Back when she was a freshman planning to major in engineering at Howard University, Camille Carter had no interest in studying abroad.
“I wasn’t really that adventurous,” Carter explained of her thinking at the time.
But now — as one who has studied abroad in Ethiopia, Chile and Turkey before she graduated in 2014 — Carter is one of study abroad’s biggest proponents.
“I would say definitely go for it,” said Carter, a materials, process and physics engineer at Boeing, the aerospace giant. “You get to see how other countries or classes of students attack education.”
Carter’s experience abroad is part of a growing trend documented in a new report being released today by the Institute of International Education, or IIE.
And that is, students who study science, technology, engineering or mathematics — more commonly known as STEM — are the fastest growing group of American students studying abroad and the largest share at 23.9 percent of the roughly 313,000 who went abroad in 2014-2015, according to Open Doors, an annual report that provides demographic and other detailed information on students studying abroad.
Specifically, whereas about 68,800 American STEM students studied abroad in the 2013-2014 school year, in the 2014-2015 school year the figure jumped to more than 75,000 — a 9.1 percent change and the largest increase among the top five major fields of study, according to Open Doors.
While studying in another part of the world carries benefits for all students, it is particularly beneficial for engineering students who will inevitably work with colleagues from around the world, experts say.
“In today’s world, engineers need to work with global peers,” said Peggy Blumenthal, a senior official at IIE. “The sooner they learn to work with people from outside the United States, the more effective they’ll be as professionals.
“If the first time they go abroad is to negotiate a contract, then they’re learning things they could have learned through a study abroad experience and been much more effective on the job.”
Carter says her experience abroad has better prepared her for what she does at Boeing, particularly going from an HBCU to work in a field dominated by White males.
“As far as working in diverse groups, it definitely helped,” Carter said of her study abroad experience, which involved setting up a solar power system for a village in Ethiopia, where she attended Bahir Dar University. She has also done four-week stints at Santo Tomás University in Chile and Istanbul Technical University.
Carter studied abroad through GEAR UP at Howard University. Not to be confused with the college readiness program of the same acronym, GEAR UP in this instance stands for Global Education and Awareness Research Undergraduate Program.
Lorraine Fleming, director of the GEAR UP program at Howard, said study abroad gives students an advantage on how to adapt to unfamiliar places.
“Many companies now have branches or offices in other countries and they want to hire people who will be comfortable and easy to adapt to those environments,” Fleming said. She said GEAR UP students are “definitely able to go into a strange environment and do what they do as engineers or scientists in that setting.”
“It increases their confidence,” Fleming said.
Fleming said study abroad also builds “great tolerance for ambiguity when things don’t go as planned.”
“And that’s good for engineers, because in classrooms you can say, ‘If this happens, do this.’ But when you’re out there and you have a real experience when things don’t go according to the book and you have to make it work, it makes you a better engineer and better able to deal with real world situations.”
A total of 125 students have studied abroad through the GEAR UP program since it began in 2013, Fleming said.
Carter said GEAR UP required student participants to present research papers at two conferences upon their return.
“That really got me ready for what I do now because I’m in research and technologies,” Carter said.
Blumenthal said study abroad helps engineering schools retain women students in a field that is already predominantly male.
“They really see the time abroad to breathe and expand their learning in a way that they’re more comfortable,” Blumenthal said.
Fleming said the GEAR UP program at Howard does not currently involve internships with foreign firms but such plans are on the horizon.
Blumenthal said internships are important to engineering students and one of the reasons many don’t go abroad.
“One of the things that keeps engineering students at home is they really feel they have to do an internship to make sure they’ll have a good job,” Blumenthal said.
As a potential solution, she touted Global Engineering Education Exchange — also known as “Global E Cubed” — as a way for engineering students to get internships and study abroad experience.
Among other things, after studying abroad at a member institution for one or two semesters, the IIE program enables students to undertake a “practical, paid internship in an industrial setting or laboratory in the host country.”
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.