Gaining a global perspective: Study abroad students bring worldly experiences home to the classroom and forward into industry

by | Jan 2, 2019 | Feature Stories, Winter 2019 | 1 comment

As the world becomes increasingly connected via technology and travel, experience with other cultures is a valuable academic, personal and professional asset. With employers looking for new hires with a wide range of experiences, more students are turning to study abroad programs and other international education opportunities to put them ahead of their peers and enter the workforce prepared for multicultural interactions. 

A 2016 study by NAFSA: Association of International Educators showed that more than 300,000 college students in the U.S.—about 10 percent of graduates—study abroad per year. Still, that isn’t nearly enough to fill the growing demand from employers. “Almost 40 percent of companies surveyed missed international business opportunities because of a lack of internationally competent personnel,” NAFSA said.  

But Mines is rising to the occasion. Currently partnering with more than 45 universities and higher education programs, Mines connects more than 200 students per year with short-term programs, international conferences and study group participation and, of course, study abroad opportunities. Students can choose from a variety of locations in the Middle East, Oceania, Latin America, Europe and Asia and from programs ranging from short research projects and internships to a full year of courses toward their degree. 

Through these international opportunities, Mines provides students with a rich academic experience and helps them prepare for success in their future careers.

Multicultural motivations

Mines students choose to study or intern abroad for a variety of reasons: the desire to travel, to learn or become fluent in a language, to challenge themselves. “I really wanted to get a different experience and put myself out of my shell,” said Skye Kim, a chemical and biochemical engineering student who participated in research at Comillas Pontifical University in Madrid last summer. She chose the university, she said, because they were already partnered with Mines, and because of the specific research she was interested in. 

Others are curious about life in another culture. “I was really eager to learn how people lived in other parts of the world—not just the parts you see when you travel and spend your time in a hotel and go on little excursions,” explained Megan Graf, a chemical engineering student graduating in May. “I was very curious about how it actually was day to day.” 

Like Kim, Graf also chose to study in Spain, where she completed a year at the University of Oviedo, citing the language as the deciding factor. “I’ve always wanted to get to that level of being fluent, of thinking, dreaming, speaking in Spanish as well as in English,” she said.

Daniel Langemann, a chemical engineering student who transferred to Mines in his junior year, already had a penchant for travel when he learned that study abroad was an option. After exploring several possibilities, he was able to find a university—Nanyang Technological University in Singapore—that offered an exchange with Mines and offered all of the courses he would need to take in his heavy-hitting junior year. Langemann also used the opportunity to practice speaking Chinese and has continued to study the language since returning to Mines.

Students also cite an expanded worldview as a top motivator for studying abroad. While Samuel Fiorica, a student in mechanical engineering, had originally planned to go to Spain, he decided he wanted to do something more unique with his study abroad experience. As a longtime student of taekwondo, he considered South Korea, and when he found out that Mines had recently reached an agreement with Pohang University of Science and Technology, he jumped at the opportunity.

Personal gains

To students studying abroad, the most obvious benefits are the ones they can integrate not only into their studies, but also into other areas of their lives. Kim said that, alone in Spain, it was much easier to drop the distractions of day-to-day life and focus instead on herself and her research. “It taught me to go back to square one, really, to manage my time and to see what my time could be used to do,” she said. Kim completed 200 hours of research in five weeks on the mechanization of the epoxy Sikadur 30, essentially working full time.

Other students said studying or working abroad taught them to be more open to different ways of solving problems. Langemann noted that the general attitude in Southeast Asia was markedly more relaxed than in the U.S., “to the point where the bus driver will just stop and go in and have a coffee with his friends for 20 minutes and then get back on the bus and take off,” he said. What might be direct or prompt communication to someone in the United States “might be perceived as rude and rushed in a place where time is perceived differently,” Langemann explained.

The students agree that studying abroad showed them that they are capable of more than they had previously thought. Graf, who had expected to take only one class in Spanish, arrived to find out that she was signed up for three. It was challenging at first, she said, but she rose to the occasion and successfully completed a full year at the University of Oviedo. “I’ve already done the impossible,” she said. “I’m now more confident with my classes. I’m willing to take on bigger challenges because I’ve already done this incredibly hard thing. There’s not much I can’t do at this point.”

A head start in industry

Not only does studying abroad allow students at Mines to challenge themselves both personally and academically, but it also gives them a leg up when entering the workforce. Learning to live and work with other cultures “is part of our education in an increasingly globalized world,” said Langemann. “It’s a necessary part of engineering. Even at a midsize company, there are always going to be foreign nationals, and even contract work can be overseas. It’s very likely the experience will be useful in a full-time job.”

Mary Cook, associate director and manager of student mobility at Mines, agrees. “I’ve seen employers looking for students with the skill set you gain from studying abroad,” she said. “They’re looking for someone with the soft skills of demonstrating initiative or drive or the ability to be adaptable and flexible.” Most importantly, she said, they’re looking for “someone with intercultural skills that allow them to work with intercultural and international teams on really diverse projects.”

“I’ve taken the initiative to learn how to interact in people’s cultures,” said Langemann. “Since so many engineering firms are multicultural, having candidates who are comfortable going abroad and who have some of that experience is a big selling point.” 

Langemann is now preparing to use his experiences in his career after graduation. “It continues to be a selling point as I’ve negotiated job positions and start dates and even the types of locations that I want to work in,” he said.

Graf highlighted the importance of a global perspective even for students who haven’t studied or worked abroad. “On the engineering side of things, if you’re designing products for people all over the world, but you design it only from an American perspective, those products aren’t going to be as successful,” she said. 

No matter what kind of international experience students have, they all agree that it was an unforgettable and invaluable opportunity. “I’ve spoken a lot with students who have graduated without studying abroad and they almost universally say that’s the one thing they regret,” Cook said. “And those who did study abroad say it was their best experience during their time in higher education and that they have no regrets.” 

Cook said she wants students to be able to leave Mines having had a full, rich educational journey, something that studying abroad only enhances. According to Fiorica, “it’s definitely a transformative experience.”