It’s Possible to Study Abroad if You’re a STEM Major: Just ask me!

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I declared my computer science major sophomore year. When I was assigned my advisor, she asked about my plans to study abroad, if I had any, since it can be difficult to fit studying abroad into a STEM major’s college experience. I was unsure but kept the thought in the back of my mind throughout the year. It wasn’t until the end of summer before my junior year when I seriously started thinking about going abroad. I began planning with our study abroad office during the fall semester and went to Australia the following semester. A lot of people think that studying abroad is a pipe dream if you are a STEM major. This is far from the truth, as I am an example.

Planning

Gettysburg’s study abroad office encourages everyone to consider studying abroad. If students in STEM majors want to go, it is usually easier to go once you have most of your main courses out of the way since electives are more likely to count toward your classes abroad. Even if you are unsure of what you want to major in, talking to your advisor and study abroad office can help you line up your future to fit in a study abroad experience.

During my semester at James Cook University, I was able to take two classes to count toward my computer science degree back home! A couple other study abroad students that I met on campus were also STEM majors and took one or two classes that were counting toward their majors as well. Obviously, it depends on your home university for what classes you can and cannot take abroad, but there are many students who are able to fit multiple core classes into their schedules abroad.

Why Australia?

JCU is one of the top universities in the world for marine biology, so most of the study abroad students I met there were marine bio majors. However, there were quite a few people who had other majors, STEM or otherwise. Most computer science majors from Gettysburg tend to go to Europe, but I wanted to go somewhere warm. Australia has always been on my bucket list, so that narrowed my search a bit. One of my friends studied at JCU in Townsville and she had been sharing a lot of her experiences with me when she found out that I was interested in studying in Australia. Her anecdotes from her semester abroad convinced me to pick JCU.

Academics

The biggest difference for me while abroad was definitely the academics. The academic rigor was very different than what I was used to at home; I felt that it was a lot easier. There is a large focus on independent work with very few homework assignments to fill in. Most of my classes had two assignments and a final…that was it. So the professors are expecting you to do work outside of class to keep up with the material, but I felt that the rigor I was used to back home at Gettysburg prepared me well. I did not need to study that much; the quantity of the material covered over the course of the semester felt smaller than what I would cover back home, but I think that is mostly because we didn’t have weekly homework assignments and projects to do. I was a bit nervous while preparing for my finals since the Aussies have strict procedures for final exams (think of the SAT, where you can’t have bags, water bottles with labels, etc.), but I was well prepared for them.

The class schedules are different as well; I was used to 50 or 75-minute blocks of classes two to three times per week with labs meeting for three hours on average once a week, but my classes in Australia consisted of a weekly two-hour lecture and a practical or tutorial session that was more hands on/discussion based, depending on the class. Some of my friends were in lab-based science classes which had a two to four-hour lab meeting once per week in addition to their lecture. I preferred the shorter lectures that I was used to from home, but the lecturers usually gave ten-minute breaks after an hour which helped to split up the time.

The classes I took to count toward my major were not code intensive; their program is focused more on IT than coding, but I found the information to be helpful regardless. I was recently on a job interview that asked me about various network security concepts, which I was able to answer because I took a network security class! The lectures consisted of PowerPoint presentations that the lecturers gave, which I am not used to at home, and the presentations as well as lecture recordings are posted online, which was helpful when it was time to study for finals.

So, without long hours spent doing homework and projects, you definitely will have time to take advantage of being in a different country! It’s definitely worth it to travel, even if you’re just exploring your host city. The down time I had was a welcome break from the usual large workload I would experience at home, and I had a lot of fun exploring Queensland during the semester.

If you’ve ever thought about studying abroad, I highly recommend looking into it. Talk to your study abroad office and advisor; especially if you start planning earlier in your college career, your schedule will be more flexible. I made the decision to study abroad the semester before I went, which is fairly late for most people, but luckily I was still able to plan everything and have all of my classes in by the time I graduate this spring.

Laura Gessler is a student at Gettysburg College and studied abroad with IFSA at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia in 2017.

Article by Laura Gessler