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Studying abroad. Sure, it sounds really fun and *~*enriching*~*, but what kind of student ACTUALLY studies abroad? Go ahead, you can take a second to guess. Just think of the first major that pops into your head when you think “study abroad.” I’ll admit, when I was an undergrad, I was under the impression that studying abroad was just for liberal art students, or business students, or someone majoring in, yanno, A FOREIGN LANGUAGE. But I was a health science student, pre-med. “STEM majors don’t study abroad,” or focus was to cram, crank out lab reports, and score internships. Or at least that’s the impression I had. BUT – with the knowledge I have now – I’m here to break that myth. STEM majors SHOULD study abroad. And they DO! I mean – I DID.
So if you’re a STEM student with the same thoughts I did, hello. Welcome. Put down your heavily caffeinated beverage and take a breather for a second. You’re going to want to read this. Don’t worry. Your programming script isn’t going anywhere. But, if for some reason you have to get back into lab, there is one thing I want you to take away today.
You CAN study abroad.
Sure, it might be a little more complicated than, say, a Spanish major where your class schedule would be the exact same whether at your home campus or at a university in Ecuador. But so what if it’s a little more complicated. YOU’RE A STEM MAJOR. Problem-solving is now one of your main character traits. You’ll figure it out.
What is STEM – and why wouldn’t they study abroad??
If you aren’t in STEM, let me first explain what STEM is, and why anyone would think their MAJOR, of all things, is the reason they might not be able to study abroad. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. It actually includes A LOT more majors too, like agriculture, computer science, health professions, physics, astronomy, statistics…like, a bunch of stuff. It’s a huge umbrella term.
And a lot of these majors have a more rigid schedule than liberal arts or business – there seemingly isn’t a lot of wiggle room to deviate from the standard college path. There are mandatory lab hours, and programming projects, and field studies, and data collection, and series upon series of courses that cannot be taken out of order.
But – don’t rule out STEM majors just yet.
Since we’re talking STEM, let’s break out some statistics. Out of ALL the students that study abroad, almost ~30% of them fall into one of the STEM categories! So I mean, yeah, 70% ARE liberal arts, business, social sciences, fine arts, or foreign languages…BUUUT still more than I would have expected! But again, STEM is broad. Some STEM programs, like math or computer science, may have more remote-abilities with less lab/bench work than say a chemical engineer, but that doesn’t make it a black and white line of who can and who can’t study abroad.
That said, there are some very valid concerns, so let’s address them.
Concern #1: Delayed graduation
STEM majors are especially prone to setting strict timelines for themselves. “I need to graduate by x-year so I can go on to do x-career by the time I am x-age.” And that’s not a bad thing, but it does put on blinders for opportunities that seemingly deviate from the plan. Or if you’re an engineering major with multiple internships that ALREADY push out your graduation, I understand not wanting to have it pushed out even more.
Studying abroad DOES take a chunk of time, and for STEM majors, it isn’t always a seamless transition. But hear me out.
It doesn’t necessarily mean you will HAVE to delay graduation.
Potential solution: Study abroad over school breaks
This is probably the easiest method to add in studying abroad without adding extra time to your graduation plan. If you want to take a full term, studying abroad during the summer is an option that practically every university offers. This is especially useful during the first two years of undergrad for STEM students, as the following years, the summers are generally packed with internships or lab work. But if you don’t have summer plans, or you were planning on taking classes anyway, TAKE THEM ABROAD!
If the summers won’t work for you, there are often shorter programs over winter break (typically 2-3 weeks) to even short 1-week immersion programs over Spring Break to learn a skill or practice the language.
Potential solution: Use it to take your GenED classes.
You know those 1 term classes everyone needs to take in order to graduate? To name a few, my undergrad general education requirements were a writing class, English literature, a couple of classes focused on culture, one class in the arts (music or visual), a communication/public speaking class. There are usually also GedED classes required such as history, language, economics, and natural sciences – but I had those course credit from passing AP tests in high school.
GedED classes typically make up ⅓ to up to ½ of your degree credits. Why not get them out of the way before you dive into you major-specific courses.
The great thing about GenED classes is that they are SO BROAD. So many classes (or even activities) done abroad can easily be applied toward your GenED requirements. For example, I studied abroad in France, and there was a painting class, music classes, and even a cooking class. All of those are easily applicable culture course credits – and you don’t even need to be good at the language. If you study abroad in a country that speaks your native language, you can take economics, politics, history, or…literally anything. You need to take all of these classes anyway, why not take them all during the same term with the Eiffel Tower visible from your studio window?
Concern #2: Inflexible schedule
STEM majors have notoriously inflexible class schedules. With so many math and science classes that build upon each other, sometimes there’s not an opportunity to take a term dedicated to JUST GenED to take abroad. I had two STRAIGHT years of sequential chemistry classes with a lab portion. I had a year of physiology and human anatomy with lab. Then there was that corkfork physics class with lab that was only a year but felt like an eternity.
