Why STEM Students Should Consider a Non-STEM Program

For STEM students studying abroad, not only are the surroundings unfamiliar, but so is the coursework. Three STEM students discuss their decision to venture outside their comfort zone and enroll in IFSA’s Contemporary India program. As other STEM students consider a non-STEM program, IFSA students Erika, Nikhil, and Uma reflect on their expectations, experience, and recommendations.

Erica: Mechanical Engineering, Vanderbilt University

Erika Vanderbilt University STEM student in Pune
Why did you choose this program? The program not being STEM-focused was a big draw for me. I was looking for a break from STEM programs’ focus on memorization and assignments and wanting a program focused more on real learning. The internship opportunity was also something I was interested in. I chose India in particular because I felt like it would be an adventure. I knew my experience would be a very different experience compared to my peers studying abroad, as it didn’t feel like it would be a touristy experience.
Did you have any expectation about being an atypical student? How have these expectations been met or not met? I had few expectations as I do not know anyone who had been to India before nor did I have that much background knowledge on the country. I expected the classes to be challenging as they are all outside my typical courses, but the workload has proven to be manageable.
Do you ever feel left out during class/social discussions? I wouldn’t say left out. I would say I feel challenged, but in a good way. For example, I am not familiar with some of the historical context discussed in many classes, and it seems like others are. I feel like I have to work harder than one of the social science majors, but I enjoy digging deeper. The classes do not feel exclusionary as the professors are very knowledgeable and helpful with explanations. I am often asked for my unique perspective, so I feel like my experience does add to conversation.
Would you recommend this program to other STEM majors at your school? Why or why not? I absolutely would recommend this program to students who want to take a break from their STEM program especially. I think it is also useful to step outside of your comfort zone, both academically and personally. My internship is based on my past experiences, but rather than focusing on design, I am meeting with members of the community. This interpersonal communication is valuable and will positively contribute to my professional interest and improve my communication skills in general.

Nikhil: Math & Economics, Georgetown University

Why did you choose this program? I wanted a break from my typical academic program. This program would provide me with that as well as allow me to explore subjects I would not otherwise have the opportunity to. I was also interested in connecting with my Indian heritage.
How does your different background affect your class and internship experience? I feel like I do have to work harder in certain classes as most other students have academic experience in these areas and I do not. But I have a double major in economics which has benefitted me in the Development Economics course in particular. It is one of the few courses counting toward my major. I am particularly interested in finance and financial markets, and the staff did an amazing job aligning my interests with my assignment.
Do you ever feel left out during class/social discussions? I never feel left out. Rather, I feel lucky to be surrounded by people whose experiences and interests vary and that we get to share our knowledge. I feel that my different major does not hinder my experience, and that it actually enriches it.
Would you recommend this program to other STEM majors at your school? Why or why not? I would absolutely recommend this program. It is a chance to take a break from your typical coursework and branch out.

Uma: Chemistry, Smith College

Why did you choose this program? I have an academic interest in public health so the Public Health course was a major driving factor. I was particularly interested in the opportunity to do research as well. I had purposely scheduled my semester so that I could not study STEM and still graduate on time. Deciding on Asia was easy for me as I am of Indian heritage and have studied the Chinese language.
Do you ever feel left out during class/social discussions? My university requires that half of our classes be humanities courses so I do not feel left out as these courses help me develop strong essay writing skills and a general world history knowledge. The Development Economics course has proved to be a struggle for me, though, as I have never taken an economics course. This does not have a negative impact on me as the professor does a great job of teaching the basics.
Would you recommend this program to other STEM majors at your school? Why or why not? I would not recommend this program for students who want to study STEM abroad. However, I would recommend this program for pre-med students as I believe they would learn a lot about different ways to talk about health and different ways health is viewed in the Public Health course and India in general. This program forces you out of your comfort zone and I believe is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Melissa Hampton was an international studies major at American University and studied abroad with IFSA on the Contemporary India program in Pune, India in spring 2019. She was a contributing student blogger for IFSA through the First-Generation Scholar Program.