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STEM majors branch out overseas

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SEPTEMBER 25, 2015

For students in science, technology, engineering and math fields, studying abroad while working toward a rigorous major might be a daunting task. According to six UC Berkeley STEM majors who have studied abroad, however, making the experience worthwhile just comes down to careful planning. These students shared their individual experiences and proved that studying abroad as a STEM major is not only possible but also just as exciting as studying abroad as a non-STEM major.


Why should STEM students study abroad?

STEM education at foreign universities can be drastically different from STEM classes at UC Berkeley.

“I thought it was a really enlightening experience to kind of be immersed into a different culture and try to solve problems the way they do,” said junior Malena Rice, an astrophysics and physics double major. “There are definitely subtleties where I just wouldn’t have thought of things the way that they did.”

Rice found her newfound perspectives in science especially helpful when she returned from London and interned at NASA, where many of the employees are from different countries.

Senior and chemical engineering student Sarah Hull also found that courses at the University of Edinburgh, where she studied abroad, were quite different from UC Berkeley classes.

“I kind of wanted to see what it was like somewhere else,” Hull said, “to see if … what I was doing (at UC Berkeley) was universal. I was able to take what I learned here and apply it to classes there and the other way around, because they teach in such a different way.”


How do you find the right program?

Do your research! Search online, attend study abroad fairs and consult people who have studied abroad in the past.   

“You can find opportunities, but you really need to take the initiative to look,” said senior chemical engineering student Tiffany Lay. “Before I applied, I didn’t think it was possible to go abroad.”

“It does takes a lot of planning,” Lay added, “but I think if people really want to go for it … they should really take the time to just plan it out.”  

If you’re concerned about “wasting” a semester abroad, check with your major adviser to make sure the classes you want to take abroad will count toward your major.

Location and language are also factors to consider when choosing a program. Rice chose a program in London because it offered the courses she wanted right in the center of “one of the big cities that everyone always talked about,” she said.

Junior bioengineering student Noreen Wauford chose to attend a program in Madrid to practice her Spanish.


How can STEM students fulfill class requirements abroad and still graduate on time?  

Many students did not have to worry about finishing their major requirements on time. Rice, who took physics and art classes abroad, is on track to finish her double major in time for her graduation in 2017.

Lay was able to finish many of her requirements at Imperial College London.

“I actually had the option of graduating early because I went to a highly technical school where there are no humanities offered,” she said.

“If you know what classes you need to take here and you know what requirements you need to fulfill there, it should all work out,” Hull said.

Studying abroad is also a great way to fulfill non-major requirements. Senior and applied math major Aldo Alexis Mendez took the opportunity to fulfill campus requirements while interning and studying abroad in Dublin.

“Don’t be discouraged because you can’t find the study abroad programs that don’t satisfy your major requirements,” Mendez said. “You’ll have plenty of time to do that in the regular semester.”


Would language barriers be an issue for technical courses?

While many students went to English-speaking countries such as England, Scotland and Ireland, English is also prevalent in STEM education in other parts of the world.

In Madrid, Wauford found many opportunities to take technical classes in English.

“Math is universal,” she said. “Taking a literature class in Spanish was many many many times harder than taking a technical class in Spanish. … Abroad, a lot of students see English as one of the greatest skills to (help them) get a job.”

“I’ve actually heard a lot that technical language isn’t such a problem in other languages,” Rice said. “Once you get to really technical words, they’re almost exactly the same as the English ones.”


When and for how long should STEM students study abroad?

The best time to study abroad depends on your major requirements and the program you choose.

Rice studied abroad during the spring of her sophomore year to avoid breaking up several series of tough upper-division courses. Hull participated during the spring semester of her junior year because it was the first time in her chemical engineering sequence that she wasn’t restricted to taking classes during a certain semester.   

Lay said she was glad that she had a whole year to be immersed in British culture, even though spending only a semester abroad can mean spending more time at UC Berkeley.

“The first term, I was really just trying to make a routine and get used to things and try to get comfortable, and then by the time the second term came around, I felt a lot more relaxed,” she said. “I got to explore more, and people who go for a shorter time tend to feel more rushed to do things.”


If you study abroad over the summer, will you be sacrificing an internship opportunity?

Plenty of programs allow you to intern abroad during the summer, such as UC Berkeley’s Global Internships program. Mendez, who studies applied math with a concentration in computer science, interned as a back-end developer at an educational technology firm in Dublin.

“It gave me firsthand experience in what the software development process was like, as I had no experience prior to that,” Mendez said. “There wasn’t much theory involved in what I was working in. It was more just writing code, writing tests for the code, maintaining the server side of the product.”

Jerry Le, a fifth-year senior studying molecular and cell biology, said some of his friends at Cambridge University interacted closely with professors while studying abroad and received offers for research positions. If you take the time to meet people while abroad, they might become your potential colleagues.


Last words of advice

Studying abroad isn’t just an experience reserved for particular majors — STEM students can definitely enjoy studying abroad as well. There are plenty of resources here and abroad at your disposal. Consult study abroad advisers about financial aid, class requirements and travel tips.

Above all else, don’t underestimate the value of studying abroad.

“In the end, it was really worth it,” Lay said. “It was really a life-changing event — not just for my career or my education, but I feel like just as a person, I really changed a lot, so I’m really grateful for that.”

“It’s definitely an experience most of us won’t have again in our lifetime,” Wauford said.

Contact Karen Lin at 


SEPTEMBER 24, 2015