A Broad Abroad: Why International Experiences Help

Written by: Emily Weigel

Primary Source: Choice Words with Choosy_Female

I was recently asked to serve on a panel for recent alumni from the International Plan (IP) at Georgia Tech. Essentially, the IP is an add-on to your degree that requires more substantial international experience and knowledge that simply going abroad for a bit or taking international affairs courses.

I’m in science, and yes, it’s global. It’s definitely easier on me being in the US and being a native English speaker, but I think it’s valid to point out gains to these potential IP students.

International Experience: Anyone who knows me has probably heard me say at least once, “When I was in Germany…”. It’s probably a bit annoying, but when you spend 1.5 years in a foreign country by yourself as a 20-something, coming-of-age female, it’s probably a wee-bit impressionable. A wee bit.

For me, going abroad saved money. I was able to use scholarships to cover my schooling and living expenses while abroad, and I was able to take a ton of biology courses Tech didn’t offer. I also got a reprieve from working multiple jobs, which did allow me to focus on what I was learning, vs. trying to balance a million things at once. Perhaps most importantly, I was able to explore several different research labs and discern that research was right for me (and not feel like I was wasting time/money trying to find my way). Academically it was great.

Personally, I grew a lot from the experience, too. I had been taking German since I was a kid, but I never had to rely on it. Talk about scary when suddenly you’re signing legal documents (visa, rental agreements, X-ray safety notices) not in your native language! The experience helped me see all of the little things I take for granted, and it helped me build independence and self-confidence. I learned when I need help, and when I should tough it out, and how to recognize when not knowing is actually beneficial. I learned much more how to go-with-the-flow and be less of a control-freak, both in my personal and professional aspirations. I can’t say I wouldn’t have gained this perspective eventually, but I think being in Germany hastened the process.

Courses: Yes, I took a lot of German courses to fulfill requirements, and yes, I did have to take other courses for IP while at Tech, too. I learned I had a passion for the history of science and how that interacts with culture. I also learned a bit about managing diverse teams. These skills have come in handy when examining the history of ideas within behavioral biology (helping to answer, “Why is this what we know? Would we have come to this knowledge another way if society and scientists were more diverse?”). They’ve also helped me to understand the privilege I have in conducting science (and society broadly), to recognize when I’m likely to face barriers, and importantly, how to influence open access to science for everyone.

Life since the IP: Random things have come up which have drawn from my experiences in the IP. Most notably, when I work with a German scientist, we can communicate on two levels, which often means the writing we produce is clearer and captures ideas better than if we were to pick one language for all parts of the conversation. Also, as an RA in an on-campus dorm, I was able to make some of the students feel more at home and welcome by saying hi and explaining differences between ‘home’ and MSU in ways that made sense; this was particularly valuable when explaining US open container laws and football obsession. I’ve also remained in contact with colleagues who have since collaborated with me in publishing papers and giving presentations, and who are generally some of the best friends I have.

If you ever have the opportunity to go abroad, do it, but not just for your CV. Your perspective will be broadened and you’ll learn a lot about yourself and others. And hey, if it is something you want to do, stop reading this post right now and start googling your options!

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Emily Weigel
Emily Weigel (@Choosy_Female) is Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Zoology and in the Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, and Behavior Program at Michigan State University. Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, she earned her Bachelor’s degree in Biology with a focus on interdisciplinary research from the Georgia Institute of Technology. At MSU, Weigel conducts research in the lab of Dr. Jenny Boughman and is affiliated with the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action. Her dissertation research focuses on how female choice and investment interact with male mating strategies. Additionally, Weigel’s education research asks how and why a background in genetics affects student performance in evolutionary biology. When not researching, Weigel enjoys playing soccer, surfing Netflix, and promoting STEM in the community.
Emily Weigel

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