Where To Start and How To Plan for a Study Abroad Experience

The number of U.S. students studying abroad for academic credit has more than tripled over the past two decades, according to the Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange conducted by the Institute of International Education. The most recent data (for the 2013–2014 school year) show that 304,467 students spent part of their academic careers abroad, and the greatest percentage of those students — 22.6% — were science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors. “When I came to the field in 2001, there was a lot of history from faculty and students that you couldn’t study abroad as a STEM student,” says Isabelle Crist, assistant director of operations for the Vanderbilt University Global Education Office. “A lot of that has changed.”

Plan early

There are more study abroad opportunities than ever for chemistry majors and other STEM majors to enjoy academic experiences abroad, especially with early and careful planning. Tanya Puccio, a biology and Hispanic studies double major with a chemistry minor at Virginia Wesleyan College, knew she wanted to build her language skills in a Spanish-speaking country. She also had a preference for taking science classes taught in English.

Puccio began her planning one year before her semester abroad. “We had a study abroad advisor, so she was the first person I contacted when I was first interested,” says Puccio. “She led me down the right path, and from there I branched out and spoke to my professors and friends who had studied abroad to narrow down where I wanted to go.” Doing advance planning allowed Puccio to find a study abroad program that was right for her and that offered a scholarship.

Research your curriculum

If you are working with a study abroad program within your own institution, chances are good that the program has already been vetted, meaning that credits and financial aid should transfer seamlessly. If you are looking at a program outside of your institution, however, transferability is less certain. It is always a good idea to double-check in either case. For example, after getting some direction from her study abroad advisor, Puccio did her own research on the classes she would need to take while abroad. “I pretty much figured it out myself in terms of what classes I needed and how to rearrange my schedule,” Puccio recalls. “I confirmed with my professors ahead of time that I was going to be able to take these classes, get credit for them, and not worry about missing out on any important classes while I was gone.”

Crist agrees that it’s extremely important to have the classes you hope to take evaluated by your home college or university. She advises preparing a “portfolio” of classes abroad that would be acceptable in case your options are limited. “What we really focus on in our advising is the best academic fit for the student, with the understanding that they are more than likely going to be taking coursework toward their major,” Crist says. “We advise students to meet with their academic advisor and look at their four-year plan to make sure they understand what requirements they have to fulfill, and which courses can move around if they need to.”

Kenneth Mei and Jessica Woolf, both undergraduates at the University of New England (UNE), looked at their schedules and chose to study abroad in the spring semester of their sophomore years instead of a year later (which is the more common timing). Mei studied in Tangier, Morocco, and Woolf in Seville, Spain.

“I talked to my advisors, and they suggested sophomore year,” Woolf explains. “I feel like all your real core classes usually are junior year, and you can always push [a class] back” if it isn’t offered abroad. Physics — typically a sophomore-year class — wasn’t offered in Seville during the semester Woolf was there, but she had plenty of space in her schedule to add the class once she returned home.

Find your program

Mei and Woolf had the advantage of attending international campuses already affiliated with their own university. UNE has an undergraduate population that is very science-focused and, according to Associate Professor of Chemistry Amy Keirstead, the institution began an arrangement with Universidad Pablo de Olavide in Seville several years ago wherein UNE could set up its own organic chemistry course with a laboratory. In 2014, UNE also opened a study abroad campus in Tangier, offering organic chemistry, physics, anatomy/physiology, genetics, and regionally themed liberal arts courses.

“We want our students to have a positive study abroad experience, but also be able to take their science courses and stay on schedule,” says Keirstead. “All these courses are taught by local instructors, with faculty members sometimes visiting from the United States.”

“One of the great things about both of these study abroad experiences is that the students pay their regular UNE tuition and room and board. All they need to cover is the plane ticket, and there are scholarships to help defray the cost of that,” Keirstead explains.

Most universities won’t have their own courses and labs set up abroad, but many have established partner schools and approved course syllabi. For example, the University of Texas at Austin (UT) College of Natural Sciences has several partner institutions around the world that offer courses designed to meet course requirements for the university’s chemistry and biochemistry majors. To help students make good decisions, UT also maintains its own study abroad database, which includes 10,000 pre-approved foreign courses matched to their equiva­lent courses.

Look for research opportunities

For many chemistry students, studying abroad offers an early and invaluable introduction to the international chemistry commu­nity — and lessons that go beyond just classes. Arik Ohnstad, asso­ciate director of the Global Education Office at Vanderbilt, notes that the possibility of doing research abroad is “quite doable.”

“Most of our students who get involved do so through a faculty member who knows colleagues abroad and connects them,” he explains. “We’ve had students do research in labs and even manage their own projects abroad.”

One of Puccio’s professors in Seville invited her to do a mini project in the lab while she was there, giving her the opportunity to spend time working with graduate students in the lab and perfecting her Spanish. “In that experience, I got a feel for what lab life was like there,” she recalls. “It surprised me how similar it was to lab life here.”

Even without working in a lab, Mei still felt the introduction to the international science community was important. “One of the most valuable lessons I learned while I was there was to deal with different languages,” Mei says of his time in Tangier. “Many of the classes in Morocco were taught by instructors whose first language wasn’t English, so that took a bit of patience to get used to. I think that will be a common occurrence in my future career.”

Ohnstad adds that research experience “provides students with something pretty fantastic to be able to talk about, whether in the job market or in graduate school applications.”

Lay the groundwork

If this all sounds good to you, begin by scheduling a conversation with your school’s study abroad or global education office, and then start researching. The biggest mistake that students make is not laying the proper academic groundwork, Crist notes. “If they forget a piece — like getting the courses evaluated, or verifying that the results they found work for them — that can’t be changed late in the semester.” Crist recommends that students stay on track by owning the process and ensuring that the courses they choose are in their best interest.

Studying abroad can be a fantastic experience, both personally and as part of an academic career — but students must begin planning early, diligently ensuring that study abroad fits into their academic plan. “It’s good to have help with that,” Crist says, “but at the end of the day, you have to remember that you’re the one graduating with the degree, so you’re in charge of making your study abroad experience work for you.”


Study abroad isn’t limited to four-year institutions. According to the Institute of International Education’s 2014 report on community colleges, more than 6400 students from two-year colleges studied abroad in 2013 and 2014, 24% of whom were in a STEM program. Such pro­grams are usually shorter — from 1 to 4 weeks — to accommodate the work­ing schedules and family commitments common to two-year college students. Programs typically offer course credit, and many institutions have scholarships for participating students.

About the Author

Allison Proffitt
is a freelance writer and editor based in Nashville, TN.