Global Student Reflections
Foyin, SEAS ’18
Even after applying and being accepted into the Columbia in Paris program, I was very skeptical about leaving New York and heading to a foreign city with an entirely different culture and language. However, given the quality of my experience in the five months I spent there, an experience I will always look back on and be grateful for, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I made the right decision. ... READ MORE/LESS
During these five months, I was able to explore my interest in the arts and humanities (something I was unable to do back here in New York because #SEASproblems) as I was in one of the most beautiful and historical cities in the world. This granted me a high level of exposure and the opportunity to experience first hand the masterpieces of western art (shoutout to Prof. Klein!) with places such as le musée du Louvre, Mont Saint-Michel, and château de Versailles among many others at my disposal. This allowed me to gain in-depth knowledge and explore a whole different academic area I otherwise would not have done if I hadn’t gone to Paris.
However, the most memorable aspect of my study abroad semester was making new friends with whom I could enjoy the city and explore what it meant to be a foreign student in Paris. As I didn’t know anyone upon my arrival in Paris, I was forced to be more social and step out of my comfort zone which led me to befriend people I wouldn’t normally be friends with. With these new friends I was able to enjoy all the joys Paris had to offer, such as the unending supply of crêpes, wine and cheese, the opera, and concerts amongst many others.
During this semester, I was also able to be a lot more fluent in French, a feat I achieved by fully immersing myself into the city by making French friends, developing a form of friendship with my host family and travelling around the country.
To any SEAS student considering study abroad, do not think up excuses for why you can’t go but instead take the leap and go for it! The clubs, societies, and work you leave behind will still be there when you return but this opportunity to go off into the world and explore will not always be!
Kristen, SEAS ’18, Applied Mathematics
When people ask me how study abroad was, my first instinct and what they usually expect is for me to talk about my travels and all the sights I saw. All of that was amazing and definitely a huge part of study abroad that should not be missed, but when I think about what I really gained from my study abroad experience, I think about Madrid. More specifically, I think about slowly and unassumingly becoming immersed in the everyday life of a madrileño. ... READ MORE/LESS
I remember the taste of the tapas at famous bars such as El Tigre and 100 Montaditos, but I think about getting to know the neighborhood bartenders and shop owners and poking my head in in the middle of the afternoon just to say hi. I remember the excitement of attending a Real Madrid game, but I think about sitting by the Madrid Rio park after a run and listening to the faint cheers coming from the Estadio Vicente Calderon, where Atletico Madrid plays. I have countless spots of interest saved on Google Maps, but I think about the days when I put my phone away and meandered through the streets of Madrid in the general direction of my homestay, just to see new parts of the neighborhood.
One of the biggest selling points of study abroad is the ability to get a taste of something new, but this is true of traveling in general. What really sets studying abroad apart is the beauty of creating a routine somewhere that is not your own and becoming a part of that place as much as it becomes a part of you.
I had heard that study abroad makes you more independent; naturally, I came in apprehensive but prepared to spend a lot of time alone. Although some of my best times while in Europe were spent while I was alone, I never could have guessed that I would leave study abroad with new lifelong friends. Of course, everyone comes into study abroad with different goals and expectations and leaves with a different experience. However, there also exists a certain camaraderie among us, a shared desire to learn, to assimilate, to seek adventures. While CIEE facilitated our introductions with a two week intensive Spanish course and orientation, I believe that it is this mindset that truly allowed us to form such close bonds in such a short time.
Meeting Spanish students was slightly more difficult. As the only Chinese student in a room of mostly Spaniards and Europeans, it was painfully clear that I was not local. It was difficult for me to step out of my comfort zone and attempt to meet people who had for the most part known each other for several years. As I continued to attend class week after week, however, I found the Spaniards I came into contact with not only appreciated, but also shared, the same love of adventure I found in other study abroad students; many of them spoke of trips to other countries in Europe, the United States, and even China. Along with ideas about our respective countries’ politics, pop culture, and everyday life, we exchanged phone numbers and Facebooks to keep in touch even after I left, assuring each other that we would meet again.
While I went into college knowing that I wanted to spend a semester abroad, I will admit that I had my doubts in the months leading up to and even during the first days of my stay in Europe. I was worried about leaving my classes, clubs, and friends at Columbia. In reality, taking some time off from Columbia may have been the best thing I have done as a Columbia student.
