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An unlikely pairing

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MARCH 26, 2018

I knew I wanted to study abroad when I came to UC Berkeley.

As I started taking Mandarin in my second semester, my dreams of studying abroad became more specific. I wanted to go to China and take Mandarin classes. I had dreams of speaking with the locals and working on my pronunciation.

When I was a wide-eyed freshman scrolling through UC Berkeley’s study abroad website, it was felt like there were endless possibilities to study abroad.

Four years felt like a long time, and I wasn’t worried about fitting a semester abroad into my schedule. There would be plenty of semesters for me to fulfill my math major and EECS minor requirements before and after I went abroad — or so I thought.

In STEM departments, studying abroad — especially when you want to participate in non-STEM programs — is unpopular. In my STEM classes, I am often one of few students who has taken a semester abroad.

There are a million reasons besides someone’s major that impact their interest in studying abroad, but I often wonder if certain majors are more or less conducive to doing so.

I often feel like STEM and study abroad are perceived as two incompatible entities — very few students decide to fit both into their time at UC Berkeley.

Studying abroad, regardless of your major, requires a lot of planning. Most semester long programs require an application almost a year in advance.

In my spring semester of my junior year, I participated in a Mandarin language program at Peking University in Beijing. But while I was writing my application, I had mixed feelings. I was very excited about participating in a program focused on language, but I knew this choice would make my remaining semesters at UC Berkeley significantly harder.

Upon my return from Beijing, I was ecstatic. I had the most incredible semester in China, and I was ready to kick off my senior year. But taking an entire semester off from STEM brought unintended consequences.

I had to take more classes. On top of that, STEM classes often build off of each other, and many are meant to be taken one right after the other, whereas I would be taking them a year apart.

I was rusty, and it took me a few weeks to feel like I was really back in the swing of things. Those first few problem sets were harder than they should have been. As I struggled to recall concepts from previous classes, I cursed myself for my STEM-cation.

Looking back, I wouldn’t trade my semester abroad for anything. But I do realize that as a STEM major, it’s probably simpler not to go abroad at all.

Because STEM courses come with an intense workload, many students plan to take three technicals courses a semester. Studying abroad usually disrupts this plan. Even if STEM students do find technical courses to take abroad, it can often be difficult to get major advisors to accepts these courses as part of your major.

Before I decided to go to Beijing, I briefly considered doing a study abroad in the summer. At first, it seemed more reasonable than sacrificing an entire semester’s worth of courses. But then I realized that doing so would mean sacrificing something almost more important than major requirements: a summer internship.

Ultimately, it seemed like there was no “right” answer to my study abroad problem. In fact, the only practical solution seemed to be just giving up on the whole idea. But didn’t want to give up on my dream of going abroad solely because it would make my remaining semesters more difficult.

Studying abroad gave me new perspective on both my time at UC Berkeley and my goals for the future. Placing myself in an unfamiliar environment was beneficial in so many ways. I think study abroad is a unique opportunity for students to go out of their comfort zone and learn about the world.

I hope more STEM students consider studying abroad — STEM and study abroad aren’t as unlikely a pairing as many people think.

UC Berkeley has many incredible STEM-focused programs that can alleviate the stress of graduating on time. And non-STEM programs might give you that extra energy you need to complete one more year of heavy course loads and challenging technical work.

For me, the amazing opportunity to spend time in China, improve my Mandarin, travel and really challenge myself to gain a more global perspective was more than worth the tough schedule filled with technicals that I’ve had this year.


Clare Egan writes the Monday blog on her experience in STEM departments at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @cegan_dailycal.

MARCH 26, 2018