Study Abroad Offers Life Lessons

8/9/2011

Before heading to Ecuador last summer for a study abroad program, Victor Osorio thought the most significant part of the experience would be tackling an unfamiliar area of study. Osorio figured that Ecuador would not be too different from his native country Guatemala, so he was not expecting to learn anything new outside the classroom.

“I thought that I was going to go to Ecuador and focus more on the class, Sustainable Energy, than the people and the culture,” recalled the Stevens Institute of Technology mechanical engineering student, who plans to graduate in 2014. “To my surprise, it turned out to be the other way around.”  He became so immersed in the culture and area that local students and even some taxi drivers knew him as “Señor Osorio.”

Today’s university experience extends far beyond the home campus, and purposefully so. Exposure to cultures, customs, and practices of other countries can mean an edge when it comes time to enter the ever-expanding, global professional world. Keenly aware of this advantage, Stevens has actively forged partnerships around the world. Studying abroad can add to personal and professional growth and make students more marketable in a global workplace, says Deborah Berkley, dean of the student development and enrichment programs at Stevens.

The world’s growing interconnectedness is one of the main reasons chemical biology major Daniel Burke sought an opportunity to study in Malaysia last summer. A cooperative education student with plans to graduate in 2014, Daniel wanted to be immersed in another culture and gain precious travel experience that wouldgive him a leg up when it comes time to search for a job.

To facilitate the global experience, Stevens has agreements with a number of respected international institutions of higher learning outside the U.S., including American University of Paris, University of Sydney (Australia), University of Limerick (Ireland), and Saint Louis in Madrid (Spain). These established programs allow students to spend one semester living and studying abroad, rounding out their educational experiences by opening doors to the people, ideas, and work ethics of cultures different from their own. 

Stevens also has short-term programs in which students can spend a week during their winter or spring breaks studying abroad. Recent destinations have included Paris and Brussels. In addition, undergraduates take part in seminar trips, such as the ten-day visit to Germany that is run through the Howe School of Technology Management. The seminar exposes students to German management practices, economic and cultural issues, as well as the history and impact of the reunification of Germany. It is designed to assist students in becoming more comfortable working in a foreign country should they receive international assignments in the future.  

For Stevens students who might not want to spend an entire academic semester away from Hoboken, summer study abroad is an option as well. Class of 2011 graduate Andrew Bentz, for example, spent last summer in Malaysia. He said the summer experience was an opportunity to see how education varies by country and to become familiar with a different style of teaching and learning.

Abhay Sampath, an electrical engineering major who studied in Singapore during the fall 2010 semester, found common ground with fellow study abroad students. “My roommate last semester was a student from Sweden,” recalled Sampath. “When I remarked that I was a fan of ABBA, a band from Sweden, he responded that he is an avid listener of Bruce Springsteen, who is from New Jersey!”

Year-round cultural and sightseeing trips to sights in England, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Turkey, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic also enhance the student experience at Stevens. 

Beyond the new foods, new friends and cultural enrichment, there are many practical outcomes from time spent abroad. Osorio, for example, used his time abroad for ongoing networking. He keeps in contact with fellow study abroad students and professors through email and Facebook, and a group of them are working on a plan to exchange students from the U.S. and Ecuador.

Berkley said she gets a lot of inquires about studying abroad. Interest is high, and participation is growing. The University is looking to dramatically increase the number of study abroad students in the coming years with increased awareness. The ultimate goal is to have 10 percent of the Stevens population studying overseas prior to graduation. Berkley says that destinations like Australia, France, Ireland and Spain are popular with students, and that recently students have expressed interest in studying throughout South America and Asia.

“My experiences abroad were by far the most fulfilling experiences I have had through Stevens,” said Allyson Mackavage, a chemical engineering major scheduled to graduate next year. She spent one summer in Kongsberg, Norway and another in Bangi, Malaysia through Stevens’ study abroad programs. “Having seen two societies that completely differ from each other and from American culture, I now find it easier to look at things from other perspectives. It has also inspired within me a stronger desire to travel and see even more places, and I hope that's something that stays with me the rest of my life.” 

Studying abroad is a win-win, says Berkley, because it introduces students to a new culture and also helps to change stereotypes that others might have from what they see on American television and popular culture.

“My experience abroad has 110% made me a stronger student and a better person,” says Burke. “I don’t take my life for granted here in the U.S. any longer, and I have a deep respect for other cultures all over the world. It’s important to be able to learn from every experience in life, not just from lessons in the classroom. Doing fieldwork on the island of Borneo definitely taught me that.”