Studying at a top Spanish university like UC3M gave me first-hand experience with the European education system, which is more generally hands-off than it is in the US. Meeting students from other American universities and people from a more relaxed culture gave me the opportunity to reevaluate how I view school, work, and what I want my everyday life to look like. Living with a host mom in an older part of the city gave me a chance to experience a simpler lifestyle and understand generational differences. Most importantly, taking a step back from Columbia and New York allowed me to see more clearly what I appreciate and love about it while bringing home practices, words, and ideas from Spain to incorporate into my daily life.
In the end though, there’s no real way to encapsulate what study abroad is in writing, or even in pictures. It consists of feelings and thoughts and moments, all blended into a fine wine (sangria, if you will) that is different for everyone, but I can say one thing for sure: no matter who you are or where you go, it’s worth it.
Anna, SEAS ’17, Earth and Environmental Engineering
They call it reverse culture shock. Some of the symptoms that may manifest are abject disgust at processed food ingredients, shudders when an SUV comes into view, and most of all, being completely unable to shut up about living 8.000km (5,000 miles for the plebeians) away from “the States” for 5 months. It is akin to love, except I loved not one person but a whole country of people and its depth of history, wealth of culture, and suburban-sprawl-free majestic landscapes. ... READ MORE/LESS
Ending things with a lover is never easy, but reverse culture shock is like the heartbreaking breakup where you go on telling people how good you had it when you were together and how much you miss them. And so they ask, "Why did you leave?" You tell them that you didn’t want to, but the government kicked you out. And it’s being a little jealous of those meeting your ex for the first time and exploring your old stomping grounds for themselves, as if somehow, a whole country had belonged to you and you alone.
What roots a person to place so thoroughly that some are never curious to explore beyond the familiar? Whatever it was, I deliberately cut myself off. I called my parents even less than before. What I think a lot of study abroad students will say is that before I could start to learn in Spain, I had a lot to unlearn. There is great value to the self-discovery that comes from completely surrendering your little habits, familiarities, notions of time, and even your language in favor of learning a new culture from scratch.
Some things came easily, like forgoing punctuality with friends, not relying on my smartphone’s data, and taking things in general more easily as they come. Others did not come easily, like the seemingly impenetrable cultural customs that govern eating. I’m convinced Spaniards are born knowing when it is time for food versus drinks, and how to order tapas from the cold menu versus the hot in Bilbao versus Granada. Spain is a culinary capital of the world after all, I bragged to my family when they came to visit me. I tried my very best to reform their embarrassing American ways because they blew my cover, which made me aware of how tried I hard to blend in.
It’s a bit shocking to suddenly find the world you’d left behind strange. It wasn’t my family that had changed, it was me. I realized I talked with a lower voice in Spanish, and more loudly, than ever before. Of course I dressed differently; the stereotype is true that the Spanish are more put-together and formal for every occasion. The complex winding streets of medieval Madrid came like second nature, and I felt connected to the many, many people before me who had walked the same cobblestone streets to my destination, passing the same historic cafes and bookshops, maybe waving to Hemmingway or Dalí. I would say these things and other thoughts to myself, practicing my Spanish when I felt unrushed, to save the best insights for the heat of conversation.
When it comes up in small talk, it’s difficult to sum up half of a year that sometimes felt like a lifetime in an alternate universe where I was the alien. I integrated culturally, but then never completely. I spoke fluent Spanish, but still with a detectable accent. I met radically different people in Basque Country and Andalusia, and asked them endless questions. To really understand, I need just that, a lifetime. And who knows, I might return one day forever, sea lo que sea.
In the States, I might sum up my year by mentioning a major event or accomplishment. Living abroad, I not only explored the unique regions of Spain, I journeyed far internally. So to ask the question, "How was studying abroad?" and expect a short reply is a kind of cruelty. Even I don’t fully know the answer. In the end, I can only answer: “Life changing.”
Erica, SEAS ’17, Materials Science and Engineering
Where do I even begin to describe my experiences abroad? London is truly an amazing city: a fascinating mix of history and modernity. However, upon arrival, I presumed the UK and US were going to be boringly similar; after all, English was the primary language of both countries. Although I was grateful to escape the challenge of a language barrier, it was intriguing—and often frustrating—to navigate the quirks of British society. So, while I had to acclimate to the Tube and the early closing times of stores on Sundays, I also got to enjoy stunning British architecture and tradition of afternoon tea. ... READ MORE/LESS
I attended University College London in the spring semester. When planning to study abroad, it is extremely important to be flexible. Although I am a Materials Science and Engineering major at Columbia, I studied in the Earth Sciences department because UCL did not offer my major. The UCL system can be quite strict: For example, some departments do not allow students to take classes, or “modules,” unless majoring with that particular subject. However, overall, I enjoyed my experience in the UCL Earth Sciences department, especially our fieldwork trip to the beautiful white chalk cliffs of Dorset in Southwestern England.
