article Spring 2023

Becoming an Engineer Across the Pond

By: Sarah Gerovac

Choosing to study abroad, especially for UW-Madison engineering students who are already pursuing challenging degrees, can be a difficult choice to make. Now that I’ve taken the leap, here’s why I think that you should, too.

Photo by: Sarah Gerovac

Studying abroad had been an idea floating in the back of my mind for much of my career as an electrical engineering student at UW-Madison, and in Spring 2023 I finally decided to do it. Understandably, it was an experience I had a lot of questions about — with the College of Engineering offering 14 different programs, with destination options from Norway to New Zealand, there was a lot to consider. How difficult would the classes be at each university? How much would the curriculum differ from UW-Madison’s? Would I have time to travel and explore? Would I need to learn a new language?

But now, having spent the last three months at the University of Limerick (UL) in Limerick, Ireland, I’ve been able to answer these questions for myself. I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned with you, too.

Let’s start with the classes. Before students are given the option to study abroad at a particular university, any classes they might take will first be equivocated by UW to ensure that the curricula are reasonably equivalent to their UW counterparts. Differences are inevitable, but fortunately, classes that contribute only to engineering degrees are listed as Pass/Fail on transcripts. This can alleviate stress for many students.

“Overall, the classes have had a lot less homework,” says Allie Bacholl, a computer engineering student from UW-Madison also studying at UL this spring. “You are expected to do practice problems on your own that are not graded, to get comfortable with the problems before the exam.”

This has been notably different from the makeup of many of the engineering courses I’ve taken at UW-Madison. For example, many of those classes followed a “flipped classroom” model, where students watch lecture videos on their own time and come to class for practice and application of the lecture material.

These differences in structure can be quite challenging for students to navigate, at first. At UW-Madison, students complete so many graded assignments and quizzes throughout the semester that they are exposed to the material through sheer quantity of work. At UL, however, more of the learning falls on the shoulders of the students, requiring them to develop significant skills in self-discipline. If they so choose, a student can simply not complete work until the end of the semester, when they take a final exam — usually worth a large portion of the grade.

An electrodynamics course I am currently taking at UL, for example, is weighted so that 90% of my grade is determined by my final exam score, and the remaining 10% by my midterm score. 

“So far, the courses seem easier,” says Bacholl. “The only thing I’m worried about is my grade being reliant on fewer assignments, so if I do bad on an exam or large assignment, it will tank my whole grade.”

“There are less consistent homework assignments, and the grade is composed of fewer total assignments,” echoes Rebekah Siekierski, a student on exchange at UL from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “While it does afford more freedom, there is the added pressure of one assignment holding that much weight.”

Photo by: Sarah Gerovac

Nevertheless, one of the most exciting aspects of studying abroad has been the opportunity to get involved in extracurriculars. UL offers many clubs for students to be involved in, including skydiving, equestrian, and fencing activities.

“There are a wide variety of clubs on campus,” says Bacholl. “Compared to UW-Madison, I have joined more sport-focused clubs, such as the archery club. All the clubs have been very open to new people joining, even though it is the second semester.” 

In Ireland, it’s much more common for student organization meetings to not start until late in the evening. Students often stay up late for these activities, even on weekdays; this is a key difference from UW-Madison, which is a city full of early risers. Irish students tend to favor this schedule because many travel home every weekend.

“The biggest difference is the structure of the week,” says Siekierski. “I only have each class once a week, which results in a lot of free time.”

The benefit of having so much unstructured time is that it gives students the ability to travel, immerse themselves in local culture, and build connections with local students, forming the building blocks for a positive experience abroad. Yet, having more free time also means that students need to be accountable for managing it, leading to new responsibilities.

“You have to be a lot more intentional about doing your work, in the sense that you are accountable for getting everything done by the deadline,” says Siekierski. So, even though course content may not necessarily be as consistently time-consuming as at UW-Madison, learning to manage time well and be responsible for your own success are still key skills students must develop while abroad.

Ultimately, if you are an engineering student interested in studying abroad during your time at UW, I’d encourage you to do it, whether it’s at UL, or with any of the many great programs offered by the College of Engineering. There are few times in your life that you will encounter this level of ease to live cheaply abroad for so long. Though you will undoubtedly encounter challenges during your time abroad, learning to overcome them will help you develop skills that will continue to benefit you in your college career and beyond.

And if your study abroad experience is anything like mine, I promise, you will not regret it.

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