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Take the Plunge: Study Abroad as a STEM Student

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“Wouldn’t you rather graduate on time?”

This is the question friends would ask me when I told them I wanted to study abroad.

“In our major?” fellow Computer Science students would ask. I knew what I was getting myself into—or so I thought. I had the grades, I had the flexible academic window, and I was on track to graduate early anyway, so why not? So when my friends questioned my decision to study abroad, I responded,“Why not?” I started researching programs and braced myself for the self-inflicted academic blow I was about to receive. Only, like the singing in a Czech ballet, it never came (I went to my first ballet abroad and learned I have been wrong about what ballet was for YEARS). There was no academic setback, no tradeoff, barely even a change in the courses I wanted to take that semester. I had been viewing the whole thing as a transaction: the postponement of my graduation for a semester of international travel. As it turns out, just like with ballet, I was suffering under a misconception. We STEM students have been missing out: studying abroad is a great option for us.

It’s your experience, be picky!

For me the hardest part of studying abroad was figuring out which program and where. So many options! I started with a list of what I needed from a program: computer science courses, a good academic reputation, similar semester calendar, affordable price, etc. This helped to cut down the amount of options, but still left me with a nice selection. Then I started rooting through options based on my personal desires, and I found a clear winner. Reimagining Europe in Prague, Czech Republic through IFSA was the program I chose. I was blown away by how perfect everything was. I found classes with almost 1:1 matches to courses at my home university, the academic calendar was tailored to fit an American fall semester, IFSA was a well-trusted provider that provided assistance every step of the way, and it was all in the most beautiful city with a manageable price thanks to IFSA’s plentiful scholarships and grants. But if you had told me this was possible at the start of my search, I would not have believed it.

The amount of options when you start hunting for your home abroad is intimidating. It is a long and laborious process. My advice to searchers is this: take a deep breath, and ask yourself, “What do I want for _____?”. Then turn your concern into answers. What do I want for location? What do I want for academics? What do I want for culture? Take the answers to these questions you create, jot them down, rev up your search engine, and start tailoring your searches around the answers to these questions. It’s your experience, so get the one you want. Call, email, ask questions. Every ounce of effort you spend during this time will pay off tenfold during your time abroad.

Needle in a haystack?

So why did I, like so many other STEM students, think studying abroad isn’t “meant” for us? Cognitive bias, I guess. There are massive quantities of options for the traditional study abroad student – global studies, art history, literature, language majors, etc. And it is true that these programs dwarf the STEM-oriented ones. Finding the ones meant for us can feel exactly like finding a needle in a haystack. Except we need to realize there isn’t just one haystack. There are thousands of haystacks, and therefore thousands of needles. All it takes is the time to sift through the chaff. Yes, it’s true that studying abroad is still liberal arts-dominated territory, but that doesn’t mean that the options for STEM majors aren’t there. Sit down, do your research, and I promise you can find the right one for you. Enrollment in STEM majors is exploding, and study abroad providers are adding new programs to accommodate the changing face of the typical study abroad student. This haystack is quickly becoming full of needles.

Looking back

I sit here, writing this, from my home in the United States. Spring semester is now in full swing and I am enjoying my time off on spring break. I know now that I will remember the months of last fall as some of the best of my life. My time at Prague College was spent with some of the brightest minds I have ever met. I made friendships I will treasure with my flatmates and neighbors, and I know that I could have never asked for a better group to adventure with. I stayed in the best college housing I’ve seen yet (seriously: 5 people, 3 toilets, 3 showers. Beat that!). I fell in love with a city in a way I could have never imagined. I felt the weight of millennia of history in the form of art, architecture, language, and even Neolithic ruins. And I did it all while taking courses like Networking Infrastructure, Database Design, and Cryptography! I am still on track to graduate early, and so thoroughly glad I made the choice to get out and see the world. I took the plunge – and landed on my feet.

Connor Ragan is a Computer Science student at University of Maryland, Baltimore County and studied abroad with IFSA at Prague College in Fall 2018.