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Study abroad 

San Luis Obispo

It was exciting to me to read the experiences of Brooke Robertson in your Student Guide. Her experiences of enriching her life by studying abroad are the same that I have seen in our students who enter our engineering study abroad programs and exchanges in Munich. Our students sort of accidentally stumble into this, knowing they’ll have a great time. But once they arrive, they are completely blown away by Munich and their being there. Here is an entire parallel universe that wakes up and goes to work and play everyday, just like we do. And Munich is a very cool place.

All have a similar reaction, consisting of trying to prolong their stay, trying to find work in a Bavarian engineering concern, and regretting that they did not study more German before coming. All say, like Brooke does, that the experience is life changing. They wake up after the experience more globally aware, with attitudes and opinions that are much broader and deeper than those of their peers who never left the coziness of California.

The biggest problem we face in promoting these international programs is, surprisingly, finding enough adventurous students willing to take that first step. I, as the promoter, have no worries that anyone who does will come back to me later and say, “That was a bummer to go abroad.” The reactions are always the opposite, always ecstatic, always very satisfying to hear. But our exchange programs typically depend on placing equal numbers of our students in our host institutions as the number they send to Cal Poly. Right now we are telling students in Munich and Karlsruhe, Germany and Gothenburg, Sweden that they can’t come, because we do not have equal numbers to send to them.

What we are fighting primarily is demographics and America-centrism. Students come from smaller families nowadays than they did when I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s. Parents tend to manage their kids’ lives more than they did before. And America has turned inward and more isolationist than it was a generation ago. So students’ fear of the unknown and their unwillingness to take that first step out of the nest is something we have to fight against.

But our country needs globally thinking and globally aware citizens, people who have seen and experienced the world themselves, not just through Fox news. My profession, engineering, needs people who can move across cultural boundaries with ease. In my experience, while teaching in Germany, it was evident to me that inculcating this kind of attitude was considered an integral part of the college experience. And German engineering graduates have no trouble leaving home and crossing cultural (and language) barriers. They are truly global citizens.

Anyway, thanks for publishing Brooke’s account. Stories like these will work to get our students to leap into the wonderful unknown.

-- Frank Owen, Ph.D., P.E. - Professor, Mechanical Engineering Department California Polytechnic State University

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