From an Engineering Student Who Went Abroad

Some people say you go abroad to find new places that amaze you and pick up new talents and, generally speaking, figure out what you’re really meant to do in life. I fully agree with this statement, however, I think it deserves to be clarified a little. Sure, new places and faces, maybe a new outlook on life, for many students a new degree path or career field. But there is that subset of us study abroad kids who go abroad, see all the beauty in the new, and find that new beauty reinforcing the ideas and interests we had before we went abroad.

I’m one of those kids.

My primary major is (and always has been) mechanical engineering. I go to a well-ranked technical institute. I study more than most and the running joke is that I should really pay rent to the library instead of my landlord.  I’m a driven individual with direction. But after a while the study-grind started to get to me; it seemed like the derivations I was doing only led to other obscure derivations, and the experiments we would run had no real-life applications. So what happens to a driven individual who loses their drive? There are two options: (1) something else piques your interest and the drive returns, but is directed into a new field, or (2) that original vigor is found again and you start back up where you left off, with even more determination to make your dreams become a reality.

I decided a break from engineering would be good for me; a change of pace to reevaluate what I was doing. To be fair, I’d been told since I was three (seriously, I kid you not) that I’d become an engineer, but what if I’d just been listening to everyone else, what if it wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing? So I decided to throw conventionality to the wind and do my own thing. My first decision was that I needed to become more well-rounded (no small feat for a child who had been on the STEM track since I could ride a tricycle). And what better way to do so than throw yourself head-first into something you know you will struggle with, but will also be phenomenally beneficial?? Thus and so, it became my mission to learn Spanish: no more Ms. Single-Lingual for me.

What I didn’t know was just how much learning Spanish would reignite the spark inside of me that wanted to become an engineer. A year and four South American countries later, I got back to the US excited to learn more equations and theories, prepared to absorb all the information coming at me, determined to achieve my original goal of getting a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering. I may have studied Spanish literature, Argentine culture, and pre-Hispanic Chilean artwork, but as the saying goes ‘The heart sees what the heart sees,’ and this little budding engineer saw engineering processes and applications everywhere.

I flew to the north of Chile for a long weekend and was amazed to see wind farms stretching into the horizon. We took a group trip to Iguazu, Argentina, to see the waterfalls, and I was absolutely blown away by the power that was being harnessed by the dam that had been installed. The entire neighborhood of Puerto Madero in Buenos Aires was constructed on a floating pile of debris as opposed to solid ground. Engineering everywhere, literally everywhere.

As my Spanish started to improve, I began talking with my host family, teachers, and friends about the engineering applications I was seeing. It took a while but I came to the realization that my interest in engineering had never been what I was questioning, but rather where and how I was going to apply my engineering knowledge.

Studying abroad, in addition to learning Spanish, completely opened my eyes to a world of opportunities that I had been unaware of before I set foot in South America. I am still the math-loving, problem-solver I once was, but now I can be that person in Spanish!  And that is exactly what I intend to do. Combine everything I’ve learned, the engineering and the Spanish, into something beautiful.

Water sanitation projects in Peru? Maybe. Wind turbines in Chile? Why not. Hydropower plants in Argentina? Definitely an option. I have no idea at this very moment where exactly I’ll end up, but I’m ready, I’m willing, and I’m beyond excited to see where the cross-currents of mechanical engineering and Spanish take me.

Engineering Student Abroad

Visiting another engineering marvel, Machu Picchu!!

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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  1. Thank You for sharing ,This site is very helpful for me.

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