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MIT student blogger Becca H. '12

Another Journey Planned by Becca H. '12

How to go abroad 101

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”
-St Augustine

“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”.
-Freya Stark

“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home”.
-James Michener

“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable”.
-Clifton Fadiman

“I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world”.
-Mary Anne Radmacher Hershey

10 responses to “Another Journey Planned”

  1. Vivek says:

    Since you seem like a regular globetrotter/globetrotter-to-be, (at least in relative terms), I’m going to ask you one of the questions which bothered me when I read this post.

    Not every country in the world might have the same level of exposure to English, or any other relatively global language. And even if it does, there might not be a uniformity in the distribution of proficiency in the cross-section of the population you get to interact with. Has this ever been a problem for you in you trips? Do you forsee such a problem in the future if you are among the lucky 30 students. If the answer was ‘yes’ to either of the two previous questions, what steps have you taken/will you take to improve communication?

  2. observer says:

    You seem to be everywhere on the blogs(invariably the first one to comment),and that is not a compliment,I may add.Though its not bad to voice your opinion,excessive reacting*stupidly,at that*is irritating.I have not have voiced this for long,but now its the limit,man.AND.You seem to do that to channel people to your blog on which you ironically advise them to do everything under the sun to relieve the stress till the day of decision,and not check and recheck the college site….””Keeping track of admission blogs to keep yourself informed about new developments.””I mean,what do you think YOU are doing?Are you not contradicting your own advice?(huh)………………………………………………………………………
    I am sorry Becca,I had to do it on your post.

  3. Becca H. '12 says:

    @Vivek: You do bring up valid points that I certainly have thought about. It is not possible to learn the language of all the places you travel, and it is not possible to interact with every cross-section of the population, but you do what you can. Even without language proficiency, it is possible to communicate in other ways, either through an intermediary, or through body language. This makes it possible to at least interact with people who do not speak English.

    Part of my interest in travel and other cultures is language, and I have studied six languages other than English, and consider myself conversationally fluent in three (Czech, German, Spanish). This ability has allowed me to get to know people on a deeper level when I travel to countries where these languages are spoken.

    As to your question of what this will mean with a study abroad experience, I am not sure yet. As for South Africa, English is one of the official languages of South Africa, and thus most people speak English. I do not speak Portuguese or Vietnamese, but I do understand a fair amount of Portuguese due to Spanish. I have never traveled to Asia, so I’m not sure what I will experience there. I hope to learn some Vietnamese if I have the opportunity to go to Vietnam, but I cannot yet speak to that experience.

  4. Nadia says:

    As a Brazilian myself, I really want to know more about your experience in Brazil. How was it? Feel free to get specific haha I always wanted to hear about the other side of the spectrum…

  5. Vivek says:

    @Observer – Do you know that exact same thing went through my mind a couple of days ago. I asked myself if I should stop commenting. But then I realized that what I was doing wasn’t neccessarily contradicting myself.

    Trying to catch a glipse of a place that you may or may not spend 4 years of your life at is not the same as keeping yourself updated anxiously on admission updates. I’m not here to impress any one. I’m just here because we have some amazing bloggers here who lead interesting lives at what is widely acknowledged as the best institute for science and technology.

    Also, if you look at the top-right corner of the page, you’ll see “freshman admissions portal/community 2.0”. Two important terms there, ‘community’ and ‘2.0’. I’m sure you get it. wink Also, if you notice, my comments aren’t the typical ‘OMG, I want to get into MIT so bad’ kind of posts. Neither are they the ‘Please tell me how to get in’ variety. More often than not, they’re usually relevant to the content of the post, just like a Web 2.0 CMS database should be populated with. Feel free to add your constructively critical comments alongside mine on a post, and we can have an intellectually challenging debate, open or others to contribute to as well.

    As for me ‘advertising’ my blog, it’s OK if you don’t want to click on it, you know. I just leave it there because it provides a way for people to communicate with me too. I don’t think that’s a crime now is it? raspberry

    Also, the quick reaction times can be explained by a mobile device, Opera Mobile 10.1, Google Reader and my rabid following of *all* blogs, not just this one. wink And no, you didn’t have to do this on Becca’s post, you could’ve done it on my post. wink No hard feelings, mate. And all the best.

    @Becca – Seven languages? *gasps for air* Fluent in four? *clutches table* I think I’m going to lie down *faints to floor*

    Haha, but no seriously, hats off to you for that. Knowing, and maintining those skills are probably not the easiest tasks in the world. As for Vietnamese, I think you’ll find that the language will be appreciably different from the others you know so far, especially because its roots can be traced to now-defunct East Asian languages. Nevertheless, I guess you’ll do fine, what with your demonstrated proficiency in languages as it is. Hope you’re one of the lucky 30. Good luck to you too.

  6. Vivek says:

    P.S. In my last commnt, “all blogs” refers to all the blogs I follow on my Reader, not all just all MIT admissions blogs. Don’t want to come across as a prosective-MIT-zombie. raspberry

  7. Vivek says:

    @Observer – I’m going to repeat what I posted on my blog. And also what I posted as a comment: Don’t be sorry! I may not have studied psychology at school (There was an option, but only if I dropped *gasp* Math!), but I do know that every MIT applicant is slowly reaching his/her peak of anxiety. I could make out that the comment was slightly impulsive in nature. And that’s completely normal. I wouldn’t call you human if you didn’t have impulses! So, try to do what I said on my blog (which I know you read wink ) and come back here with that positive mindset we all need so badly. :D

    P.S. If you’re that guilt ridden, get in touch via the blog. wink

  8. Vivek says:

    Here’s a useful, albeit so-lame-it’ll-get-you-lynched-in-public-if-you-told-someone analogy. Your emotions are probably like the x coordinate of a block of mass m attached by a spring. It’s executing simple harmonic motion. And the oscillations are damped by friction. Now flip the x v/s t graph on the y – axis. Now the oscillations with maximum amplitude come near the origin as you approach it from the negative time axis. The origin is pi day/whenever we’re getting our decisions. (Sounds cool doesn’t it).

    Another way of looking at it is: eat regularly to keep your mass high, so that the normal force you exert on the table is high, thus when multiplied by the coefficient of friction will lead to you returning to mean position quicker by increasing the friction. No need to flip along y – axis for this one. Thiis just me telling you how to dampen the oscillations further. raspberry

    Now, you may lynch me. raspberry

  9. Vivek says:

    Ooh…ooh…I’ve got another lame Physics-joke-cum-lesson-on-human-psychology.

    You are like a Van de Graaf generator. The nylon belt is slowly transferring charges to the centre of the sphere, from where it reaches the surface. Thing is, nobody’s bothered to take care not to exceed the 10% of breakdown field of 3×10^6 V/m. This means that soon enough, you will cause the air around you itself to ionize and unleash all kinds of bad things on whatever will be left of humanity. Moral? Don’t leave the Van de Graaf on at night. You might not wake up in the same world… (Analogy may be extended to other standby-power-consuming devices, except for the world-imploding bit)

    This is what I end up with when I’m studying for a physics final. wink

  10. observer says:

    I am awfully sorry,mate.. I dunno how I did it and since I did it on a public forum,let me apologise at the same.I was disturbed before I read your comments and that led to the mistake I committed.Sorry again,and may we meet in September.
    And Becca,awfully sorry to you too.