested in opportunities in Japan, Sumner remains committed to supporting the next generation of leaders.

To learn more about the NC Japanese Center, read the Office of Global Engagement’s article, NC State Global Welcomes New NC Japan Center Director.