I distinctly remember sitting myself down for a serious talk freshman year. “Claire,” I said. “You have to stop going to these info sessions. You knew when you chose engineering that in doing so you automatically forsook studying abroad!”
Ignoring myself, I stopped by the fall study abroad fair sophomore year—four months later I was on a plane to Australia. Upon returning, I became a peer adviser for the Office of Global Programs, and have spent the last year getting the word out that studying abroad as a SEAS student is actually possible. But I have been assuming that once SEAS students realize studying abroad is possible, they will naturally jump on the chance. However, if my engineering education has taught me anything, it’s to always check my assumptions. So, to all of the underclassman SEAS students who aren’t quite sure if the effort and risk of studying abroad is worth it, I say: “Do it. Or at least go to the info sessions.”
A big advantage that SEAS students have is that the freshman and sophomore SEAS curriculum is mostly comprised of subjects that are similar the world over: European calculus is American calculus is Asian calculus. Therefore, going abroad early in your education does not come with any danger of sacrificing concepts you would have otherwise learned at Columbia. If you’re going to have to learn statistics anyway, why not learn it from a professor who seems to come to lecture straight from the outback?
That being said, math and science do differ between countries. Without going abroad, engineering can seem like a very black-and-white field of study: The concepts we learn in class are either right or wrong and that’s that. However, in Australia, recitations were mandatory, lectures were optional, and math classes were aptly named, covering a wide span of concepts as opposed to our single-focused math classes, like calculus or linear algebra. Going abroad as an engineer shows you a different box from which to think, exposing you to an entirely different approach to the field, and allowing you to think critically about every aspect of your education.
However, none of this is why I personally went abroad. I left because abroad, Columbia’s overachieving culture is not there to pressure you to do any extracurriculars, let alone serve on the board of any of them. Because it is a time when you can literally reinvent yourself every day: Few people know who you are, and virtually no one knows who you’re “supposed” to be. I left because going abroad means spending a semester finding the limit of your personality as independence approaches infinity and externally imposed expectations approach zero. I left to come back. I left so that I could have time to breathe and re-examine the lifestyle I had developed, so that when I returned I could have a refreshed relationship with Columbia and a rebooted set of priorities. And it worked. I went abroad and had a semester to live a life that was truly my own, capitalizing on my newfound time and freedom to play on the Frisbee team, take spontaneous road trips, and vagabond through New Zealand. Since returning to Columbia, I am healthier, happier, and more fulfilled.
I realize that engineering classes are still nontrivial while abroad, that creating a new life abroad is difficult, and that it may even rain for a month straight while you are overseas. But I also know that it could be among the best and most formative months of your life, filled with innumerable adventures and lifelong friends, changing you in ways you do not fully recognize until long after you return. So if you are an underclassman, I urge you to seriously look into studying abroad, especially now that it is the beginning of the year and planning ahead is still possible, and there are a slew of info sessions to attend. Because either way, when you return you will have a more complex relationship with Columbia, a richer engagement with your education and career, and above all, a deeper understanding of yourself.
The author is a School of Engineering and Applied Science senior. She is a peer advisor in the Office of Global Programs.