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February 25, 2020

STEM Majors Deserve to Study Abroad Too

UChicago needs to make studying abroad more feasible for its STEM students.

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Alvin Shi / The Chicago Maroon

Several students come to UChicago for its unique study abroad programs. However, for STEM students, studying abroad is not necessarily a reality. Many students planning to major in STEM come to UChicago with hopes of travel only to realize that it is practically impossible to do so because the classes required for their majors are offered only during specific quarters, need to be taken in a specific order, or are just too demanding to leave for a quarter or a yearlong sequence.

Studying abroad is an essential part of any college experience. It is not every day that you have the opportunity to move to a different country, immerse yourself in a new culture, and perhaps even learn a new language. Given all the benefits of studying abroad, there is no reason why STEM students should miss out. In fact, many universities make studying abroad possible even for those students pursuing a STEM degree by allowing students more flexibility with direct enrollment, while UChicago has a specific list of schools from which it accepts credits. The University of Chicago thus needs to expand opportunities for STEM students to study abroad.

For many, studying abroad is a chance to learn a new language, fulfill core and major requirements in a new environment, and explore a new place. Indeed, college represents the ideal time to study abroad: After graduation, it is significantly harder to travel because of work obligations and finances. While it is true that students still have to pay the hefty program administrative fee, at UChicago, students retain their financial aid while studying abroad in college-sponsored programs. UChicago will also start administering a need-based $1,200 stipend to cover the cost of flights and the administrative fee in the 2020-2021 academic year.

Given the range of study abroad options, from Paris to Hong Kong, and the fact that financial aid travels with you on UChicago-based study abroad programs, it is vital that not just social science and humanities students are able to study abroad.

I interviewed Caitlin Krantz, a second-year Computational and Applied Math Major, who expressed disappointment about not being able to study abroad. The computational and applied math major, along with several others, including biological sciences and chemistry, contain sequences that limit the possibilities for travel. Several majors require that students take year-long sequences that make it virtually impossible for a student to leave to study abroad. Others have classes that must be taken in a particular order but are only offered in specific quarters, making it hard to plan study abroad. For example, the chemistry major requires five year-long sequences to be taken throughout the student’s four years in college.

Caitlin said, “If I wanted to study abroad for [a Civilizations program], I would have to plan it out extremely far out in advance with my advisor.” Moreover, she said that she would have to get her first-choice program in order to stay on track with her academics while abroad. 

While there is a math study abroad option in Paris, it is only offered in spring quarter and satisfies only the elective requirements of the major. Given that very few of her major classes are actually electives (the major requires 1800 credits total, only 300 of which are electives), studying abroad—even in a math-based program—isn’t always feasible.

Other STEM majors have similar experiences. After speaking with other STEM majors, I found that, in general, students were originally drawn to UChicago partly due to the study abroad programs available. Understandably, they felt frustrated once arriving at the school and realizing there was great difficulty studying abroad given their majors, especially at a university that touts its unique and accessible study abroad opportunities.

Furthermore, students who change majors (and many do) have even less time to complete required classes and the chance of going abroad is even lower. UChicago prides itself on its flexible timeline for declaring a major (students don’t have to declare a major until their third year), encouraging students to explore a wide variety of fields. However, failing to make study abroad programs accessible across all majors negates this sentiment. In most cases, taking the time to explore different fields can make it harder to study abroad. By the time a student who explored their options settled on a major, they would likely struggle to fit study abroad in given all their other major requirements.

While direct enrollment at a different university is an option for some, it often requires fluency in the language of the host country, making this option much less feasible for students without the necessary language background. STEM departments are also notoriously picky when it comes to accepting credits from other universities, making this option even trickier.

While there is the option to study abroad with UChicago over the summer, there is only one UChicago faculty-led summer program that counts for civilization core requirements, which is located in Paris. The program is small and therefore more selective than UChicago’s normal study abroad programs, meaning that not all interested students can participate. Moreover, given the widespread expectation that students pursue an internship over the summer, many students don’t want to forsake an internship opportunity in favor of summer study abroad.

Thus, the University should expand opportunities for STEM students to study abroad. It could do this by creating programs that do not interfere with common STEM sequences. While the University already offers September programs, such as “Florence: Living with History” and “Paris: Law, Letters, and Society,” these programs do not confer Civilizations credit. The University could make these programs fulfill the civilization requirement or pair with on-campus civilization programs to allow STEM students to study abroad. It could also expand its summer offerings.

One possible solution is UChicago could allow third and fourth-year students to study abroad and fulfill upper level requirements for their degree at a different university. If the University was able to find a way to allow STEM students to incorporate study abroad into their studies, more students would be able to reap the benefits of studying abroad.

Study Abroad is an incredible experience for many students at UChicago. It is only fair that STEM students should be able to study abroad too.

Sylvia Ebenbach is a second-year in the College.

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