Kelly Slatery was a Cognitive Science student at the University of Virginia and attended the IFSA-Butler Spanish Translation and Linguistics in Buenos Aires Program in Argentina in 2016. Kelly was an International Correspondent through the Work-to-Study program.
If you’re a STEM major, you might be thinking, “What could studying for a semester or two in another country possibly have to do with my future success?”
And as a cognitive science major, I get that. But being a good scientist and a desirable candidate for a job takes much more than fulfilling a list of stringent prerequisites—and that’s where studying abroad comes into play.
To me, studying abroad is the opportunity to get a jump-start on turning my major into my life.
After talking with some of the other STEM majors on my program this semester in Buenos Aires, I came up with a list of five ways studying abroad will not only benefit us in our academic and personal development, but also make us stand out as applicants in the vast pool of aspiring science professionals.
1. Skills for the Working World
Taking mostly classes in psychology and computer science back in the States, I don’t end up writing many papers or giving many presentations—but that doesn’t make writing and communicating effectively any less important to my future career! My classmates agree. Sophia, a third year Chemical Engineering major studying in Buenos Aires on the Argentine Universities Program, is taking a full course load of humanities classes this semester. She is welcoming the opportunity to focus on developing her skills in communication and critical thinking.
On top of the skills you can gain by branching out in the classroom, the opportunities to grow as an individual in a study abroad setting are endless! Joe, a third year Neuroscience major and aspiring doctor, decided to study abroad with the intention of learning to “appreciate distinct backgrounds and be mindful of cultural differences.” These skills will help him tremendously when working in the hospital context. So while we may not be taking any courses for our majors, largely because our coursework is in Spanish, we are definitely becoming more adaptable, open-minded, and independent individuals—all skills that will make us better science professionals, too!
2. Keeping a Blog for my Resume
One of the major reasons I chose this study abroad program was the guaranteed internship that came along with acceptance into the program.
You can develop as many skills as you want, but your employer doesn’t want to see a list of finely crafted adjectives. They want to see a person who embodies them. A blog will give you some multidimensionality before the interview, setting you apart from other candidates with a touch of personality and entrepreneurial spirit. The anecdotes you share on your blog can also serve as evidence of the skills you claim to have, so highlight that time you got into a tricky situation but figured it out all on your own, or that time you opened up to a cultural difference and learned something about yourself. No one said a scientist couldn’t be a writer, too!
3. Additional Opportunities and Connections
One of the major reasons I chose this study abroad program was the guaranteed internship that came along with acceptance into the program—and while it may not directly correlate to my major, it is still professional international experience. Other students here in Buenos Aires have also been looking into positions relevant to their fields of study. Joe and Cirkine, neuroscience majors on our program, have both been on the hunt for neuroscience labs to join, and Sophia is considering working with a non-profit company that develops clean water systems across Argentina. In fact, our Resident Director, Mario, even offered Joe the opportunity to have his own lab to run his own project while he was here!
On top of work experience, studying abroad gives you the chance to develop an international network. Just getting to know Mario, Griselda, and the rest of the IFSA-Butler Argentina staff opens up a wide network of connections. Be proactive—you never know who might hand you a business card!
4. Language Proficiency
Bilingual ability will be helpful in any professional sphere, but there are specific reasons why Spanish is important to us as scientists, and as individuals, too. Cirkine wants to improve her Spanish fluency to connect further with her Panamanian heritage. Joe acknowledges that, with his goal of working in the hospital context, he is bound to need Spanish on a daily basis in the working world. Sophia wants to improve her Spanish because she is aware of the various connections the U.S. has with Spanish-speaking countries in her desired field of pharmaceutical engineering.
Your employer doesn’t want to see a list of finely crafted adjectives. They want to see a person who embodies them.
For me, gaining proficiency in a second language involves the practical application of everything I learn in psychology and linguistics about language structure and development. Even in STEM careers, knowing another language could prove to be the difference in being good at your job and being great! And what better way to learn a language than immersing yourself in it?
5. Reaffirmation of my Passion
It sounds cheesy to say that study abroad is about finding yourself, but getting away from what I’m used to has given me the space to look objectively on my academic decisions, and I already feel reinvigorated! Cirkine isn’t taking any neuroscience classes here either, and has found, through trying out about 20 classes in the past couple weeks, that she really doesn’t like anything else. Neuroscience is her passion! And when I asked Joe about why he wanted to study abroad, he shared an inspiring story about his cellular neuroscience professor, who got his start in cellular neuroscience when he serendipitously joined a lab while studying abroad in France. Studying abroad gives you the chance to try something new—and you might find you love it, or you might remember why you love what you already do!
To me, studying abroad is the opportunity to get a jump-start on turning my major into my life. Of course it’s going to be (and already has been) loads of fun, but it’s a lot more than that, too—and my future employer will know it!