If for some reason you can’t study abroad over the break, then trying to fit in a term abroad on an inflexible schedule can be…well, challenging. But I have some compromises.
Potential solution: Take online classes
If they’re available, it can definitely help keep you on schedule with your major classes while abroad. I was able to work in studying abroad by taking a combination of in-person and online classes while abroad, and I was surprised by all of the online options. It takes a little bit of planning, but it’s worth it.
I personally took upper-division ecology and environmental science while abroad, both online, but there were tons of options. A few options (even upper-division!) offered by my university were food science classes, nutrition, genetics, matrix methods, entomology, project and operations management (IE), systems engineering, practically anything dealing with micro and molecular biology, toxicology…literally the list is forever.
And if there MIRACULOUSLY happens to not be a class possible for you to take online, then there’s always the good ol’ fashion “research credit.” Yah. You set up a project with your professor to work on, have regular check-ins online, and bam – credit. Depending on the subject, it may take some coordination with your abroad university, but it’s an option too!
Potential solution: Take major classes in your native language
Okay, so maybe you HAVE to have a lab portion, or it just isn’t offered online. This goes back to the first concern of graduating on time when I mentioned taking GenED classes in your native language. Well, you can do the same with your degree classes too. Choose a program that goes to a country that speaks your language. For English and Spanish speakers, you have tons of options (from a Western standpoint).
Potential solution: Take major classes in that country’s language
Counterpoint – if you’re feeling confident in your language abilities, take your major classes in that country’s language. I’m not going to lie, this is hard. Especially for STEM majors. But also, a little easier (in my opinion), than say a business major.
After I finished my first two years of chemistry (Gen and Organic), my third year was inorganic, but it wasn’t a series. I just needed three classes, so that year I decided to study abroad. I decided to take inorganic chemistry in France – IN FRENCH. Surprisingly, the language was the least problematic barrier. You see, STEM subjects are very universal. The periodic table is the same in every language. Finding the area under a curve in Peru isn’t going to change the integral equation. Scientific words are similar enough to pick up on the idea, and you have numbers and equations and data to solidify your understanding.
I don’t know how to explain the stock market in French, but I can make dilutions no problem.
Taking your major classes in another language has its own set of challenges, but they ARE there.
STEM majors should study abroad – and they aren’t limited by language barriers.
Concern #3: No programs available
So you walk into your study abroad office, you sit down, and the advisor asks you what brings you in.
“I want to study abroad,” you say.
“Oh! Well we have tons of options! What is your major?”
If you experience this, don’t worry. It -unfortunately- happens. In fact, that exact situation happened to me, sans me taking agriculture. There were no study abroad pitches to my department. No flyers or posters in the STEM buildings. I was a double major/double minor STEM student, and I wasn’t expecting a completely effortless journey, but I certainly didn’t think to be met with –
The truth is – they had nothing. My schedule was too inflexible to JUST take immersive French classes. I needed science courses, upper-division, or studying abroad wouldn’t work. And I needed it to work. The advisor had no idea which classes in my major were available to me in their current study abroad programs. They couldn’t even narrow down a country, let alone which university abroad.
Potential solution: Make your own program!
The hard truth – as a STEM major, you’re -unfortunately- going to have to do a lot of the leg work. First, narrow down the country. Then, look up which universities offer classes you need (whether it’s in your native language or a foreign language you are work proficient in). THEN, it’s a lot more effort after that in contacting professors, creating your schedule, and even submitting copies of the lectures, homework, and projects to your home university so they can accurately assign credits.
You will literally be building your own study abroad program.
It’s daunting, sure, but you’re a freaking trailblazer. Also, what a bomb bullet on your resume. ALSO – YOU GET TO STUDY ABROAD. Swish swish.
Concern #4: Costs
Studying abroad is expensive!!
Yeah. Sure, it can be. But if you live in North America, it’s expensive anyway. Studying abroad can sometimes be triple the amount of regular tuition, depending on the school/university, the country, or the program.
Potential solution: Look at the university’s price tag
For example, out of the French schools, there was the option to study in Paris (the most expensive), Lyon, and Poitiers (the least expensive).
So I went with the University of Poitiers program.
For housing, there were roughly also three options. Staying with a host family (the most expensive), or getting my own apartment, or staying in the international dorm (the cheapest).
You best believe I got the cheapest dorm option too (170 euros a month compared to about 500 euros for a host family). The cost is on a scale.
Potential solution: SCHOLARSHIPS BABY!!
Aside from that, there’s always the tried-and-true SCHOLARSHIP ROUTE! For my undergraduate degrees, I had earned over $100,000 USD in scholarship money to pay for my education. It was a lot of essay writing, video making, interviewing, networking, and cramming for my 4.7 GPA in high school. LIKE A LOT.
But you don’t have to be a genius, by any means. I mean, I literally earned a 1k scholarship for writing a poem. You just gotta know where to look.
