Last spring, spending my evenings planning for my upcoming year abroad, I put a lot of effort into trying to find courses here in Leeds that would match exactly with what was being taught back at the UNM Centennial Engineering Center. Fortunately, that wasn’t the way it worked out in the end, and I wound up taking a course or two that I would not necessarily find back home. Now, half-way through the first semester, I am being presented with new exciting ideas and really benefiting from the diverse academic experiences.
When people would ask me why I wanted to study abroad, I would give some common responses: to experience a new social culture, see foreign lands, find myself, yadda yadda… But one thing that I had not considered is the benefit that comes from studying in a foreign country! Just as the social customs, lifestyles and environments change from country-to-country, so do the academic interests and methods of problem solving.
As engineers, and all STEM majors in general, we are trained to analyze and solve the problems around us. Each community faces their own unique problems, and likely has a drastically different way of finding a solution than what we may be familiar with. I have really come to learn from and be excited by these differences.
I am currently taking a module on Sustainable Futures, and am loving it so far. The University of Leeds puts a lot of effort into being as economically, socially and environmentally sustainable as they can be. My Sustainable Futures seminar has been collaborating with the university’s Sustainability Services in conducting research around campus and the local community that will hopefully help the university to reach its sustainability goals. I am personally working with a small group of students to investigate the transportation to-and-from the university: the various methods used, the incentives or deterrents involved, the effects on the neighboring communities, and how the situation might be improved. To be honest, I wasn’t thrilled at first. However, after looking deeper into the topic, I realized that we would be dealing with an issue that I was fairly unfamiliar with – how to manage the sustainable transportation of mass amounts of people in an extremely dense city.
Back home, everyone has a car and it can be easy-enough to find a place to park it. But in Leeds, the combination of a much-larger student population and narrow roads would (and already does) make travel by car unfeasible. So, how do we accommodate 30,000 students walking or cycling to and from the school? And this got me interested in the effects of the university’s Sustainability Services, and their efforts around campus.
And soon enough I started noticing things all around campus that are a result of this push for sustainability: the mass number of bicycles, the complete replacement of paper-towels with dryers in the restrooms, encouragement and use of re-usable dishware in the on-campus restaurants, the incredible number of recycling bins and the general environmental awareness throughout the population.
Last month I helped with the beginning phases of the construction of a staircase in a natural wooded area nearby. The footpath had been heavily eroded and the stairs would make the route safe again and encourage its use. The stair design involved a simple tube drainage system embedded underneath the gravel to help protect the structure from the heavy rainfall and water run-off. This simple bit of engineering amazed me and I knew it was something I might never have come across in New Mexico, where rainfall is not usually our biggest concern!
There is no doubt that the diverse knowledge gained from studying in a foreign country will make any student more capable of approaching whatever problems lie ahead of them. Time spent abroad will not only open you up to new social and cultural experiences, but it will expose you to a wider range of academic interests, perspectives and possibilities than you would have ever known.
My advice would be, first, to go abroad as early as possible; this will allow you a bit more freedom and may present you early-on with a topic that you’d like to focus in later on down the road. Secondly, if possible, take a class that might not be available back home, you might just discover your new passion.
Cheers, and thanks for reading this long post.