Engineers Abroad: NYU Polytechnic Engineering Students Talk Globe-Trotting, Culture, and Expanding Horizons

In 2010, researchers at the University System of Georgia completed a decade-long project documenting the academic out- comes of studying abroad. Data showed that students who studied abroad demonstrated enhanced academic performance, higher graduation rates, and a greater understanding of cultural practices and contexts.

The study didn’t cover possible outcomes like back-flipping into the Mediterranean Sea, chilling on the grounds of Buckingham Palace, or skateboarding down the middle of a closed Tel Aviv highway during Yom Kippur, but those are the first photos that NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering students Peter Milani, Nicolette Nunez, and Stephen Carter pull up when asked about their experiences overseas.

“I’m the one in the Burger King hat,” says Milani, referring to a photo of confetti-strewn revelers at the annual carnival of Viareggio.

Such experiences go deeper than confetti, though. “I have always
believed that learning
is optimized [by] perspective,” says Rachel
Pham, who at press
time was preparing to
leave for a semester on
NYU’s Paris campus. “One flaw I see in American students is a lack of knowledge about the world beyond the U.S. I [want] to have cross-cultural experiences in order to under- stand people better, see as many perspectives as possible, and make better decisions and judgments in my own life.”

Pham’s studies in Paris will include French language, history, and politics. Most engineering students who have taken advantage of the increased study-abroad opportunities since the beginning of the affiliation between NYU and its Brooklyn location in 2008 have welcomed the chance to explore classes outside their major.

“I took courses I couldn’t ordinarly take, given the intensity of the physics program,” says Nunez, who studied psychology and ethics at NYU’s London campus in the fall of 2011. “It was a nice release from the rigorous math and science schedule that I’m used to, [and] it broadened my education [through] different types of problem solving.”

Carter, whose fall 2012 course load in Tel Aviv included Middle-Eastern diplomacy and negotiation, agrees: “The humanities courses broadened my perspective on problems I was trying to resolve, whether it might be friction during a team project or finding a clearer way of expressing my thoughts and opinions.”

The journal Science has reported that humanities study can deepen and extend the life of a science degree by giving students tools for communication, reflection, adaptation, self-teaching, and interdisciplinary flexibility. Perhaps that’s why Meagan Watson, an NYU alumnus and the NYU School of Engineering's Coordinator of Academic Advising, feels that incorporating the humanities in an engineering education exemplifies the NYU School of Engineerings's ideology of an innovative education: “[creating well-rounded engineers] requires merging disparate studies in a creative way. We are giving [students] the opportunity to find creative connections.”

Milani, who took drawing and architecture courses in Florence this past spring, believes his newfound passion for Renaissance architecture and art better prepared him for an engineering career: “These creative approaches to structures can be applied to my future work in structural engineering.”

Connections are crucial, but as any seasoned traveler will tell you, the most rewarding experiences are often the unexpected ones. For instance, in London, Nunez was initially startled at the prevalence of a lively pub culture in which students continued class discussions over beers with their professors after class. Eventually, though, it became a way “to think and speak freely in an environment that [was] much less intimidating than a classroom.”

Carter, who studied in Tel Aviv in the fall of 2012, was surprised that most of his college peers were older and more experienced than him. While working together on an electric car formula project internship, he says that age and experience “made them so much better suited for tackling problems they faced everyday as engineers.” The difference, he learned, was the military conscription required of Israeli citizens at age 18.

Carter also found that “physics in Israel was harder than I expected. It was more abstractly framed. I struggled but managed all right in the end, and now that I’m back,
I’m able to apply [that learning] to courses like Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics and Measurement Systems. I’d never have imagined my frustrations then would make life so much easier now.”

“Studying abroad promotes the academic mobility of our students and encourages them to build a global network,” says Watson. “In an increasingly global society, being culturally fluent is exceedingly important.”

Milani agrees. “The whole reason I decided to study abroad was to be inspired by new experiences and different cultures,” he says, adding that it was frequently the pedestrian nuances of life in another culture that found a home in his memory, like the vision of fashion-conscious Italians wearing jackets, scarves, and long pants on a sweltering, 95-degree day. “Noticing the small things, whether abroad or at home, allows me to appreciate the situation that I’m in,” he says. I hope to continue appreciating the small distinctions of my experiences.”

Ultimately, the truest souvenirs of the traveler are these sorts of intangibles: new appreciations, new connections, and the sense that the world is at once larger and smaller than we had previously perceived. As the French novelist Marcel Proust famously said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Or as Pham, packing up for her studies in Paris, puts it: “I hope that studying abroad will enlighten me in ways I have yet to even understand.”