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Once abroad is not enough

Students are increasingly embarking on multiple study abroad opportunities, finding that one experience opens the door to others.
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Kathleen Schwind took Professor Diana Henderson’s Literary London course after enjoying an earlier study experience in Spain.
Kathleen Schwind took Professor Diana Henderson’s Literary London course after enjoying an earlier study experience in Spain.
Photo courtesy of Kathleen Schwind

Studying Spanish language and culture in Madrid, discovering the literary history of British authors in London, or taking summer courses in Scandinavia are just some of the ways that MIT students experience global education during summer and Independent Activitities Period (IAP).

Short-term study-abroad programs are now a growing sector in MIT’s global education offerings. The multi-week courses are attractive to students for many reasons: They provide MIT degree credit or transfer credit, are a comfortable entry point for students motivated to have a meaningful international experience, and are often supported by scholarships. They also do not interfere with academic and extracurricular schedules and can increase students’ confidence in traveling and living overseas.

MIT’s Global Education Office (GEO), part of the Office of Experiential Learning, has discovered another trend: Students who engage in one of these courses often go on to undertake additional study-abroad experiences during their time at MIT. Some students are motivated to sample more IAP global education courses, while others embark on semester-long international academic ventures.

As a sophomore majoring in urban studies and planning, Kathleen Schwind, who is now a graduate student studying city planning, pursued an IAP opportunity in Madrid through its Global Literature course. Her instructor, Professor Margery Resnick, then recommended she enroll in Professor Diana Henderson’s Literary London course during the following IAP.

“The IAP Madrid experience was one of the highlights of my MIT career, and I loved having a professor who knew so much about every element of the history of the country which ultimately added a whole new dimension to our understanding of the literature,” says Schwind. “I knew I wanted to take another course abroad. As a member of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, I also was interested in how the culture of a place is influenced by its structure, and how the structure is often influenced by different cultures.”

“Professor Resnick and Professor Henderson are two of the best professors I have ever had and were really passionate and knowledgeable about their subjects, she continued. “They were able to tie the literature and history seamlessly together with the modern-day city and country, in a way that mesmerized me as I wandered around each city. What surprised me the most is how interwoven a country’s history is with its literature. I also loved being with other MIT students and creating memories with colleagues that I would not have had the chance to meet and get to know otherwise.”

Samantha Cawthon found that spending an IAP in Madrid studying global literature “led me to do Global Teaching Lab Italy the following IAP, to spend the next summer in Scandinavia taking classes, and to go to South Africa for HST.434 this past IAP.”

“I think that my first program taught me most of what I needed for my additional trips abroad,” says Cawthon, who graduated in December with a BS in brain and cognitive sciences. “I learned how to travel on my own, how to get around when I didn't know the language, and strategies for staying safe in an unfamiliar environment.”

She also took three of her eight electives abroad. “It meant I was able to get ahead of the academic requirements, which is so useful when you are already trying to fulfill your major requirements as well as your pre-med requirements,” she says. “It also made so much financial sense for me.”

Senior Eric Koch, a mechanical engineering major, has integrated three study abroad experiences into his MIT education.

“I first studied abroad in China during the summer and fall semester after my freshman year,” he says. “I studied Mandarin in Tianjin before enrolling as a student in Tsinghua University to study international relations and electrical engineering taught in Mandarin. My second study abroad took me to Astana, Kazakhstan, where I studied Russian language and Central Asian history after my sophomore year. My third study-abroad experience was an intensive Russian conversations course through Wellesley College in Moscow, Russia, during IAP.”

Koch says his “desire to really immerse myself in another country to learn its language and culture motivated me to embark on my first study abroad program.

“Of course, I was also lured by the promise of adventure and escape from the regular drudgery of MIT p-sets.” he adds. “I'm a member of Army ROTC at MIT, and I will commission as an officer in a few months. My study-abroad experiences have instilled an appreciation for the limits of my own understanding. As an officer, I want to encourage the development of international understanding that comes from dialogue and interaction. Travel abroad is an extraordinarily unique experience. The process of flinging yourself into an unfamiliar environment before adapting to it and building new friendships adds an entirely new perspective to your worldview.”

Other students who have participated in multiple study-abroad experiences also cite the perspectives it has given them for their future career plans. Study abroad serves to foster an expanded worldview, strengthens problem solving skills, and refines their understanding of personal and professional goals. 

Schwind, who has been accepted into an MPhil in international relations program at Cambridge University notes: “I planned on pursuing a career in foreign affairs before the IAP Madrid program, and this interest was one of the reasons why the program caught my eye. But after the program, and after IAP London, I have an even deeper passion for working in an international context. My appreciation and interest in world cultures and foreign affairs has only grown because of these courses.”

Cawthon, who is headed to medical school in the fall, feels that her study-abroad participation helped give her an edge in the application process. “In my last med school interview, I probably spent 75 percent of my time talking about the awesome experiences I had studying abroad, because it is fairly unusual for premeds to have done so. I think that studying abroad has further verified the importance of global health for me in my future career. I definitely want to do rotations abroad or get an MPH in global health. Hopefully, I will be able to work as a physician in another country for some amount of time.”

Milka Piszczek, who will be graduating this spring with a BS in electrical engineering and computer science, is contemplating pursuing a PhD in literature, thanks in part to her study-abroad experiences. After taking Resnick’s IAP Spanish Incubator class, she designed an independent study to return to Madrid to research the recent interest in Polish poetry in Spain. Without an initial study abroad class, she says, “I would not have had the necessary background to think about connections between Polish and Spanish cultures.”

The staff at GEO are available to help students find and apply to programs that match their interests. As Piszczek observes: “MIT has so many resources and opportunities so if there is ever one you are interested in, reach out to the people in charge and ask how you can get involved. Sometimes it can be hard to keep up with all the options and I think meeting with someone from GEO is the best way to understand what is available and make sure you are on the correct path.”

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