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Engaging in Art as a STEM Student Abroad

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My Motivations to Study Abroad

One of the widely advertised aspects of studying abroad is the necessity of having diverse experiences and trying new things. When I was applying to universities abroad, one of my main goals was to enjoy a new sort of university life that is distinctively different from my home university. After reflecting on my passions for a bit, I realized what I wanted out of my time abroad. Essentially, I wanted to assume the persona of art school student, an alter ego of mine that in another life I might have pursued. 
As a STEM student, my chances to take classes outside of my defined engineering major are few and far between. I love the mechanical engineering major and what it might mean for my future; however, I have always maintained a great passion for fine art, specifically the visual arts. When I saw that the University of Glasgow offered courses for exchange students through the Glasgow School of Art, one of the most prestigious art schools in the world, I immediately knew where I wanted to go. The thought of taking studio art classes was one of the most compelling reasons for me to go abroad. At my home university, I might not have ever had the opportunity to entertain the right side of my brain and its creativity, which is often suppressed by the analytical skills I employ in major courses. 

At the University of Glasgow

For students studying abroad at the University of Glasgow, there were four different courses from which to choose, and anyone could register for them regardless of major. After sorting out my timetable for the semester, I realized I was incredibly lucky. I enrolled in not one but two studio art courses that each met once a week for three hours. I have always dreamed of taking studio art involving live models as well, and amazingly both classes (Life Drawing and Clay Sculpture) had a curriculum based on nude life models. 

Initially I was anxious about the art courses being quite challenging and time consuming in addition to my engineering work load. At my first class, however, I learned that the classes would not be stressful in the slightest. Most other students were studying something other than studio art, and many had no experience with visual art. Interestingly, some students studying medicine took these classes to enhance their anatomical knowledge. 

Why Try Something New?

The relevance of these two art courses cannot be understated. The ability to take a break from my rigorous engineering lectures twice a week and tap into one of my true passions has been one of my favorite parts of the abroad experience thus far. Trying new styles of art I have not attempted before has been invigorating and monumental. Creativity is an inseparable part of my personal identity. Growing to love the act of art in childhood and progressing to understanding the history of art in society while in college has been an essential part of my growth into who I am today.
If I were to solely pursue mathematical subjects and interests, even beyond academia and within a cultural environment, I do not believe I would recognize myself. My struggle balancing both abstract creativity with strict numbers has brought me to realize in this semester that both interests create an interesting complementary mix.
The creativity I have nurtured in my two art classes has bled into my engineering proofs and problems. The methodical approach I take in engineering courses has influenced my artistic process. Both interests blend and are more similar to each other than I could have realized. Now I understand that art and math can be complementary and beneficial to my future. Creativity is frequently ignored in engineering problems but can help me to “think outside the box”. Logical thought aids me when beginning a new piece of art – I can structure my piece compositionally and methodically. My rare amalgam of art and engineering has made me appreciate these two interests; especially how they impact each other in a new light. I am even more proud now in my identity as an artist and an engineer. 

Final Thoughts

I cannot recommend enough that students in STEM fields try new courses outside of STEM while abroad if possible. There are few chances to nurture hobbies that do not involve science. Even learning about a topic on which one has no prior knowledge can be thrilling. Even more, some of these other courses can supplement a STEM major in ways never before thought of. Trying new things abroad, especially if related to a previous underlying passion, can be one of the most fulfilling aspects of the experience. 
Sophia Moak is a Mechanical Engineering major at Vanderbilt University and studied abroad with IFSA at the University of Glasgow in Scotland in Spring 2019. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-to-Study Program.