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Going abroad from MIT

Adventures of studying abroad far far away

When Jenny Shen ’13 studied abroad in Paris, she engaged in impromptu debates for hours on a lawn in front of the Louvre. “We watched the sun set over the Champs Elysees over a bottle of wine,” she said.

Discussion topics ranged from current issues in politics to the significance of the Enlightenment, just footsteps away from cafés and venues where historical thinkers hosted their debates. “I used to walk by the café where Sartre frequented,” Shen recalls.

Shen studied at the Sciences Po in Paris through one of many MIT-affiliated partnership during the 2012 spring semester. “What was so exceptional about the conversations I had was that all of the us (the students) came from countries around the world and had vastly different viewpoints and backgrounds,” said Shen, “and our discussions were against a backdrop of amazing scenery, in a city that has always been a center of thought.”

Selecting an abroad program

MIT offers several tailored study abroad programs through partnerships with foreign universities. The year-long Cambridge-MIT Exchange (CME) — which 13 of MIT’s departments participate in — is MIT’s most established study abroad program. Since its inception in 2000, more than 600 students have participated in CME. The close linkage of CME with individual course departments helps ensure that students receive transfer credit that does not put them behind on their academic schedule.

Meghan E. Kenny ’13, a Course 10 (Chemical Engineering) student who participated in CME, said she considered the program because it was the first program she knew about. “Many of the other programs offered are geared more towards HASS classes, and CME fits better with my major requirements,” she added.

“CME was definitely my first choice — my priority was getting expertise in my field, and not so much learning a new language,” Kenny said.

Cody A. Coleman ’13, a Course 6 major, also participated in CME. He said that study abroad gave him a great opportunity to travel, which he was not able to do much of before coming to MIT. “I did MISTI Mexico before going to Cambridge, and that confirmed that I wanted to have abroad experiences,” he said.

Similar but different to many study abroad programs, The MIT International Science and Technology Initiative (MISTI) connects MIT students with all-expenses-paid internships and research abroad. Of the seventeen programs and four initiatives, four of the programs offer study abroad options, according to the MISTI website.

About 50 percent of MIT students who study abroad enroll directly in a foreign university, or apply to a study abroad program through another U.S. university or an outside provider program. Global Education (12-189, helps students identify and prepare for study abroad experiences that are not managed by MIT.

Other exchanges offered through MIT are department-based, including a semester the University of Oxford in the UK (Course 3), an exchange with Delft University in the Netherlands or Hong Kong University (Course 4), University of Pretoria in South Africa (Course 16), and Sciences Po in Paris (Course 17), which Shen participated in.

Students may also attend one of MIT’s programs in Madrid over either IAP or the spring semester. The spring semester program allows students to study at top universities in Madrid: Universidad Politécnica de Madrid for engineering and Universidad Complutense de Madrid for humanities, science, management, and social science. This option requires the completion of Spanish IV or faculty evaluation. The IAP option requires only Spanish I, and gives students the option to take Spanish II in Madrid while living with a host family.

Caroline J. Enloe ’13, who studies economics and Spanish, chose the MIT Madrid program because she wanted to get Spanish exposure. She spent the spring semester of her junior year at the Universidad Complutense. “Margery Resnick, one of my professors, recommended the program,” she said. “It’s a well-established program that would give me language immersion opportunities.” Enloe thought it would be difficult to achieve near-fluency in Spanish before going abroad. “But after I went to Madrid, I realized I could become very proficient with just an extra push.”

Shen wanted to study abroad for the opportunity to travel and experience a new culture. “I grew up around Boston, so MIT is not really a move for me,” she explained. “Paris is a wonderful city and I studied French in high school — I chose Sciences Po because it complements my major.”

