7 Things to Keep in Mind when Studying Abroad as an Engineering Student

I think part of human nature is that people adore giving advice, whether or not their advice is based on personal experiences or things they’ve heard. Unfortunately, you don’t always get the advice you need when you need it! So I’m here to remedy that.

People gave me a lot of advice about studying abroad, everything from “bring extra socks when you go backpacking,” to “pack peanut butter because it’s absurdly hard to find in Argentina,” but I didn’t know any engineers who’d been abroad so I never got any engineering-specific advice. Thus I’ve made a little list of a few things I think are important to keep in mind before, during, and after your abroad experience as an engineering student.

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  1. Being well-rounded is just as important as studying engineering subjects. I know this sounds obvious, but the importance of being well-rounded really can’t be quantified. When looking for study abroad programs it can be really limiting if you are only looking for engineering-specific programs, when really you will gain so much from participating in any experience abroad. Rarely is engineering practice done in complete isolation from the rest of the world, so knowing about societal movements or economics will help you better understand how the engineering projects you are working on will affect the communities around you.
  2. Try and combine your interests. The way I see it, at its core engineering is the creation of new things to better our society. The engineering we learn in college is the baseline knowledge you need, so you’ll learn to find failure strengths of parts or heat transfer rates of systems, but where you apply that knowledge is entirely up to you. You could decide to build nano-scale robots that deliver antibodies through the blood stream or you could decide to build skyscrapers in Dubai. There are engineering applications absolutely everywhere so when you’re thinking about studying abroad, don’t just follow the crowd, pick a location that interests you. Doors you never knew existed may open up to you as a result of combining your passions into something new.
  3. Get out of your comfort zone. Part of studying abroad is that you will be pushed to your limits. This can be nerve-wracking at times, but it’s all part of the learning process and all the new experiences you will be confronted with are what help you grow as a person. I found that most of the new experiences I tried were great, and even though there were a few situations I wasn’t as fond of I learned a lot about myself in the process. If you want your study abroad experience to be totally new and unique and “if you want something you’ve never had, you’ve got to do something you’ve never done.”
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  4. Don’t panic if the classes you got pre-approved are no longer offered. Many engineering students, myself included, are more or less “type-A” students. We plan everything and stick to that plan, through the thick and thin, because the plan was to stick to the plan. So…if the plan isn’t panning out, don’t freak out! It’s okay! In many cases a university will advertise that they are offering a variety of classes for international students and then, come the start of the semester, they aren’t offering one of the classes you got pre-approved for transfer credit and two of the classes you were planning on taking are offered at the exact same time. It’s okay! Find other classes that are similar to those that you got pre-approved and sign yourself up. You cannot change a university timetable and most universities are very understanding of things like this. You are not the first student who has ever had to post-approve a class for transfer credit. Take a few deep breaths, email your study abroad advisor and let him/her know what your new plan is, and move on.
  5. Figure out how your experience has made you a better engineer and better prepared you for the workplace. This may be the most difficult aspect of the entire study abroad process as an engineering student. You went abroad and learned so much and it may not be directly related to engineering, but it will 100% help you with your career—you just need to be able to verbalize how. As many engineers, especially the older generation of engineers, did not study abroad they won’t understand why you went abroad or how it has benefitted you, so you need to understand how you’ve grown as a result of your experience. As a personal example, I primarily studied Latin-American culture in Argentina and Chile, however I took every class in Spanish and threw myself into an entirely new situation and learned on the fly. That sort of mentality is the exact same mentality that employers look for in manufacturing engineers; you may have never been on the floor of their plant, but you need to be able to throw yourself into the practices of a new factory and walk down a manufacturing line and create beneficial change.
  6. Take responsibility for your own transfer credits—help your advisor help you. Unfortunately, many large schools don’t have adequate numbers of advisors to quickly and efficiently approve the transfer credits for every student who went abroad in a semester. Thus I strongly urge you to take it upon yourself to see that your credits are granted. Make friends with your advisor before you leave for your semester abroad, and then during the first month of your semester back on campus swing by your advisors office to make sure your transcripts are in. Make sure you don’t need to turn in any other paperwork as well, and continuously keep track of where you are in the transfer credit process. Also, even if you are frustrated with where you are in the process remember to be polite and understanding when you talk with your advisor! Advisors are usually overloaded and have to prioritize for graduating seniors, so try and make their lives easier by having all your ducks in a row—so that they just have to sign off on your forms and send them to the appropriate office.
  7. Don’t undermine the validity of your experience. Many people will ask you how your experience was, but they probably won’t understand all you went through to make the experience happen and how you grew as a result of your time abroad. They’re just looking for a quick, “Great!” Don’t let that lack of interest make you second-guess yourself, you know you had a great experience and each day—the good, the bad and the ugly days included—helped you become who you are today. You learned so much while abroad, about the world around you and about yourself, and that in itself made your whole time abroad worth it. That experience will help prepare you for the work force, for medical school or graduate school, for really anything that comes your way. Even if you don’t fully know the extent of the benefits you gained from studying abroad, they will become apparent over time, just be patient.

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    This is me, guys–just being my happy-go-lucky nerdy engineering self.

Syd Ulrich-Dogonniuck is a student at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and an API Peer Mentor.  Syd studied with API in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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