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Study Abroad and STEM: Contradictory or Not?

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Many of my friends back home are STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) majors and are on the pre-medical track.  Their schedules are jam packed with science and math courses, all hoping to earn top marks to gain entrance to a medical school.  They spend hours in labs, clinics, and doing research for their professors with absolutely no time to think about studying abroad, especially during their junior year when they have to study for their MCATs (Medical College Admission Test) to apply for medical school their senior year.  So I was surprised when I came abroad to find that there was actually someone from my school who is a STEM major on the pre-medicine track and who was planning on going straight to medical school post-graduation.  I thought it was impossible.  As an education major, many of my peers find it difficult to study abroad and know that going abroad means sacrificing a well-balanced schedule once they return.  I wanted to know, what was the secret?  How did he combine study abroad and STEM and end up here?  Here’s what I found out after interviewing Jake, a Biochemistry major on the pre-medicine track at Boston College (BC).

Plan Ahead

Although he faced some difficulties figuring out what classes to take while he was abroad, his biggest advice to combine study abroad and STEM is planning ahead.  He knew that he wanted to go abroad before he entered college because he heard of the enriching experiences others had had studying abroad.  When he came into college, he already had a lot of college credit from taking Advance Placement tests.  Right away, he began to take all of his major requirements that could only be taken at BC to save up his elective credits and general education credits that would be easier to find approved courses abroad.
He suggests that STEM students thinking of studying abroad should, “maximize your course work at [your home university] and save up electives.”  In fact, he only has two of major requirements left to graduate with his degree.

Stick to the Plan

Timing was also important in his planning because had he decided to go abroad only his sophomore year, he would have had a much more challenging time fitting all his classes into his schedule and graduating on time with his peers. Jake explained, “Yes, I could have chosen to make my life easier,” by taking less major requirements his first two years of college so that his schedule was less crammed with labs, classes, and working as a Teaching Assistant (TA), but he had a goal which was to study abroad in his junior year.  Planning once again worked in his favor as he specifically chose to study abroad in the fall because then he would have time to study for and take the MCAT once he returned to the United States.

Don’t Worry

Jake had a tricky time finding a chemistry class that would count towards his major requirement course, so he chose this specific program at University of Limerick because it was the only class that the chemistry department at BC would approve as a substitute for his major requirement class. Overall, he has found the classes to be easier than classes at home because he finds that the professors here are genuinely trying to help the students earn high marks.  He feels like the professors are more straight-forward with what content needs to be studied and is important to know.  “The professors [at University of Limerick] expect a lot less of their students than do professors at BC.”  Overall, he finds the pace of the courses slower and the content to be less rigorous, so he spends much less time studying outside of class and is still doing really well in the classes.  He is doing so well in his classes that with the additional time, he decided to be a teaching assistant for one of his classes at University of Limerick.
Studying abroad is a wonderful experience to immerse oneself in another culture.  It requires you to be more flexible to change.  Jake chose to study abroad because he saw how it was good for his personal development, being far away from home and having to adapt to the new culture.  Studying abroad will allow him to experience a lot of different cultures, both in Ireland and throughout Europe.  Developing cross-cultural awareness and being able to adapt to different cultures will be useful when interacting with patients from different cultural backgrounds. Even though being a STEM major and going abroad might be difficult at times, it’s an unforgettable and life-changing experience that no one should miss.
Jennifer Liao is an Elementary Education and Applied Psychology & Human Development double major at Boston College and studied abroad with IFSA at University of Limerick in the fall of 2018.  She served as an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-To-Study Program.