Unlike Kenny, Coleman, Enloe, and Shen, Saul K. Wilson ’13 did not go through an MIT-linked study abroad program. Instead, he opted to enroll in multiple Chinese language programs not directly affiliated with MIT. He studied in the Beijing CET Chinese Language program over summer 2012 for two months. Over the most recent IAP, he spent a month learning Chinese at the New Century School in Tianjin. This summer, he is heading to Kunming in southern China to continue his Chinese studies.

Wilson, who studies mathematics and Asian studies, says he has a strong interest in Chinese and would like to do field work in China. “I saw study abroad as the perfect opportunity to improve my Chinese skills and travel to places I otherwise would not be able to see,” he said. “Being in China gave me a much better sense of the ‘real’ China than just taking classes, and I value this authenticity.”

New academic perspectives

Students who went abroad agreed that the different academic system in their abroad program gave them new insight into learning.

“The Cambridge academic system is different,” Kenny explains. “There, the learning method is independent, rather than collaborative as is the case in MIT. You get less constant evaluation, but rather you are responsible for preparing for a couple large assignments and exams.” Kenny learned to adapt to the vastly different academic approach, which she says provided a different perspective on learning and gave new insight on her studies when she returned to MIT.

For Coleman, being abroad allowed him to reflect on his learning at MIT and open up his point-of-view to other ways of learning and doing. “I gained an amazing global network of students,” he said. “Cambridge has a large international population — many of them also exchange students. I met many students who were studying majors other than engineering — such as medicine, classics, or music,” he said.

Academic assignments at Universidad Complutense are not as regular as at MIT, so students generally seem more relaxed about their studies Enloe explains about the MIT Madrid Program,. “It’s normal for a class to give just two or three major assignments for the entire semester,” she said. “While it isn’t as hard on you in daily work, it trains your ability to learn and work independently. My classes were more reading-based than at MIT.”

“But it’s very visible that the students there care about their education,” Enloe added. “They’re politically informed, and many even participated in a strike against education cuts while I was there. The economy wasn’t great. But they visibly care about the quality and accessibility of their education.”

Enloe took a class on Spanish literature and said it was fascinating that she is learning about the literature from a purely local point-of-view, by a professor who has been teaching the material for many years. “When analyzing, the Spanish professors seem to have different points-of-view from my professors at MIT,” she said.

An economics major, Shen said it was also helpful to study economics at Sciences Po from a more reading — and discussion-based approach, which complements her more quantitative economics classes at MIT. She noted the international perspective she gained was important for her personal growth, and that it challenged her to be in the Sciences Po environment, which has trained many of France’s top political leaders.

“The Bin Laden assassination occurred during my semester abroad,” Shen said, “and the French and international students in my class all had different perspectives on the significance of the assassination. Many French students thought it was inappropriate of Americans to look at Bin Laden’s death positively. I can see how this discussion connected to other discussions I had in my abroad classes — on how revolutions are represented in literature, and relating to that the Arab Spring and Western intervention.”

Language immersion, traveling, and social life while abroad

Many students studying abroad get the opportunity to improve their language skills. Enloe took her classes in Spanish while in Madrid. “In MIT, I had Spanish class twice a week,” she said, “while I was constantly communicating with fluent speakers while in Madrid. I took all my classes in Spanish, ate dinner with my host mom, bought stamps and metro tickets, and went to the local grocery store. These individual experiences all gave me opportunities to practice on a daily basis.”

Jenny Shen took her classes in English, though she was given the option of classes in English and French. “I’m very glad I went abroad, because otherwise it’s easy to get stuck in the U.S. model and think of our way of life as a model for the world,” she said. “I learned from students all of the world — the Middle East, China, South America, and of course local students from around France.”

Regarding social life, Kenny said that studying abroad has been a terrific learning experience. “I was shy when I entered college,” she noted. “Of course going to MIT changed that somewhat, but a year abroad made an even bigger difference. Being in a foreign country forces you to express yourself and think about how you want to communicate, and regularly meeting students from a different culture provides insight on how to do so.”

