“Only liberal arts majors study abroad.” “Most programs don’t have classes that count towards my major.” “I might not graduate on time if I study abroad.” “The academic rigor of courses offered abroad falls short of the classes I would take in America.” “There are no benefits for STEM majors who study abroad.” … The excuses for STEM majors not to study abroad abound. I knew that I wanted to study abroad, but these negative ideas kept creating doubt in my mind. After an amazing experience as an engineering student abroad at University College London, I can undeniably tell you that you can and should study abroad as a STEM major. Here are seven reasons why studying abroad might be one of the best choices that you make as a STEM student.
1) Broaden Your Academic Worldview
Many students at my home institution think that studying abroad will hold them back academically, but my experience has shown me that different teaching styles have actually helped me learn in a broader context. The engineering courses I took at UCL included Power Electronics and Control Systems, both upper division. These classes revolved around lectures and a final exam as well as a couple labs. In contrast to my American classes, there were no weekly problem sets or assignments. I realized early on that I had to adjust to this new framework to effectively learn the material and ultimately perform well on my exams. Most universities outside of America require students to motivate themselves, which aligns more closely with working in the real world. Solving some of the biggest problems requires a wide mindset to think outside the box as well as drive to work towards a goal, tools which studying abroad can offer.
2) Become More Adaptable
The tech industry moves faster than any other, which requires that STEM graduates adapt to different situations. Living in a different country with new customs, cultures, and standards forces you to adjust quickly. Although London was pretty similar to many of the big cities in the US, I had never lived alone in a city before and lots of little things were completely foreign to me. Locals would yell at me if I stood on the left side of an escalator or walked too slowly on the sidewalk, and I quickly learned the unspoken rules of living in London. Even though the US and England speak the same language, I encountered many different terms and phrases, like “rubbish bin” instead of “trash can”, that forced me to modify my vocabulary. I now notice details much quicker and change my behavior accordingly. This ability transfers well to the fast-paced culture of the tech industry, where adaptability and flexibility are necessary.
3) Understand the Impact of Your Work Globally
Studying abroad helped me contextualize my potential contributions to the electrical engineering discipline within an international context. New products and developments often have global impacts, and living in another country can help you understand the potential applications of your future work. Furthermore, the US exists in a bubble and sometimes ignores global issues. Heightening your awareness of things that go on across the globe can help you have a much stronger impact in the future. I witnessed many discussions and protests about Brexit during my time in London. Through conversations with locals and visits to Parliament, I developed a deeper understanding of global politics and the immense effects of political decisions.
4) Make Yourself More Marketable
Employers and graduate schools look favorably on study abroad experiences because they know the value of a global perspective. Including this on your resume immediately shows people that you have relevant skills, some of which I have mentioned in this post. I often describe my study abroad experience during interviews to show that I know how to work in diverse teams and consider my contributions in a global context. Many companies also have other branches or manufacturers in different countries, so they strongly value cross cultural communication. Whether you learn another language while abroad or simply learn how to interact with others within your discipline, studying abroad shows that you have a unique worldview.
5) Explore Other Interests
STEM students often become so focused on their major that they divert attention away from many of their other passions. While studying at UCL, I took a modern art history class that met in a different museum each week. Though I always enjoyed art, I never really appreciated the nuances of many well known paintings and sculptures. Enrolling in humanities courses led me to better appreciate other disciplines and dive deeper into my other interests.
6) Learn Intercultural Communication
Nearly all of the important discussions we have nowadays involve many cultures and disciplines. Communication is arguably the most important soft skill that many engineers and scientists lack. Interacting with others from different backgrounds and with varying perspectives taught me the value of eloquent communication. Studying abroad uniquely teaches you how to communicate across cultures, building the crucial skill of intercultural communication. I often faced challenges connecting with people that I initially thought I had little in common with. However, I soon realized that every individual has so much to offer and share, and having lots of great conversations abroad helped me master the skill of communication.
7) Develop a Network
During my time abroad, I met many different people from a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines. I now have a global network of peers and friends through which I feel connected across the world. Before leaving for London, I was scared that I would have a hard time meeting new people and building connections. Soon after I arrived, I realized that most people enjoy meeting others and sharing their perspectives. I pushed myself out of comfort zone to talk to locals and met some of the most amazing and unique people. Taking electrical engineering classes also gave me the opportunity to meet peers and professionals in my discipline, thus expanding my academic network. I had intriguing conversations with my professors about their research and just recently reached out to a UCL alumni during my job search. Since my semester abroad ended, I have continued to stay in touch with many of the people I met. These relationships will continue to keep me connected across the globe long into the future.