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UCLA needs to offer more study abroad opportunities geared toward STEM students

A widespread belief that only humanities students can study abroad should push UCLA to accommodate students of all majors who wish to participate in the program. (Xuxin Zhang/Daily Bruin)

By Leslie Landis

Oct. 15, 2019 11:21 p.m.

On Oct. 8, hundreds of wide-eyed students filed into the Study Abroad Fair, picking up dozens of flyers and writing their emails on every list they could find on their way to class.

But for those headed toward South Campus, UCLA makes it harder to fulfill those hopes.

About 25% of students each year study abroad, according to the UCLA International Education Office. What it fails to mention, however, is the disproportion between STEM and non-STEM students who choose to participate. Over the past decade, thousands of students at UCLA alone have studied abroad – yet an overwhelming 70% of them are non-STEM students.

Even worse, there are discrepancies within both the humanities and STEM majors, with majors such as economics and biology being more readily available to study over majors under engineering.

As a history student studying abroad in Prague this quarter, it was easy for me to take a quarter off from my usual UCLA course load and find classes that would work for my major. But for students whose course loads aren’t as flexible, the opportunity to study abroad is nothing more than an unreachable dream.

Interested students who juggle majors with heavier course loads should be focused on their academic opportunities – not fighting their university for the right to study abroad. UCLA should make studying abroad a possibility for all students by providing mentoring programs early on, for interested freshmen as well as students with confining majors. Not only would this create a more diversely educated student body, it would also work to help erase the stigma that only humanities students – or students with certain STEM majors – can go abroad.

Studying abroad gives students the opportunity to see the world, but the current programs barely let students see beyond their departments.

Academic director for the Council of International Educational Exchange Pettra Key, who manages the CIEE program in Prague, said that study abroad should be for every student no matter the discipline or major.

“I believe that the most important thing students learn abroad is who they are, what their values are, how to communicate and handle situations in a different culture,” Key said. “They learn to be creative and resourceful and cooperate with people who may behave very differently from what the American norm is.”

Yet the culture at UCLA makes it seem like this experience isn’t possible for anyone south of North Campus. Unsurprisingly, studying abroad benefits every type of student – because the lessons learned are, quite literally, universal.

The UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science saw less than 4% of its student population study abroad in the past 10 years. As of 2018, there were a little more than 3,600 undergraduate engineering students. And though it’s a visible population on campus, the options for studying abroad can feel disproportionally limited.

Derek Gunny, a third-year mechanical engineering student studying abroad this fall, said this is due to the course load being so dense, making it hard for engineers to study abroad and graduate in four years.

Gunny entered UCLA knowing he wanted to study abroad, but this wasn’t without extensive planning.

“I did C session freshman going into sophomore year,” Gunny said. “My sole reason was to get ahead.”

Not all students are aware, as freshmen, of the sacrifices they must make just to free up space to study abroad. By the time they start to think about studying abroad, they are unable to do so – and often graduate without life-changing experiences outside of 50 or so finals under their belts.

But it’s not just STEM students who struggle. Students in competitive, smaller majors such as communication have a hard time studying abroad as well.

Noie Manor, a third-year communication student studying abroad this fall, said she was unable to get any credit for her major with the courses she is taking in her study abroad program.

“The UCLA communication department is exclusive,” Manor said. “When talking about my plans to study abroad, they said I could but the classes I take will not count towards my major, so all I’m getting are units toward graduation.”

For majors like Gunny’s and Manor’s that are harder to complete abroad, UCLA should host and advertise separate study abroad seminars in each of those departments. These seminars should be complete with programs that satisfy requirements, preapproved courses and a schedule organizing session so students know how to graduate on time.

UCLA offers study abroad in the summer that caters more toward majors that require that students take specific courses in a certain order. But attending summer classes abroad in addition to regular classes tends to add up pretty quickly.

And not all students can afford the trade-off of more time for more money.

Gearing study abroad promotion toward students with heavy course loads would help them plan their schedules so that, when the time comes to study abroad, they have that opportunity.

It would be unfair to say STEM study abroad programs don’t exist entirely. In fact, the physics study abroad program at UCLA during the summer hosts a long waitlist. But it’s not enough to fill the deficit of STEM students studying abroad. Nor does it serve the wider student population who are stripped of the chance.

Every major department needs to work with the IEO to come up with ways to guide their students so that studying abroad is a feasible option.

Because until this happens, the closest most students will get to studying abroad is the pictures in those brochures they picked up.

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Leslie Landis | Opinion columnist
Landis is an Opinion columnist.
Landis is an Opinion columnist.
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