When choosing where to study abroad, my top three deciding factors were location, location, location. I wanted to live somewhere where I would experience vastly different cultures than I do at home in the States. I wanted to travel somewhere new, different, and far away. Most of all, I wanted to go somewhere that required (at the very least) four months to even begin to understand. It came down to wanting to challenge myself and to experience a depth of cultural understanding that I wouldn’t be able to achieve by simply visiting that country for a vacation.
Now, as a STEM major (a current senior in mechanical engineering with career goals of designing prosthetics), there were few options that satisfied my ideal criteria. Most programs available to me were in western Europe, a region I felt like I could explore on my own outside of a structured abroad program. Ultimately, I opted for a program entirely outside of my chosen academic career–a program called Contemporary India in, you guessed it, India.
That was one of the best decisions I have ever made. The lessons I learned and the opportunities afforded to me were second to none. I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything. I’m glad I chose a non-traditional program which forwarded my personal, academic, and professional goals dramatically.
Why Choose a Non-traditional Program as a STEM Major?
There are two main reasons I believe STEM majors should consider non-STEM programs. First and foremost, you will grow into a more well-rounded person. This is a critical developmental skill, the value of which many STEM majors overlook. In many STEM programs it is tempting, or sometimes even required, to stay in the silo of your major. But branching out, learning about history or current events, or even learning a new language can make you an altogether more skilled individual. When you take courses entirely outside of your area of expertise, you learn to utilize new study techniques and new modes of thinking. This expands your mind and helps you become more adaptive to different situations. It also can be really rewarding to find that you are capable of studying things that don’t come as naturally for us left-brained folks.
Second, you will learn new perspectives and develop empathy for and connections with others outside of your own experiences and values. I learned so many incredible stories of trials, tribulations, and triumph in Indian history through a Social Justice course. This helped me understand the challenges Indian citizens have faced in the past, and the background behind societal issues today. Learning perspectives and issues outside of STEM can actually inspire you to use your skill set to come up with solutions to these issues.
Ultimately, a break from engineering can actually allow you to return refreshed, clear-headed, and more ready than ever to hit the ground running when you return.
Interning in a Prosthetics Center in India
My internship was with a company called Mahavir Enterprises, with headquarters in Sancheti Hospital in Pune. Mahavir Enterprises is a team of mechanical engineers, prosthetists, and physiotherapists.The team prescribes mostly lower-body prosthetic devices to patients from Sancheti Hospital and all over the state of Maharashtra and also oversees the physiotherapy required for adapting to using a prosthesis.
I accomplished several tasks including reviewing the company’s website and suggesting edits, surveying patients on their experience with their prosthesis, and developing an in-depth understanding of prosthetic devices and the biomechanics of human locomotion. Basically, I was tasked with becoming an expert on prosthetics and biomechanics in one month.
How the Internship Worked
Upon applying to this study abroad program, I was given the choice to complete an internship, conduct directed research, or create a documentary film. The internship component drew me to this program despite knowing that there would be a possibility that I would not be placed in a STEM-oriented internship. In my application I stated my skills, passions, and ideal internship position. Then, the incredibly well-connected on-site staff worked their magic and placed me in an internship that met my ideal criteria.
The internship was full-time and took place during the last month of the program (after classes had concluded). Once I received my internship placement, I had three site visits to get to know the office and my new coworkers. I was paired with an interpreter, a local university student who had shown the students on my program around the city during orientation. This took away my uncertainty about not being able to communicate in my office. As it turned out, all of my coworkers were fluent in English, but my interpreter assisted me in my surveys of the patients who mostly spoke Marathi or Hindi.
Since I was receiving course credit for this internship, there were a few assignments I submitted to my professor outside of the deliverables I submitted to my office. All students met regularly with the professor in charge of the academic portion of the internship component. He was an incredible resource throughout the process, and I was very satisfied with the overall setup of the internship. At the end of the month, all the students presented to each other about our internship experiences, directed research, or documentary films.
Fitting Your Experience Into Your Career Goals
This experience has been invaluable to my academic and professional career. There are three things I would recommend to any student (STEM or otherwise) to make the most of an internship abroad. First, invest in the relationships you will make while you are there. I made a direct effort to get to know the people in my office and to learn as much as I could about and from them. I made both productive, professional connections and solid, lasting friendships with my coworkers. We still talk regularly, and I love hearing about what’s going on in the office and in their lives!
Next, take the opportunity to learn as much as you possibly can about the country-specific needs of the company and how the company operates. This was particularly important for me, since I was able to compare the process of prosthetics prescription and rehabilitation in a developing nation to that of the United States. I observed the outstandingly creative ideas used in India with limited resources. This helped me think about how I can apply these concepts in the States to underserved communities who need prostheses but cannot afford them. This hands-on experience was so beneficial to my career development.
Last, develop the skill of advocating for yourself. For me, as a STEM major, it was critical that I was clear about what my ideal internship would be. Of course, I went into my program with an open mind, and I would have certainly gained a lot from a non-STEM internship too. But, being direct and specific about my passions and goals helped me reach the perfect position for my career path.
My experience as a STEM major in a non-traditional program turned out to be the best thing I could have done for my career in prosthesis design. I have been able to talk about my experience working in a prosthetics center abroad in many interviews and applications. The uniqueness and value of my experience has really given me a leg up in my chosen career path.
I also suggest taking a million and one pictures, like I did. I documented everything I could think of. My beautiful office, the amazing people in it, the delicious food we ate at staff lunches, the fascinating prosthetic devices I worked with every day, and so much more. I also made a point to journal as much as I could, even after long days in the office. I knew I didn’t want to lose a single detail of what I did, and I am so thankful for the records I have now.
In the end, the non-STEM courses I took abroad helped me grow into a more well-rounded person, and the internship experience benefitted my personal, academic, and professional goals more than I could have ever hoped.
Erica Copenhaver is a Mechanical Engineering student at Vanderbilt University and studied abroad with IFSA in Pune, India in Spring 2019.