It includes scholarships tailored to pre-med students to public health administration majors. After you apply to those, be sure to check out this other post by my good friend Gabby from PacksLight, which is a crazy comprehensive list of general scholarships, grants, and opportunities applicable for your study abroad program.
Potential solution: Or maybe it’s not that out of reach as you thought…
I have a slightly different experience than most, because I was an out-of-state student so my tuition (at that time) was about $33,000 USD a year. Compared to about $9000 USD a year for in-state students. Coincidentally, studying abroad was also about $33,000 USD a year. SOOO IF YOURE AN OUT OF STATE STUDENT, IT MIGHT NOT EVEN BE THAT DIFFERENT FINANCIALLY.
If you do an internship abroad, you might even get paid!
Concern #5: Loss of potential skill and experience opportunities
This sentence alone will make any STEM student quiver in their lab jacket.
“BUT WHAT ABOUT MY SKILL BUILDING??”
It’s actually a very serious career choice. Science undergraduates with no lab experience or field study RARELY get accepted into the graduate program of their choice. Engineering graduates with no internship or workplace exposure RARELY get a job in their field at a competitive rate, if they end up in their field (or working AS an engineer) at all.
STEM is all about the skills.
So when forced to choose between an internship at home, guaranteed to teach them new and useful skills, and studying abroad…
You can probably understand why only 30% of study abroad students are one of the DOZENS upon dozens of possible STEM majors.
Potential solution: Take an internship abroad!
I briefly mentioned this in a few of the previous sections, but there ARE internships and opportunities abroad, even for STEM majors. I have a few of them listed in my Scholarships and Opportunities for STEM Majors blog post, but sometimes you need to get creative.
Look up the abroad university’s labs and reach out to lab’s PI. Research companies abroad that have internship opportunities – and then reach out to them too. You still get your skill-building – but in another country!
However, if you are already established in a lab or internship rotation at your home university, I understand this can be difficult to deviate away from for a study abroad program. In that case, refer back to one of my first bullets and look for a program within your first two years.
Alright, I GET IT. It’s possible. But wait…WHY?
So I’ve talked you to death with some possible solutions to common STEM major concerns towards studying abroad. It seems like a lot of work, eh?
I’m not gonna lie. It is.
But what’s the cost-reward analysis?
There are six very beneficial reasons as to why STEM majors should study abroad. I wrote a more comprehensive post on why STEM majors should study abroad and the benefits here, but if you want the quick and easy bits, here it is.
- You will stand out in your application. I mean, you saw that list of concerns. How many other applicants to your grad school or entry job is going to have studying abroad on their resume?
- Learn a foreign language. It’s one of the best little sparkles you could have on your resume. Being multilingual is a GEM, especially in STEM where so much of the industry rotates around a global market or international collaboration.
- Network in the industry globally. Speaking of that – networking internationally in STEM is ESPECIALLY NECESSARY. There are labs and companies all over the world. You want to make a name for yourself? It helps to have industry and academic contacts from around the world backing you up.
- Global industry experience. Speaking of that AGAIN, what better way to get into the workforce than to dive in head first – in another country? See how the industry works in a different country, under varied laws, regulations, and even workplace culture.
- Learn to work in a diverse environment. There is probably no field as diverse as STEM. You study abroad experience will teach you to build intercultural skills and help you navigate dynamic spaces effectively, and with understanding and insight.
- The overall positive impact of studying abroad. That’s it. That’s the bullet. You grow as a person, as a student, and as a global citizen. The end.
STEM Majors Should Study Abroad – so WHERES THE PITCH??
By now, you’re probably sick to death of hearing me scream that STEM majors should study abroad. You have all the facts about the benefits of studying abroad, as well as some solutions to the most common concerns STEM majors have towards studying abroad.
You have everything you need on your end.
But what can schools do?
Personally, I already knew I was going to study abroad, so I guess I didn’t need the information easily presented to me. I was going to make it happen one way or another. But if I didn’t already know? If I didn’t know studying abroad was an option for a STEM major?
It ain’t easy on your own
Study abroad advisors and programs need to step up. They really do. They need to stop neglecting STEM students and show them their global opportunities as well – and with equal gusto as the more commonly seen majors in study abroad. When I studied abroad, I was in my “third” year of undergrad.
But I was also only 19 years old.
I didn’t even know how to do my taxes.
My study abroad experience WAS SO MUCH HARDER than it needed to be. BECAUSE I DIDN’T HAVE HELP. I had to research which option was best for me. I had to reach out to professors myself. It was stressful, and confusing, and I wasn’t even old enough to go to a bar.
Study abroad programs: Do better for your STEM students. Supply the students with the information, support, and options available to them, and they will do it.
STEM majors should study abroad – what are you waiting for??
If you have any other questions or concerns about studying abroad as a STEM major, drop them in the comments below! Or if any of you have studied abroad as a STEM major, how was your experience? Did you take any STEM classes abroad? How was it?