“CME was especially amazing because it lasted an entire year,” Coleman said. “I only really got to understand British culture and customs thoroughly halfway through the year, so I realized it takes a long time to really get acclimated to a new place.” She added that other European countries were highly accessible, and he was easily able to travel during his weeks off from school. While he did not travel as much before study abroad, going abroad gave him a great opportunity to finally do a lot of travel at once.

Coleman looked at study abroad as “a second college experience”. “You get to ‘start’ college all over again and do things differently,” he said. “It makes it very easy to try new things.” While in Cambridge, he got more involved with sports than before, participating in rowing, rugby, running, and badminton. “You’re free from your responsibilities at MIT for a year and can try brand-new experiences.”

“You gain a global perspective,” Coleman said. “After being in the UK for a year, I noticed a number of things in Europe that could also work in America and be implemented terrifically.” He said that looking at the diversity of opinions and customs gave him more inspiration.

Enloe notes that her abroad experience made her much more independent. “When you’re abroad, you aren’t familiar with the local system so you must actively seek opportunities yourself,” she said. “I enjoyed that opportunity. The MIT program gave us a lot of freedom in allowing us to plan our own weekend excursions and create our own plans.”

Enloe notes that traveling in a foreign environment can be frustrating, and mishaps will happen. “Navigating the bus system is confusing,” she said,” and once I got on the wrong bus. You need to assess the situation yourself and learn not to panic.”

During Enloe’s abroad term, Spain was suffering economically. “It was a tumultuous time,” she said. “But many of the Spanish students were well-informed about politics and actively took a role in trying to contribute.” Enloe got to meet many students from other parts of Europe in her travel. She noted it was interesting to compare stereotypes between cultures. “This contributed to a lot of deep thinking along the way,” she said.

Students abroad often use their time as an opportunity to travel extensively. “Traveling Europe can be inexpensive and convenient if you plan ahead of time,” Kenny says. “Cambridge goes in eight-week sessions with six weeks of break in between each section. That gives you a lot of time to travel, and I got to go to so many places during this time.”

She noted that traveling was a learning experience as well. “You learn to be resourceful and patient,” she says. “Sometimes mishaps happen when you travel no matter how carefully you plan.” While in Venice, Kenny got lost in the canal streets while trying to find her hostel. “I couldn’t use my phone because minutes were too expensive when I was traveling. Being in occasional situations like these train your ability to think on the spot,” she says. “And things will always be fine in the end.”

“I remember flying to Urumqi, China in the middle of winter when it’s below 0°F,” Wilson laughs. “It wasn’t the best time to visit, but I did get to see Urumqi.”

Barriers and gains

According to the 2012 Graduate Student Survey, 59.2 percent of students reported academic concerns as a reason for opting out of an international program while in college. 40.0 percent of students felt the study abroad duration was too long, 38.2 percent considered extracurricular commitments a concern, and 34.8 percent listed expense as a concern. In addition, 38.5 percent of students reported that they simply had no interest in participating in an international program.

Josh Nupp, Assistant Dean for Global Education, notes that some students do not consider studying abroad because they feel so tied into their life at MIT — academics, living groups, research, extracurricular activities, and friends.

“MIT students are very pragmatic,” observes Josh Nupp. “When they consider an available opportunity such as study abroad, many are interested in how they can leverage the experience in regards to their career or academic goals.”

Nupp explained that an international experience should not be viewed as detracting from the MIT experience. “On the contrary, I think studying abroad adds value to an MIT degree,” he says. “Employers and graduate schools look favorably on the skills developed during a study abroad experience. It certainly is not the easier road — you are forced to adjust to a different teaching and learning style in an unfamiliar university and cultural setting, and this flexibility and adaptability are seen as assets.”

Tami Bolk, Career Assistant in Global Education and leader of the Study Abroad Peer Mentors Program, aims to engage students after reentry from their abroad programs to help them both leverage their experience abroad as well as help promote international opportunities to other MIT students. “I work with students on developing their reflection and articulation skills, in order for them to further recognize how their abroad experience can impact their future academic and career goals,” she says. “I want to demonstrate that study abroad can be an asset in all forms.”

