Science majors have hard time studying abroad
I don’t just want to travel to Israel, you know. Back in the day, when I was still trying to figure out how to go abroad for some of my junior year, I also wanted to visit Hong Kong, Turkey, South America, Spain’s Basque country, London, New Zealand, India and Madrid. So I had gone down to the International Programs Office (IPO) at the University of Massachusetts. There, I learned an interesting fact: You cannot feasibly study abroad as a computer science major.
The location doesn’t matter. Australia, New Zealand, Canada, England and India may all technically speak English, but that doesn’t mean any educational institution in any of those places has a competent, reliable program teaching science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) that I could convince my professors at UMass to recognize, nor did any university in one of those countries teaching such a subject have an actual exchange agreement with UMass.
The Computer Science department itself knew jack about studying abroad (quite literally not their department), though they do encourage us to go on domestic exchanges by posting notices of information sessions in the Computer Science undergraduate lounge in Lederle.
And let’s not even talk about trying to study abroad at a foreign-language institution in the local language in technical courses without a UMass exchange agreement.
Of course, IPO has plenty of wonderful options. If you want to go anywhere in the world and learn about the local language, history and culture for a semester, they’ve got you the whole way. You’ll step off your plane with what we call in Hebrew a gav rahav (literally a “broad back”), or a large group of people supporting you.
Sure, you have to belong to a major with the wiggle room in its credit requirements to allow spending a whole semester or two learning naught but gen-ed material (goodbye STEM or studio/performance art majors, hello Commonwealth College liberal arts kids) or belong to a cultural major relevant to your destination, but that’s just the price you pay for wanting to make yourself a well-rounded, worldly human being instead of a highly-trained worker bee. Besides, everyone knows that STEM majors are all East Asians and Indians anyway, so by default we’ve already got experience of a foreign culture, right?
Wait a minute, I’m a born-and-bred New York/New Jersey Jew taking a STEM major in which I constantly feel surrounded by atheistic Massachusetts white guys. Not only that, our department actually drives to increase admission of and retain minority and female students year after year. That stereotype about everyone who goes beyond Calculus I belonging to certain racial groups wasn’t right at all.
Obviously, I don’t approve of the current situation at UMass with respect to the ability of students in every field or walk of life to find study-abroad opportunities. We should really ask: How do we fix this?
The simplest answer is to call up every international program department at every major university in an English-speaking country and ask them about opportunities for our students to take in-major courses there, or at least gen-eds on which we could put a UMass stamp of approval.
Perhaps, if we really want to act like dirty Pioneer Valley liberals to piss off Glenn Beck, we could even have courses taken abroad fill gen-ed categories like “diversity” automatically. We could sign exchange agreements as promiscuously as a hedonistic hippie. We could allow students with foreign-language expertise to take real, relevant courses abroad in their language of expertise as long as their department approves the courses (for example, I have friends who speak Spanish, French, Mahrati and of course Hebrew fluently enough to handle non-English courses).
In another unfortunately necessary statement of the obvious, I don’t hate the sorts of cultural courses that the typical study-abroad program offers. I just couldn’t fit them into my diploma schedule for the life of me, and therefore, could not justify spending a semester’s worth of tuition and fees – plus extra for taking courses in another country – on them.
Many students find themselves in the same situation by junior year: they’ve entered a demanding, focused major that they enjoy but also want to do things like travel. However, we don’t live in a closely-packed region like Europe or the Middle East, and taking a semester of courses on the other side of the country at University of Washington-Seattle (whose Computer Science department I heard, in a recent rumor, fell to ranking below ours, go UMass) just doesn’t have nearly the same appeal to prospective travelers as say, Cambridge University.
After all, can you really say you’ve traveled if you haven’t gone somewhere with a drinking age of 18?
Eli Gottlieb is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.