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ChE Undergraduate Writes About Her Experiences Studying Abroad in Scotland

Umass Engineering Students in Scotland

UMass Engineering Students in Scotland

During the spring semester of 2016, seven students from the Chemical, Mechanical and Industrial, and Civil and Environmental Engineering Departments are participating in the college’s study abroad program by spending five months at Heriot Watt University, located in Edinburgh, Scotland. We say “thanks” and give the tip of a hat to Professor Sarah Perry for nominating two of the students and asking one of them, Meaghan O’Brien, to write her impressions of her experiences overseas.

The seven students, pictured from left to right in the accompanying photo, are Adin Bohmiller, Peter Whelan, Timothy Braunsdorth, O’Brien, Thomas Falcucci, Sarah Lutz, Ian McGinty.

The program, which lasts from January to the end of May, is open to sophomore engineering students during the spring semester.

As O’Brien noted, “The program is offered specifically during this time frame because that is when the classes abroad match up best with the courses required at UMass. The advisors at Heriot Watt are incredibly helpful and supportive towards the international students. The professors are also extremely helpful, so UMass students are guaranteed to be in good hands while they are abroad. It is an amazing opportunity to learn about a new culture, a new way of learning, and meet people from all over the globe. I know it is an experience none of us who participated will forget.”

Below is the essay that O’Brien composed:

My Experience as an Engineer Abroad

Written by Meaghan O’Brien

Studying abroad is a once in a lifetime experience. Having the opportunity to study in a country other than my own has opened my eyes to a multitude of new and exciting experiences. I have been introduced to different perspectives that I would not have encountered otherwise at UMass Amherst.

Currently, it is the eleventh week of the teaching semester at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, where I am lucky enough to be studying for the spring semester. As a chemical engineering student it is extremely difficult to find courses abroad that match the fixed curriculum at UMass Amherst and are also taught in English. Fortunately, Heriot Watt was an excellent match. I am taking Thermodynamics, Differential Equations, Mathematical Modeling, and a British Culture and Society class during my time here.

One huge difference in academics is that students are assigned much less work outside of the classroom. If I were to be taking the same courses at UMass, I would spend hours doing homework every week, most likely online, and for a grade. However, my UK friends laugh when I explain to them that in the U.S. university students are assigned homework. Homework here is for high school and grade school students. At university, students take on more responsibility for their learning. Also, not having regularly assigned, graded work gives students more independence to choose what to do with their time outside of class. I am not going to lie, it takes a lot of self-motivation and organization to sit down with the class notes and study rather than begin a new show on Netflix or go out into town to hang out with friends.

Additionally, the spring semester has an entirely different structure than a semester at UMass. As I mentioned previously, it is week eleven of the teaching semester. There are twelve weeks total of teaching, then there is a three-week break from school. When university opens again it is exam time. The exam period lasts for an entire month.

The idea of having three weeks of break, and then a whole month to prepare for and take four exams, seems crazy to me, since I am used to having one week to take four or five exams at the end of the semester. However, since students are not constantly assessed throughout the semester, the final exam can be worth anywhere from 50 to 100 percent of the student’s overall grade. That is a lot of pressure!

However, as an abroad student I will not be spending the three-week break studying like I maybe should. Instead, I will be traveling! I have already made quite a few four-day weekend trips with my friends that have been amazing. I traveled to Madrid, Spain, during Carnival, which was a blast with all the celebrations and parades going on. I had the opportunity to stay with a host family who had a daughter around the same age as I am. It gave me the chance to practice speaking Spanish, which I haven’t done since high school. It also allowed my host sister to practice speaking English. At the end of the four days I was surprised at how well my comprehension and listening had improved.

Spain has been my favorite country that I visited so far. The culture is more relaxed than the fast pace of day-to-day life in the U.S. Their lives are centered more on their family life rather than work. I also have travelled to London, Amsterdam, and Paris as of this writing. Each city has its own character and charm. Each time I leave a place, I always find myself wishing I had more time to spend there!

Before studying abroad I thought I knew what diversity was. However, attending university in Europe has redefined my understanding of diversity. Each day on campus, on the bus, in town, I hear a variety of different languages being spoken that I cannot understand. I encounter people who do not always dress, speak, or look similar to myself. I have made friends with people from China, Italy, France, Norway, Germany, Ireland, England, and Scotland. There are people from all over the world attending this university, all of different upbringings, with different religious beliefs and political views, but all coexisting in harmony in this one space. I know that Europe is not without its flaws and that discrimination exists here too, which I’ve learned about in the British Cultures course. Yet, people are excited to talk about politics, especially when they find out I am an American. They are eager to ask questions about the presidential elections.

Overall, this experience has had an enormous impact on the way I see the world around me. It makes me evaluate our way of life in the U.S. a bit more critically. As a global community, we have so much to learn from one another. I think studying abroad has made me a better global citizen, as well as a better U.S. citizen. I am more aware of my influence, and I am better informed, more empathetic, and more open-minded than I was at the start of this journey. Even though my journey is not yet over, I know when I do return home I will make it part of my daily routine to read articles about the events taking place globally, not just in the U.S. Additionally, staying with a host family in Spain and being surrounded by people who are multilingual has renewed my desire to become fluent in another language. I am so thankful for having the opportunity to meet such a wonderful group of awesome and fun friends.

I am certain the friendships I have made while abroad will last a lifetime, seeing as we are already planning our 25-year reunion in Edinburgh! Having cultivated such a diverse group of friends and professional relationships while abroad has greatly expanded my personal network.

As an ambitious chemical engineering student interested in the medical application of the work I do, being abroad has made me think about how to make new products more applicable to a wider audience. This experience has opened my eyes to the differences that exist in the accessibility and quality of healthcare systems across the globe. I will also have to take into account the differences in chemical and drug regulation when developing a new medicine or synthetic material. All in all, studying abroad has been an extremely positive experience, one that I wish more engineering students had the ability and opportunity to partake in, because not every lesson is one that can be taught inside of a classroom.

The International Programs Office, located at 467 Hills South, (413) 545-2710, can assist you with your study abroad inquiries. (March 2016)