Study Abroad: Not Just for Liberal Arts Majors

By Ali Valdrighi

The benefits of studying abroad may be self-evident for students majoring in subjects such as history or anthropology that emphasize cultural differences. Visiting the palace of Versailles during a trip to France, my history major friend commented in awe that the causes of the French Revolution are incredibly salient when viewing the royals’ opulence. Firsthand experience with historic monuments and symbols can enhance learning by fostering increased understanding. 

However, the benefits of study abroad for science majors are less obvious. After-all, the mechanism of axon guidance is the same in the United States as Europe. Yet, as a neuroscience major, studying abroad was not only fulfilling in increasing my exposure to different cultures, but it also allowed me to explore neuroscience in a way entirely unique form my experience at an American liberal arts college.

Studying neuroscience at the University College of London (UCL) exposed me to the tremendous opportunities offered by a distinguished research institution. UCL provides a number of seminars featuring prominent researchers. I was fortunate to attend five of these seminars on topics ranging from the statistical models of neuroimaging to the brain pathology associated with psychopathy.

Additionally, class lectures are typically centered on innovative primary literature and are taught by multiple expert researchers. Paola Pedarzani, a reader in cellular neurophysiology at UCL, explained that while this heterogeneous system can be challenging, it is also rewarding for American students. “Each lecture in our course modules is taught by an expert in a related research field, and students are exposed to different presentation techniques and styles, [enabling] them to develop a critical sense on [the topic],” Pedarzani said.  

Pedarzani also emphasized the benefits of independent learning. “American students learn to work independently, develop sufficient confidence in the subject matter, and a critical sense to choose the important topics for revision,” Pedarzani said. “This will help them increase their mental flexibility when moving on to medical or graduate School.” Not only can study abroad offer valuable classroom academic experience, but it may also provide unique research opportunities. Chris Bettera, assistant director of study abroad at Pomona College, said that research projects are a critical feature of the study abroad experience for science majors. “Many of the (study abroad) programs include a research or independent study component that directly influences students’ senior theses,” Bettera said. 

Pomona College senior biology major Nola Shi participated in a study abroad program at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and utilized such research opportunities. “There were many unique biology courses which offered experiences I would not be able to undertake in the States,” Shi said. “For example, being in such close proximity to the fjords, snorkeling, aquatic life, and really unique birdlife [provided] a lot more hands on than anything I would be able to do in a biology/ecology class in the States.” 

Just as cultural aspects of study abroad can impact liberal arts majors, they can also enhance scientific learning. “It was really eye opening to look at issues from a different perspective than we would see in the States” Shi said. “[For example], anything you do to preserve nature can violate spiritual beliefs of the Maori people, so you need a lot of communication with them. That’s something we see in the States, but to a lesser degree.”

Bettera adds that cultural differences are also important for pre-medical science students. “Through homestays and living with local students, a pre-medical student has an intimate way of learning about a country’s national health plan,” Beterra said.  

Overall, study abroad is more than simply a break for traveling. It can be a life-changing and rewarding experience. For Shi, studying abroad caused her to change from cellular biology to conservation biology, and her goal is to pursue a graduate education in New Zealand. Shi’s advice for students studying abroad is to start with an open mind. “Instead of sticking with the Western science you have always been taught, try to engage in the [new cultural experience],” Shi said. “It’ll be a lot more enjoyable and eye-opening.” 

Ali Valdrighi is a senior at Pomona College majoring in neuroscience. Pomona College is home to the Gamma of California Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.