So… when am I ever going to use this?!

Nearly every instructor I know has at one point heard, “Will this be on the test?” or “When will I ever use this?”. These bug us (listen up, students!) because the perception is that what we’re teaching them is important or relevant, and it often reveals that our students might not really be thinking about the material deeply enough to see its utility is all around us, even if subconsciously.

Ex. When will I ever use math? Well, even if you never plan to buy anything, your life would be pretty dull without any technology that relies on math, and I’m pretty sure without stoichiometry and flow equations, breathing and bloodflow might be a tad limited.

This random image of choking/disgust is courtesy of modernhomeopathy.com. I’m not endorsing the website, but find it amusing that my distaste for this question and the biological outcome of ignoring math can be captured well in a single photo. Huzzah! 

Turning now to the point of this post: I was recently asked to speak as an alumni of Georgia Tech’s International Plan (IP) at the 2015 IP Induction for new students. This program seeks to foster greater global understanding and requires substantial time abroad, as well as additional globally-focused and language courses.

One of the main things the speaking invitation asked for was for me to speak on how the IP has benefited me since graduation. They wanted me to specifically provide testimonial that, hey, you do indeed use this, and it comes in handy. In particular, I wanted to draw a strong distinction between the benefits of simply studying abroad to what the program offers as a whole, and why students should stick with it.

Here are the top 5 benefits in my career of having done the IP:

  1. Get great at questioning assumptions: Going abroad exposes you to other ways of doing things. Different doesn’t mean bad, and often questioning how things have been done and why can lead to new insights. This has helped me in interacting with mentees in the lab (why do they think the way they do?), and in finding the ‘good’ questions to ask in research.

  2. Build your network and networking skills: One of the great things about going to a new place is meeting new people, and new places can simply be a class that none of your friends take, or as far as thousands of miles away. When you get used to meeting new people often, you get better at it (yay!), and you also begin to develop a good sense of where you can reach out and how you can connect others. I’m still friends with many of the people I met while in Germany and in other IP courses, and I’ve since been able to work with them on projects (including translating a book for class- more on that soon!).

  3. Get comfortable being uncomfortable: One of the hardest transitions for me as a scientist was going from textbook science ‘knowns’ to investigations butting against the edge of what we know, and being ok with it. We don’t talk about feelings in science much, but it is true that humans do science, and generally they can feel hurt (after a rejection), ecstatic (after an acceptance), and flustered (literally any time). The independence required to stay abroad for a long time, and the patience and tolerance of your embarrassment/’differentness’ you develop by being an outsider can, believe it or not, raise your self-confidence. More than anything, it helped me to establish for myself what acceptable risks are, and lowered my self-consciousness and anxiety in social situations. I’m not suave by any means, but I can deal when I don’t know things, and that helps me to greet problems and learn information to solve them.

  4. Broader background: Participating in something extra (surprise!) means you are doing extra! For the IP, this means having a much broader background on global issues and how they relate to your discipline than those peers who don’t participate. Furthermore, you have to option to take courses your college does not offer. For me, this was life-changing: I first took Animal Behavior abroad. And hey, now I’m a behavioral ecologist. Broadening your coursework can mean exposure to new things or a deepened level of understanding of an interesting topic. If you’re doing extra, make it count!

  5. Get a (better paying) job and reduce student debt: It’s no secret that the world is becoming more global, and that most things you can do to stand out from the crowd will help you land a job, or negotiate for higher salary. What maybe is less known is that there are tons of scholarships for going abroad, and often, because tuition is virtually nonexistent compared to tuition in the US, you can actually save money by going abroad. This was a big help to me, as I could finally intellectually explore my class material without working three additional jobs to cover tuition and my living expenses. The year I spent abroad helped me to avoid serious debt, and it was a great investment in my future.
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