Additionally, studying at University College London was incredible in itself. The professors were extremely knowledgeable yet approachable, and the class sizes were relatively small. The campus was located in the heart of London; I lived about two miles from campus, but on sunny days (fortunately, more frequent than I had expected!), my walk home passed by Buckingham Palace and St. James’s Park, which was absolutely beautiful when the flowers started to bloom.
I found that the best way to fully embrace my study abroad experience was to integrate myself with my flatmates, my classmates, and my fellow club members. For example, during the first few weeks of classes, I learned two things about British people:
Of course, my study abroad adventure included traveling around Europe. This was my first time east of the Atlantic, so my goal was to explore as much as possible while still balancing schoolwork, finances, and soaking in life in the UK. In five short months, I was able to visit Dublin, Amsterdam, Paris, and more! Furthermore, I reduced expenses by journeying nearly everywhere by overnight bus, which was not the most pleasant mode of transportation, but made for some great stories! Traveling—with friends and alone—imparted with me a newfound adaptability, maturity, and sense of independence. Still, it was amazing to finally visit parts of the world so immersed in historical significance, cultural splendor, and architectural beauty.
To those of you already planning to study abroad: savor your time—it passes far too quickly. To anyone undecided about studying abroad: Do it. I hope it changes your life as much as it has transformed mine.
James, SEAS ’15, Computer Science
I studied computer science abroad at University College London during the spring semester of my sophomore year. All I can say is, it was an unforgettable and enriching experience both culturally and academically, and one that I would highly recommend to other SEAS students. ... READ MORE/LESS
At UCL, I was able to continue on track towards my degree in computer science while branching out into other interests, including entrepreneurship, interaction design, and medical history. For this diverse array of courses, it was both a unique challenge and refreshing endeavor to work in project groups with British and international students alike. While Columbia’s campus is diverse, interacting with students at UCL from all across Europe and the world was an international experience that I’ve never had before, and it proved to be fun and rewarding.
Besides being a fascinating metropolitan city with tons of history and things to do, London is a great location for anyone who wants to explore the rest of the UK and Europe. I was able to take advantage of breaks in the British school system to travel to Scotland, Spain, Germany, Norway, Hungary, Morocco, Italy, Greece, and more. All of my travels made me realize that even New York City is a tiny, tiny place compared to the rest of the world. It was both exciting and humbling to get a taste of the diverse range of cultures in Europe.
The best advice I can give to anybody thinking of studying abroad is to keep an open mind, and go for it! Spending an entire semester in a foreign country away from the comforts of campus can seem daunting. Anyone can come up with a million excuses not to go—too much work (SEAS students, looking at you!), too involved with clubs on campus, too reluctant to leave friends behind. But while friends and clubs will still be there upon your return, how often do you get the chance to immerse yourself in another country for an entire semester, and also get credit as a university student? Studying abroad truly is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I encourage anyone to pursue it.
Looking back at my time at UCL, I am reluctant to leave behind the incredible adventures I had (and return to boring old America). But I am also amazed and grateful that they happened. I definitely will be returning to London in the future, whether it’s for work, for play, or even for good. But for now, I’ll be returning as a junior to Columbia campus with new friendships, a more diverse food palate, an endless repository of memories, and a lot more appreciation for the wonders of the world.
Manuel, SEAS'15, Biomedical Engineering
My favorite memory so far is about a time when I met someone who wanted to kayak along the longest river in Australia. She wanted to do it for charity, but needed to figure out transportation to and from each end of the river. She offered to lend me her car if I dropped her off at the New South Wales end of the river and parked her car at the other end—in Adelaide, South Australia. Long story short, I agreed and added 15,000 km to her odometer. I used the car to drive through New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Northern Territory—roughly 50 hours of driving!
James, SEAS ’17, Computer Science
It was winter of 2013, and like many other freshmen at Columbia, I was scrambling to find a “legit” internship for the summer, somewhere I could do meaningful work that I enjoyed. I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but I knew vaguely what I liked: startups, tech, and traveling. ... READ MORE/LESS
So when I found a new program on LionShare called Sage Corps that invited me to work in Hong Kong for a tech startup, I was thrilled. After all, my objectives for this summer were simple: gain real job experience and challenge myself, especially by coding. But this excitement soon transformed into anxiety. First of all, I never had a real coding job before—or any real job, for that matter. I only had a year of computer science training under my belt. Furthermore, I had never been to Hong Kong. I didn’t even know where exactly in the world it was—to me, it seemed like a faraway land of fish balls, night markets, and Jackie Chan’s.
