For many students, study abroad is an integral part of their undergraduate experience. But for others, study abroad is fundamentally incompatible with their studies at Penn. Penn data show that study abroad heavily favors College and Wharton students who choose to go in the fall of their junior years.
Of the 450 students currently enrolled in study abroad programs, only 41 of those students are engineers, and just four are nurses. This stands in stark contrast to the 279 College students, 84 Wharton students and 40 students dual-enrolled in Wharton and the College who are currently studying abroad.
These numbers are nothing new. For the 2013-14 academic year, Penn Abroad stated that roughly 25 percent of juniors in the College of Arts and Sciences studied abroad, while 26 percent of juniors in the Wharton School studied abroad. Similar to the current semester, Penn Abroad reported that roughly 7 percent of engineers spent a semester abroad, as did just 5 percent of students enrolled in the School of Nursing.
For the entire 2013-14 academic year, 385 College students, 85 Wharton students, 30 Engineering students and 12 Nursing students went abroad. Of those, six College students, one Wharton student and one Engineering student were abroad for the entire year.
But the distinct correlation between schools or programs and the number of students they send abroad is perhaps not a surprise. For students enrolled in either the Nursing School or the School of Engineering and Applied Science, academic requirements are often much more extensive, leaving little time for students to study abroad. Students enrolled in programs like the Vagelos Molecular Life Sciences Program in the College have a similar experience.
“Life sciences is very dependent on physical measurements and instrumentation,” Vagelos MLS Program Director Ponzy Lu said in an email. “Thus it is important to start with the basic chemistry, mathematics and physics courses which have two layers — freshmen and sophomore years.”
Lu added that the Vagelos MLS curriculum is not different from the curriculum required of a student enrolled in the Engineering School for the first two years in terms of rigor and flexibility.
But while Lu emphasized that after their first two years, students often had more flexibility to determine their schedule, he also acknowledged that very few students in the program spend a semester abroad. “I am aware of maybe six or so of our 197 graduates who did a semester abroad,” Lu said, adding that roughly an additional six students spent a summer on a study abroad program for which they earned Penn credit.
Lu also acknowledged that students enrolled in the program would need to plan in advance if they wanted to study abroad because of the differences in science curriculum in the United States versus universities abroad. “They need to plan ahead — science at an American university is done in lumps — interspersed with foundational and sector stuff. In almost all of the rest of the world, if you want to be a chemist, you study only chemistry. This makes taking a few courses not practical,” he wrote.
College senior Samuel Allon has personal experience of trying to gain abroad experience while being enrolled in the program. “Coming into Penn, I was initially interested in studying abroad for a semester,” he said. “However, remaining in Vagelos MLS was a higher priority for me, and the two activities seemed mutually exclusive.”
Instead, Allon spent time abroad during two different summers, both as part of his scientific lab work. The summer after his freshman year, he spent 10 weeks working in a biochemistry lab in Germany. Last summer, he traveled again, this time spending a week in Austria to attend the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution conference, for which he was awarded a scholarship.
For Allon, while neither of his abroad experiences fit the typical mold of a study abroad experience, they gave him many of the same experiences a normal study abroad experience might. “The experiences that I had abroad were probably more professional and more independent than the typical organized study abroad,” he said. “Overall, my experiences abroad taught me many of the typical lessons, plus a couple of unexpected lessons,” he added, saying that he walked away with an appreciation for how valuable the English language is in modern sciences and a greater understanding of the struggles immigrants who come to the U.S. face.
Lu doesn’t see the small numbers of students studying abroad in the Vagelos program as an issue, because many students in the program already have or gain international experience through their own field of study. “I would estimate that easily one-third or more of our students are foreign born, and another one-third come from foreign-born families that speak something other than English at home,” he said. “There are many research groups at Penn that are 100 percent non-U.S. born in composition, and most of them have very high numbers of non-U.S. nationals.”
“Since all of the Vagelos MLS students work two full summers in a research group and most of three academic years part time, they have considerable exposure to the rest of the world,” Lu said.
Nursing junior Jackie Nikpour echoed Allon's sentiment that studying abroad would be difficult given the requirements of the Nursing school. According to Nikpour, study abroad options for nurses are limited to a few main programs, the largest of which are in London and Australia. "I went to an info session for the Australia program and it seemed like you were basically in your own separate world away from Queens University," she said. While Nikpour said that she was sure there was a way some Nursing students had found to study abroad, it was difficult because "Nursing is really planned out from day one."
Instead of going abroad during a semester, Nikpour said she hopes to participate in one of Penn's Summer Abroad programs.
Despite numbers showing that very few students enrolled in Engineering or Nursing study abroad, both schools’ websites have pages devoted to study abroad experiences.
Demographic trends extend beyond just the school students are enrolled in, though. Another trend shows that more than five times the number of students who go abroad in the spring go abroad in the fall.
In the fall of 2013, Penn sent 411 students abroad, compared to just 94 last spring. The trend has continued this semester, with 450 students abroad. Penn Abroad has not yet released its data for the number of students who will be abroad next semester.
Both students and faculty have generally attributed this trend to the combination of the fact that students do not want to miss Spring Fling and Hey Day in the spring and the fact that, in past years, the on-campus recruiting process for juniors started in the spring.
In March, The Daily Pennsylvanian reported that OCR would be moved to the fall for students in the Class of 2018 and later. The initial timeline for the change was supposed to affect the Class of 2017, but was changed when students who had planned to study abroad in the fall considered canceling their participation.
Many have predicted that numbers of students in the Class of 2018 who study abroad in the spring will be greater than in years past to reflect this change.
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