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Study Abroad to Broaden Your Horizons

Last semester, 17 enterprising students from all four departments in the College of Engineering took advantage of the UMass Amherst Study Abroad Program to take courses in the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Spain, Israel, Australia, China, and the United Arab Emirates. Among these international students were civil engineering major Megan Rodgers and mechanical engineering major Igor Galis (pictured). Ask all these engineering students why they chose to study overseas and you’ll probably get 17 different answers.

But one common theme would be the one expressed by Megan, who studied in Baden-Württemberg, Germany.

“In my opinion, the main benefit of studying abroad is to be able to interact with other cultures and experience the way they live,” she explains. “Some cultures are so different from one another; it is interesting to travel around and see the diversity firsthand. My experience overseas has opened my eyes to so many opportunities that I couldn't have imagined before going abroad.”

How did all that diversity and culture shock change Megan? “I have definitely become a more independent person after having traveled to so many places where I didn’t know anyone and couldn’t speak the language.”

Igor decided on the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology because of his previous experience studying Asian languages and cultures.

“One reason I went is because I’ve been interested in East Asia for a while, and I studied Mandarin Chinese as a minor at UMass,” he says. “Of course, in Hong Kong they speak Cantonese Chinese, which is very different.”

In some respects, language was irrelevant, because all universities in the former British colony of Hong Kong still teach in English. Hong Kong University of Science and Technology was also the only university abroad which offers upper-level mechanical engineering classes, such as a heat transfer course, in English.

Like Megan, Igor was out to broaden his outlook on the world.

“I was looking for the international experience and the opportunity to travel to a few other Asian countries, namely Vietnam, Singapore, and Japan,” he notes. “Those were valuable experiences.”

Igor was especially impressed with Japan and Okinawa. “As an engineer, my idea of technical achievement and the pursuit of perfection was greatly enhanced by seeing the new monorail in the Okinawan city of Naha and the advanced buildings in Tokyo's Shiodome district. I was also impressed by how Japan's manufacturing sector is self-sufficient in producing everyday items such as elevators and telephones in addition to famous products such as automobiles and computers. Against the backdrop of the March 11th earthquake, Japan's technological achievements only shone more brightly. No visitor can escape a sense of confidence in that country's future.”

It was also a healthy experience for Igor from a multicultural standpoint because the city of Hong Kong and its universities are so cosmopolitan. In addition to Chinese students, he met many European students, especially from Scandinavia and Turkey. That international community of students and the local cuisine, which he said was very different from the Chinese food we get here, made for a learning environment that went far beyond engineering.

“I also saw several Cantonese and Beijing operas,” he says. “And it was wonderful to take a Transportation Systems class in Hong Kong, which has the most modern public transportation system in the world.”

Studying abroad goes beyond evolving into a citizen of the world. It’s a boon for any engineering vocation. “My study abroad experience has already proven to be beneficial to my engineering career,” says Megan. “Employers at the CEE career fair were interested in my studies abroad and my engineering experience there. It has also helped me gain knowledge in the renewable energies field, which I could not have done at UMass alone.”

One important conclusion reached by Megan after her international experience is the direction she wants to travel to begin her professional career: out there! “After studying in Europe, I would welcome the opportunity to work overseas,” she says. “Many international companies in the field of renewable energies are looking to expand their businesses, and another opportunity to live abroad would be a wonderful experience.”

The lesson learned is that study abroad, like any other kind of educational experience, is pretty much what you make of it. (October 2011)