Regardless, I decided to take the challenge. In early June, I stepped off a plane and was instantly greeted by the heat and humidity of Hong Kong’s peripheral Lantau Island. I made my way to a serviced apartment I was to share with six fellow students from top US universities. To say it was a bit of a culture shock is an understatement. Everybody around me spoke Cantonese, and the center of the city seemed even more congested than Times Square on New Years Eve.
Through the Sage Corps program, I was paired with a startup called The CloudMiner Ltd. Founded in 2011 by a Silicon Valley tycoon, D. James Guzy, Jr., and two mining experts, Dan Bloor and Will Coverdale, TCM provides a cloud-based mining solution for investment professionals. I worked with a young and energetic team in creating an innovative suite of products—coders, engineers, and geologists from nearby Shenzhen, Taiwan, and Hong Kong University, and from as far away as Greece. It was truly an international group, and as I quickly found out, a ton of fun to work with. Aside from joking about our different backgrounds, such as Greece’s economic situation or my co-worker Ivan’s Indonesian accent, we shared many things in common—our love for bubble tea and Kobe Bryant, and of course, our penchant for cursing at our code all day.
I spent my eight weeks in Hong Kong as a product development intern working on a data visualization project, taking over 360,000 database projects and displaying them as points on an interactive map. The best (and worst) part about working for TCM was that even as an intern, I was part of a very small team. Apart from just coding, I helped in every other way I could: deciding our color palettes, pitching the company at local tech meet-ups and conferences around the city, even designing team tank tops (or “vest tops,” as they’re known locally). As a small team, we did almost everything together. Every day, we’d eat lunch at Tai Hing, which served the best curry and milk tea (港式奶茶) I ever had. On weekends, Ringo, an HKU student and fellow intern, treated us to his favorite hot pot meal in his hometown, Yuen Long. After networking at a data visualization conference in Central, Dan took us out to happy hour drinks and a walk down to the pier. Sophie, our lead software developer, brought Leland, a Penn student and fellow intern, and me along to a fun-filled day of hiking and cliff jumping in the countryside of Tai Long Wan. All of this made me feel like part of a family in Hong Kong, and certainly helped combat any homesickness.
I’ve always heard and doubted the expression “broaden my academic horizons” from anyone who chooses to go abroad—it always seemed so disingenuous. But after this summer, it would be the only way I could describe it. I’m more motivated than ever to take advanced courses in the CS curriculum. And spending the summer hearing about the political tensions between the Hong Kong people and mainland Chinese government got me interested in learning about Chinese history; I am now taking a Global Core class in East Asian Civilizations, with a focus on China. And although I’m only in my sophomore year, I am now seriously thinking about applying my programming skills at a startup next summer, and even after graduating from Columbia.
It feels a bit strange being back in New York—I have a family back in Hong Kong now, and it is weird to leave. (But even with the 12 hour time difference, I still keep in contact with coworkers over WhatsApp!) Overall, Hong Kong is a great place for college students to develop skills that they would not get in the classroom, or even in America. It has a vibrant, energetic, and youthful vibe, especially in the startup circles. Socially, there’s something going on every weekend, and I was always learning. Culturally, it’s fascinating to interact with the local population, eat the delicious cuisine, and learn how other people live.
Looking back at this summer, I did everything I wanted to do, and so much more. Besides coding, I did meaningful work at an innovative company, developed important networking skills, met exciting people, and expanded my worldview by going abroad. Don’t get me wrong—going abroad for a summer, especially to a startup, can seem incredibly daunting. But after this summer, I truly believe that there’s nothing quite as valuable.
Daniel, SEAS'16, Industrial Engineering and Operations Research
What can I say about the 10 greatest days of my life that would do it justice?
The experience was like no other. From sleeping in the wilderness in the shadows of Eyjafjallajökull, to snorkeling in Þingvellir, to freaking ice climbing a glacial tongue. While pictures may capture what a scene looked like, they will never capture the scents and sounds, and the experience of seeing the beauty of this country firsthand. They will never be able to fully show you what racing the sunset up a mountain feels like, nor how awesome it is to go to a hot spring (you get used to the smell). ... READ MORE/LESS
On top of this I also was able to hear amazing lectures at the University of Reykjavík on sustainable energy initiatives, and tour power plants firsthand. Combined with other sweet surprises, it was truly a blend of culture and education packed into a shorter trip.
