Studying abroad: Professors make the difference

The building is impressive. The people inside it are amazing.
The building is impressive. The people inside it are amazing.

During my second semester freshman year in college I befriended a geography professor. Or maybe it was he who befriended me. We got along great. He was gearing up for his annual abroad program in the Mexican Yucatan where, each summer, he took a group of students. He asked me to assist him in research, and went so far as to write letters of recommendation getting me into my university’s honors program to apply for travel scholarships. It was my first time going overseas.

I wasn’t a geography major. And my interest in science came to an explosive halt back in elementary school when I added too much baking soda to my Mount Vesuvius volcano. I blew off ceiling tiles. But Dr. Biles sold me on the abroad experience first, the work second. After two months overseas, however, it was both the experiences in a different country and my research work that made my time abroad memorable.

A reputable international studies survey is released each November. Last year’s report shows that the top two majors of US college students studying abroad are social sciences and business/management. Foreign language is seventh.

What does this mean? Many things, but to my point it shows business majors studying abroad are likely enrolling in business classes abroad, not a foreign language. Students study abroad what they’re studying back home.

In my case I was the anti-statistic, the outlier. In Mexico with Dr. Biles I studied and assisted in field research in geography. I was a political science and Spanish major. What “sold” me, however, on working in a field I knew little of was the professor.

Professors abroad can make or break your study abroad program. Panrimo Study Abroad Programs partner only with ministry of education-accredited universities in each country. Some of these professors work part-time jobs in their field. They’re bringing real-life experience to the classroom. That’s a good thing.

And all professors at universities Panrimo partner’s with have masters degrees, if not PhDs. Say what you want about stuffy titles, but well-learned and experienced professors displaying genuine interest in exciting foreign students in a subject while overseas is important. Dr. Biles knew I wasn’t a math or science kid—and I’m still not—but during our research in the Yucatan he capitalized on the socio and political elements of our geography research. That made an impression.

I remember waking up daily at 5 a.m., Dr. Biles waiting outside my host family’s door in a beat-up 1974 Volkswagen Beetle. We drove through dozens of neighborhoods in the city of Merida, scoping out recycling and refuse habits of the people. But instead of tilting toward the geographic side of research, the professor wrapped our talks around political issues related to our work. That interested me. And he knew it would.

That’s what I remember most about my studies my first time abroad: A professor with passion for his field of work, and finding aspects of it to excite me.

Before signing up to study abroad, do your research. Look into the host university and make certain students’ reviews—both international and local students—are overall positive of professors. Though in my case the professor was coming from my home university, he did partner with local professors in Mexico who were equally engaging.

You’re packing your things and flying to another country. Make your dollars and time worth it! And make sure you want to be in class. It’s the professors who make the difference in your time abroad.

Tony Amante Schepers

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