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STEM Majors Abroad — Making it Happen

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Students who major in STEM fields are much less likely to study abroad than their classmates in other departments. For this post I interviewed fellow IFSA-Butler students on the Argentine Universities Program who are STEM majors to discuss the unique challenges they faced before going abroad, what their academic experiences have been like since arriving, and how they plan to leverage this experience in the future.

Preparation for Abroad

Studying abroad as a STEM major requires a lot of prior research. All of the students I talked to told me that they chose this program after a lot of homework. Taylor Ward, a psychology major at Gettysburg College, feels proud of the preparation she’d done beforehand. “I was lucky that I had been planning and organizing my schedule from very early in my career, so I didn’t have many issues. However, if I had not already organized my courses, I can imagine it would have been difficult to fit my lab requirements in,” she explained. Leah Weaver, a chemistry student at Hamilton College, agrees with Taylor. A big reason for choosing the Argentine Universities Program was for “the freedom it allows in choosing classes. I did a lot of research on what classes I might be able to take once I got here, and ultimately settled with this program because we have access to USAL’s (Universidad del Salvador) environmental science career track and a variety of statistics classes.”

Academic Life Abroad

Not all of the students I chatted with are taking STEM classes this semester. Allison Raff, a biology major on the pre-med track at Ursinus College, took her time here to focus on other areas. “My academic experience [here] has been, in a word, different. Normally I am doing science-related practice problems and studying for hours on end for tests (with the occasional Spanish reading). Here, I am getting some of my other requirements to graduate out of the way, such as art, social science and diversity components.” Neither Taylor nor Leah were required to take STEM classes while abroad, but Leah found a class to count for her chemistry major, as well as other STEM-related courses.

Academic life in Buenos Aires is distinct from what U.S. students are accustomed to, no matter the major. Leah tells me that one of the biggest differences between her chemistry classes at USAL and Hamilton is that in Argentina, she doesn’t have labs. “The most notable difference is the lack of a lab component, but I also think they are less rigorous than the equivalent courses at Hamilton… My workload is way less than a normal semester at Hamilton, largely because I don’t have any labs or extra work from the labs. My classes at USAL also don’t have homework outside of class for the most part, whereas I have weekly problem sets at Hamilton at the very least,” she explains. “Because my USAL classes don’t have readings, apart from the studying I do on my own, I think I have a lot less work than other IFSA-Butler students,” she continued.

Study Abroad & the Future

Leah, Allison and Taylor all have the same advice for STEM majors thinking of studying abroad: THINK AHEAD. Although it may be more difficult to plan for, it is worth the effort. Leah tells me that she “strongly encourage[s] STEM majors to do some research and find a program that fits into your academic career. Not only will you learn about another culture and come to appreciate how things can be done differently, but you will get another perspective on academics in general from your American peers, something I think STEM majors often miss out on. Fitting studying abroad in can be difficult to navigate, but it’s definitely worth the effort.” Taylor, Allison and Leah are proof that study abroad is for everyone, no matter your major.

Ellis Davenport is a Hispanic Studies and Linguistics major at Macalester College and studied abroad through the IFSA-Butler Argentine Universities Program, Buenos Aires Directed Research track in 2017. He served as an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-to-Study Program.