I met so many people from so many different places and backgrounds, but they all shared one thing in common; a vision for a greener future. Finally! I met people who actually had cared about protecting all of this so that our children will see all the beauty that we saw firsthand, smell the fresh clean air, and yes, potentially, jump into glacier runoff in nothing but their underwear like I did.
This program showed me how awesome things can be if you just say yes; why not try that new adventure? I'd highly recommend it to anyone, especially those who don't have time for a full semester abroad.
Best. Trip. Ever.
Alexandra, SEAS'16, Civil Engineering
Studying abroad was the most enriching part of my academic career so far because it allowed me to compare many different cultures and get a sense of how valuable every culture is. As a civil engineering student, my favorite part of studying abroad was comparing the different built environments in the many countries I visited. My advice to anyone studying abroad is to explore every part of the city you are in, talk to people who live in the city, and try all of the local food.
Andelyn, SEAS'16, Industrial Engineering and Operations Research
"The Spanish schedule is later—lunch is held around 2 PM, and dinner is served no sooner than 10 PM."
"When walking down the street, people will stare at you. It's natural; everyone stares." ... READ MORE/LESS
"Classes have a shifted grading scheme; receiving an 'F' in Spain is the same as receiving a 'C' in the US."
From talking with people who had visited the country and searching the internet, I tried to piece together a picture of the coming months. Every impression was important; having never visited Spain before, I was diving head-first into a five-month semester abroad. I prepared as much as possible, and for Christmas, my parents gave me three paper maps and two guidebooks. At the core of my excitement, however, was a seed of anxiety. Every fact about Spain seemed two-dimensional and disjointed. Sure, the news articles stated that Spain had a high unemployment rate. But what did this mean to a visiting American student? To a Spanish student, a Spanish family? The gaps could not be filled from a dorm room. Finally, on January 8th, my eight-hour flight to Madrid left Chicago O'Hare Airport. Watching the plane inch across the digital Atlantic on the seatback screen, I barely slept.
Since I arrived in Madrid before orientation, for the first few days, I walked. I was proficient in Spanish, but I wasn't yet proficient in Spain. Exploring Madrid, meeting my host and the other American students, completing orientation, starting classes, planning trips, volunteering. As the weeks passed, the facts I collected in the US sprang to life. It was one level of proficiency to hear that the typical "siesta" lasts from 2 to 5 PM. Standing outside a closed luggage shop at 3 PM, frustrated, I reached a higher level of proficiency. Daily details, like routines and preferences, were constants that I couldn't envision before arriving. The vague sense of uncertainty ultimately dispersed, allowing confidence and gratitude to take its place. On June 3rd, while I was not fully proficient in Spain, I left the structure of a life.
As a Study Abroad Peer Advisor, I enjoy helping students through the pre-departure process. If a student will study in Madrid, I'll happily provide an overview of each neighborhood, advice on classes, and activity recommendations. Despite my best attempts, the sketches I share are perhaps 2 percent of the story. Four months into the fall semester, I still have trouble believing that for a large portion of the year, I lived in Lavapiés, Madrid, instead of Morningside Heights, NYC. Traveling thousands of miles away doesn't solely change the scenery. If anything, studying abroad changes the perception individuals have on their ability to adapt, to transform the lurking uncertainty into a new reality. In Madrid, the best surprise wasn't delicious food or beautiful architecture. It was realizing that I loved a new culture and country, just as I loved my own.
Wanjun (Jen), SEAS'15, Computer Science
I spent my junior year studying at St Catherine's College in Oxford. I remember I had initially hesitated when my brother suggested that I apply to study abroad at Oxford, thinking that studying abroad a year after I had just transferred to Columbia was pointless. But, looking back now, it would have been the biggest regret and missed opportunity of my life had I not applied and eventually gone to Oxford. People often say that "studying abroad" is a life changer and a truly remarkable experience, but I don't think it's stressed enough how it can, if you let it, be one of the most defining moments in not only your four years of college, but in your life. I went to Oxford in the Fall 2013 and spent a year at St Catherine's with the people I now consider to be family. Oxford is a testament to how successful the college system is—my College became my home and my staircase became the family I came home to everyday. I spent my days reading in the Bodleian, rowing on the Isis, eating dinner in hall with the entire college (at least, if the meal that night was good), and drinking in the JCR with friends. Studying abroad afforded me the opportunity to grow in a way that staying in the same place for four years cannot. I have never been more glad that I just sucked it up and submitted that application two years ago, it was the best decision of my life so far.