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Study Abroad While Broadening Study

The No. 1 public university for study abroad poises its students to be active in a global society.

Texas A&M University’s Study Abroad Programs Office promotes life experiences that transform students into service-minded leaders and well-rounded members of a global society. 

Take Texas A&M senior Bryan Martinez. He learned to appreciate world cuisine — particularly Dutch stroopwafels — based on twice-weekly potlucks with his roommates from Argentina, the Netherlands and Spain. But his cultural immersion was a sidebar to his real purpose for being abroad: To participate on the economics exchange to the Erasmus School of Economics in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
Given his experience, Martinez now hopes to parlay his double major in economics and philosophy into an eventual Ph.D. in statistics. Ideally, he’ll become a data scientist or analyst, conducting research to conserve natural resources by promoting a circular economy, which minimizes production by encouraging sustainability.

“My mind was opened to this whole new layer of the economy — how we can create social change with a circular economy,” he says, adding that it was a concept he saw in practice through volunteer work,  collaborating with Impact Express, a group that empowers individuals to create startups that bring awareness toward how our resources will be depleted without renewed efforts toward conservation.
Those experiences illustrate the power of studying abroad and the school’s larger Global Engagement Plan, designed to open students’ eyes to the fact that Texas is just one microcosm of the world, says Michael Benedik, Ph.D., chief international officer at Texas A&M University. “We want to give our students the ability to recognize that there is much in the world they are not familiar with, and how to view issues with a global awareness.”
A Program for Everyone

During the 2016-2017 academic year, Texas A&M had 3,848 students abroad on credit-bearing programs. The school is a leader in study abroad programs, ranking first nationally among public universities and second among all universities, according to the Open Doors Report on International Exchange by the Institute of International Education and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs.

Miranda Lindsey, who will graduate May 2018 with degrees in international studies and French, says she selected her majors in part because they required a stint abroad. Her program included four weeks in Dakar, Senegal, and four in Paris; it was an option she favored since it allowed her to combine two cultures in one trip.

But a global experience isn’t just for international majors: “I tell people how much they will learn — and it’s more than just a broader understanding of cultures or languages, but what they will learn about themselves,” Lindsey says. “Anyone can have a fulfilling experience studying abroad that will enhance their classroom education.”

Options are indeed vast. Students participate in programs in more than 100 countries, with western European destinations at the top, followed by those in Central America. While many take an entire semester or year, shorter faculty-led trips over breaks are also popular. Students who don’t have as much time can still enjoy a meaningful international episode volunteering, conducting research or taking a specific course.
Research Expands the Reach

Texas A&M’s Global Partnership Services encompass a variety of opportunities, from those at the department or research center level up to college and university level — and research is critical. Biologists study ecosystems in the rainforest and African deserts, and agriculture faculty members and students study and share best practices to eradicate crop diseases to help with worldwide sustainability. 

One of the school’s key research sites is the Soltis Center for Research and Education in Costa Rica, created to support the University’s research, education and outreach initiatives in Costa Rica and throughout Central America. The unique setting houses students among more than 250 acres of primary and secondary growth forests, which doubles as the de facto lab for many research endeavors. 

With faculty, the Soltis Center’s students plan and carry out field work, conduct lab analysis and report findings. “Working here, students are exposed to real field work conditions, where they need to solve problems or answer questions constantly, many of which would be unthinkable in the lab or on campus,” says Center Director Eugenio Gonzalez J. Ph.D. “Upon graduation, they have already accomplished real-world research, which is attractive to employers and can also help them crystallize their future goals.”

As one example, students compared transpiration among trees with exposed and shaded crowns under both wet and dry canopy conditions in central Costa Rica. This was part of a larger study aimed at improving land-surface modeling of evapotranspiration processes in wet tropical forests.
Research done at the Soltis Center has been extremely applicable to solutions for tropical forests with similar characteristics. “Scientists working elsewhere are very much interested in the research projects being carried out at the Center,” Gonzalez says, noting that many have replicated the Center’s work. “The impact these projects have goes beyond the Center and the university, and creates immeasurable opportunities for our students and faculty.”
Lifelong Benefits

The most enduring advantages might be unexpected. “Time and time again, faculty report that students who are returning from an international experience are more engaged in their coursework and achieve better grades,” says Pascale Parker, Texas A&M’s interim director of study abroad programs. “We see an enhancement at all levels, both personal and academic, and it prepares students to immerse themselves in lifelong learning.”

“Students are not the same person as when they left,” adds Katy Lane, associate director of study abroad programs at Texas A&M University. “They are richer because their perspective has been broadened.”

Sometimes it just takes a nudge to get students out of their comfort zone, Martinez says. “I tell students never to let the fear and uncertainty of the unknown deter them from what could be a life-altering new experience.”

He continues: “The hardest part is taking the first step, since it forces you to change and stretch, but in the end, it will make you a stronger, more independent person. When I returned, I felt like I could do anything.”

And while one of the goals is to equip students to appreciate global society, the effects reach farther. “We are building the next generation of leaders … and our students are going to be part of a global community in their future lives,” Benedik says. “They will be on an international stage in any arena … and we are preparing them to successfully navigate that future.”

Originally posted here.