Study abroad program a success, students say

Carnegie Mellon students are enhancing their college experience by packing their bags and heading abroad, according to the most recent study by the University’s International Committee.

The study, published in August 2006, shows “academic, global, and personal benefits” for students who venture abroad, said Paul Goodman, International Committee chairman.

Of the students surveyed who went abroad in 2006, 99 percent said that they would choose to do so again.

Students cited learning about a new country, meeting new people, gaining self confidence, and learning a new language as the greatest advantages of time spent abroad.

“Educationally, it gives students a different perspective,” said Amber Mercier, a representative for the Institute for the International Education of Students (IES). IES offers 30 specialized programs and internship opportunities in 16 countries, according to its website.

The survey results support Mercier’s assertion: 43 percent of students surveyed reported an improved understanding of their major and 52 percent reported improved second language skills.
Students are able to use this knowledge in future job opportunities that are constantly pushing for more international experience and creative approaches to problem solving.

Mercier believes that living in another country has a positive impact on students.

“Students talk more about the personal — about adjusting and thinking outside the box,” she said.
Students agreed: 75 percent stated that studying abroad increased their self confidence and 74 percent reported an improved understanding of themselves.

“I gained a much wider view of the world,” stated Amy Suntoke, a junior ethics, history, and public policy major, via e-mail.

Suntoke participated in the DIS program in Copenhagen, Denmark during the fall 2006 semester.
“There are so many important things, both political and cultural, that we don’t pay much attention to, but yet still have a big impact in the international arena,” she said. “When I returned, I also had a better understanding of the U.S. and our way of life here.”

Approximately 86 percent of the students surveyed reported an improved understanding of cultural differences after studying abroad.

“Being in a foreign country and being forced to take care of everything for yourself in a completely unfamiliar place really gives you a sense of confidence,” Suntoke stated.

According to the survey, 75 percent of students experienced improved self-confidence upon their return from abroad.

These changes often have a positive effect on the student’s subsequent performance at Carnegie Mellon, said Eva Mergner, senior coordinator for study abroad and exchange programs at Carnegie Mellon.

“They feel more independent, more aware of themselves, open to new experiences, and new people. That stuff bleeds over into the academic,” Mergner said.

According to Mergner, returning students are able to “understand problems from a different approach” and possess “a sense of the world and how the U.S. fits in.”

Mergner highlighted many programs that have interested Carnegie Mellon students in the past. For engineering students, she suggested an exchange program through Aachen University of Technology in Germany that allows students in engineering to take classes and conduct research. She also cited the programs through the School for International Training (SIT) and the architecture programs through Lexia as popular choices.

In addition to the academic and cultural benefits of studying abroad, the survey also indicated that students also view the experience as a chance to take a break from the intense schedule and heavy course load at Carnegie Mellon.

However, this often means students that find it hard to readjust to Carnegie Mellon upon their return.

“I think it was rather difficult to assimilate back into the CMU lifestyle. You tend to feel frustrated and sometimes alienated from your friends and family,” Suntoke stated. “However, once you really start to digest your experience and accept that you are in fact back in the U.S., these feelings disappear.”

To ease the transition, the OIE holds mandatory pre-departure and post-return sessions for study abroad students to address concerns that students may have about living in another country, from the administrators in charge of the trip to health and safety issues and potential cultural differences students may experience once abroad.

Despite potential pitfalls, the results of the survey indicated that, overall, students viewed studying abroad as one of the most educational and valuable experiences of their college years.
The OIE, located on the third floor of Warner Hall, will hold an open house Friday at 3 p.m. Students can enjoy snacks while meeting OIE staff and students who have studied abroad, learn about the programs offered, and ask any questions.