The other day I dropped off my application to the International Honors Program in the mailbox across from WILG. So begins my journey to study abroad in college. The International Honors Program is a unique program in that it examines a thematic topic in multiple countries. The program I am applying to is called “Cities in the 21st Century”, which looks at the forces affecting the development of cities around the world. If accepted, I will be travelling with a group of about 30 students to Detroit, Michigan; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Cape Town, South Africa; and Hanoi, Vietnam to gain a better understanding of the social, political and economic systems that affect cities.
I had always expected to study abroad in college, but when I came to MIT, I wasn’t sure it would work out. It is always more difficult to study abroad while studying engineering because engineering programs at almost all schools have strict graduation requirements. At the beginning of my sophomore year, however, I decided I did want to study abroad in a more traditional sense. After studying abroad in high school, I am aware that most college programs do not provide the same type of immersion experience that I got in the Czech Republic, so I was looking for a program that didn’t promise that and rather had a different focus. I looked at many programs, but in the end decided that IHP would offer me the experience I was looking for.
Although not many students take part in traditional study abroad programs at MIT (an exception being the Cambridge-MIT Exchange, which is a year-long direct exchange program with Cambridge University; MIT Madrid, which sends students for a semester to Universidad Politécnica de Madrid and Universidad Complutense de Madrid; and several departmental programs), MIT does a great job of providing many opportunities to go abroad to work, volunteer and learn for shorter time periods, such as during the summer or IAP. I have been able to take advantage of many of these opportunities, and would without a doubt suggest that you try to as well. Hopefully a short description of my experiences will convince you to take advantage of any opportunity you have to travel (especially if someone else is paying), no matter where you end up.
A pretty common question for people to ask me is where I’m going next. My first international experience was a trip to South Africa when I was 2 years old, but I fell in love with traveling was after a family trip to France and Germany when I was 11. When I was 14 years old, I decided I wanted to do a youth high school exchange, and so at 15, I embarked for my year abroad in the Czech Republic. Proximity made it possible for me not only to see a lot of the Czech Republic, but also Eastern Europe during my year, and when I got home after 11 months abroad, I knew I wanted to keep traveling, learning new languages and exploring.
I consider myself extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to travel before I got to MIT, and the opportunity to share my experiences. Even if you have not traveled abroad before, MIT has a ton of resources to fund travel and projects abroad. I’ve had the chance to go on four major trips thanks to MIT:
1) England: The summer of my freshman year, I traveled with 9 other girls from my crew team and our coaches to compete in the Henley Women’s Regatta in Henley-on-Thames, England. Although we didn’t make it past the first round of competition, rowing against crews such as Yale, and British clubs that include national team members, it was an amazing bonding experience for our team, and created the basis for the growth and success of our team.
There are several varsity teams that have had the opportunity to compete internationally in the past, though recently funding has not been available for this kind of travel and many teams have had to cancel their plans. Nonetheless, being on a varsity team is an incredible experience, which many bloggers have written about. The whole list can be found here
2) Uganda: My freshman year I helped start MIT’s chapter of Engineers without Borders with Helen D. ’12. The summer after that year, Helen and I traveled to Ddegeya, Uganda with two mentors to complete our chapter’s first assessment trip. While in Uganda, we worked with the community to identify their more pressing problems, and then continued to take data and understand the community. The information we collected and the relationships formed are the basis of the work EWB has been doing over the past 2 years. Since Helen and I went in Summer 2009, we have sent two other groups of students to Ddegeya, and for each trip, the Public Service Center funded at least one student who traveled.
The Public Service Center helps MIT students find and fund volunteer opportunities locally, nationally and internationally. They are a great resource at MIT and work with individuals, groups and student groups who are trying to “serve the nation and the world”. There are a ton of resources, both monetary and general support in the PSC, and I highly encourage anyone interested in service to look more into the opportunities they have and the groups they support.
3) Brazil: During IAP my sophomore year I took part in a Harvard field course called Energy, Water and the Environment. As an MIT student, you can cross-register for classes at Harvard, including field and other special courses. During three weeks in IAP, I traveled to Brazil with 10 Harvard students and several faculty members. Together with 14 students from the Escola Politecnica at Universidade Sao Paulo and Brazilian faculty, we learned about urban water, ethanol, hydropower and oil in Brazil. It involved lectures from people in industry, Brazilian and American professors, field visits and projects. It was an awesome opportunity to get hands-on experience that related to what I was learning in my engineering courses.
In order to help fund this experience, I received a Kelly-Douglas traveling fellowship, a fellowship program that is run through the Literature Department at MIT. They support a wide range of projects, generally relating to the humanities, arts and social sciences, as well as humanitarian projects.
4) Mexico: I spent last summer in Mexico City with MISTI Mexico. Seeing how people work in another country and gaining the ability to navigate that system helped me formulate my own work goals. I had the opportunity to travel to different parts of Mexico on the weekends, while working during the week, and got to meet people from all over the world, while living in one of the world’s biggest megalopolises.
MISTI is an incredible program that sends about 400 students abroad every year to work in internships and doing research. Each country program (Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico and Spain) has a coordinator at MIT that helps you search for internships or research positions, and MISTI (or sometimes your company) will give you a stipend that covers travel, housing, food and often some other extra expenses. The language and class requirements vary across the programs, but they are not difficult to satisfy and MISTI can provide a great summer experience.
I highly recommend taking advantage of the travel opportunities that you will have at MIT. Traveling is expensive, and it is great to be doing it on someone else’s dime. Traveling can help you learn about yourself, contribute to a variety of projects and meet people from around the world. If you are interested in studying abroad at MIT, the Global Education Office has lots of brochures and people to help you navigate through the requirements. Even though not many people take part in traditional study abroad programs, it is definitely possible with some advance planning.
To end, I’ll leave you with some of my favorite travel quotes:
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page”
“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign”.
-Robert Louis Stevenson
“To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world”.
“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home”.
“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable”.
“I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world”.
-Mary Anne Radmacher Hershey