According to the annual Open Doors report, which is conducted by the U.S. Institute of International Education, STEM majors are less likely to participate in study abroad programs. During the 2010-11 school year, only 3.5 percent of U.S. students who went abroad were studying engineering and only 1.8 percent were math or computer science students. This is in comparison to the 22.9 percent of students who were social science majors, 20.5 percent business and management students, and 11.3 percent humanities majors.

“Although STEM students may face barriers because there are less study abroad programs oriented towards those subjects and STEM students tend to have more structured four-year plans, it is certainly doable with adequate planning in advance” said Bolk.

“The MIT-organized abroad programs have been around awhile, and almost everyone graduates on time,” says Kenny about her CME experience. “If you plan accordingly, you should not have a problem.”

Shen recalls she was looking at the MIT course catalog before going abroad, and thinking about all the interesting classes she would have to miss. “I was on a phone call with my advisor the day before my flight to Paris, because I was having second thoughts,” she laughs. “But I have no regrets — the academic experience I got was one-of-a-kind.”

“So-called ‘soft skills’, such as cross-cultural communication, dealing with ambiguity, and working on an international team, are very important in the modern workplace,” Nupp says. “In reality, most technically-oriented companies are extremely diverse and thus highly value employees with such skills. Students who can intelligently speak about how their international experience developed their skill set and global competencies are at a distinct advantage over their counterparts without such an experience.”

Nupp adds that the science and engineering field has always been global and is becoming increasingly so, and adaptation and independence are important qualities to possess after graduation. A study abroad program is a perfect way to add such a dimension to studies. “Many universities already stream international tracks and foreign languages into their STEM curriculums,” he notes. “This makes it easy to gain language proficiency, and abroad experiences early on.”

“When abroad, students will much more likely meet students studying other fields, such as history and literature,” Bolk says. “This diversity in disciplines is not as common at MIT, and can add insight into your studies.”

Kenny also discussed concerns from students who were worried about being away for a year and being out of touch with their MIT friends. “You’re in a foreign country, meeting tons of new people, and creating your own unique memories,” she says. “If you are second-thinking the abroad opportunity, think about the experiences you would miss if you opted out.”

Coleman agrees that you’ll make new friends while abroad but your old friends will still be here.

“It’s very easy to get back into the swing of MIT upon return,” added Enloe. “In fact, your friends will be extra happy to see you!”

Regarding expenses, Nupp notes that many abroad programs are very affordable. “The cost-of-living will be lower in many cases, financial aid applies to any semester programs, and you can always apply for MIT and external scholarships during IAP and summer,” he added.

“I don’t see why people think it’s a bad idea to go abroad,” says Coleman. “You’re in a college where there are programs supporting your time abroad. You don’t have to worry about losing a job, your family, or your friends.”

“Even if you haven’t thought about going abroad, you should at least look into it,” explains Enloe. “It may not be for everyone, but it can easily be a personal growth experience or give you a new perspective, as it did for me. I encourage everyone to see what it’s about.”

“It can be very easy to convince others to join you,” adds Wilson.

Want to get involved?

The departments at MIT which offer unique international opportunities — MISTI, the Public Service Center (PSC), Global Education and Career Development (GECD) and International Research Opportunities Program (IROP) — strategically work together to encourage more international experiences on an institutional level.

“Most students don’t realize that if they don’t see an MIT-sponsored program in a specific location being promoted, they won’t be able to participate in such an experience. However, with four of the MIT global offices, students really have the flexibility to design their own program or participate on outside programs wherever they wish to go,” Bolk said.

The MIT Go Global Fair in September, info sessions for individual MIT abroad programs, class visits and the study abroad blog ( provide further information on study abroad opportunities.