A Week in the Life of an Engineer Abroad

Drexel’s 10-week quarter system may seem like an awkward fit for semester-based programs elsewhere, but that has not stopped College of Engineering undergraduates from increasingly going abroad to sample technical courses and broaden their perspectives. In 2017-2018, over 70 College of Engineering students studied internationally.

Drexel’s Office of Global Engagement and Education Abroad offers well-established academic routes to some of the world’s top engineering schools, from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore to the University of New South Wales in Australia to KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden.

Kerianne Chen, an undergraduate student in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering (CAEE), studied abroad last year in Australia. The experience, she said, was flat-out incredible.

“I really love traveling. So I told myself, I really need to work this out and figure out how an engineer goes abroad,” said Chen. “I started with the Study Abroad Office. The advisor helped me find programs that other engineers have gone to before, so they know these work for us.

“I was looking for an English-speaking program,” she added. “I applied to the University of Leeds in the UK, and Swinburne, and then New South Wales. I sent my class options to Professor (Robert) Swan (an associate teaching professor of CAEE), and he was like, these ones line up and these don’t line up. He knows the classes really well, so he was able to tell me which were approved class equivalents, and which were vital to take for graduation.”

Below, Chen breaks down an average week in her four-month Australian experience that included a cast of international professors and students, a convenient apartment on campus, and trips to Tasmania and other islands.

NAME: Kerianne Chen
YEAR: Class of 2020, BS in CAEE
MAJOR: Civil, with a minor in communications
HOMETOWN: Austin, Texas
WENT ABROAD TO: Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia
WHEN: Mid-February 2018 to beginning of Drexel summer term
COURSES: Two engineering courses: Fluid Mechanics (equivalent to Fluid Flow here at Drexel), and the equivalent to Mechanics of Materials. Two electives: a business management class and a sociology class.

Monday Lived in university housing, a two-bedroom unit with a small living room and kitchen, 10 minutes from classes.I had a little balcony that looked over the quad.” Just two tutorials on Monday: Management, and Mechanics of Materials. Reviewed what was discussed in lectures. Worked in groups on questions given out by professor; activities were based on upcoming lectures. The professor also ran the tutorial, “and that was interesting, to be with her one-on-one.” Many of the professors at Swinburne were not from Australia.
Tuesday Two afternoon lectures, including Management and Mechanics of Materials. In large lecture halls, professors reviewed the readings for the week and went over practice problems. In the mornings, went to the quad to enjoy the weather or took time to call home and talk to family and friends. Some weeks saw an extra Mechanics of Materials lab, in which students tested materials strengths. Classes were held in the engineering building, an eight-story structure with escalators.
Wednesday Full day of classes, from 9 a.m. to after 6 p.m. First, a one-hour sociology lecture to go over readings; took place in a massive lecture hall that was rarely full. (Australian students have a different attitude towards lectures – grades are largely dependent on final exams, so lectures were not well attended.) Next, fluids recitation. A teaching assistant typically went over homework problems; students worked with a partner. “It’s pretty similar to classes you’d have here. The biggest thing is they used different units. When I came back to Drexel and was taking the class that followed the fluids class, I was like, oh wait, I’m not used to using these constants.” Early afternoon break, then a lecture for fluids class. Finally, a discussion-based sociology tutorial taught by a postdoc. Many students in sociology class were interested in finding out more about the US and in comparing cultural norms.
Thursday The last class of the week was a second lecture for the Mechanics of Materials class; also, had five fluids labs throughout the semester working in a group to analyze fluid flow. At night, cooked at home. Bought a large wok upon arrival in Australia; a small grocery store on campus provided all needed food and items. “I made curry a lot.”
Friday Usually a morning for sleeping in. “My sleep schedule got a little off because I’d always stay up late to talk to people at home.” Sometimes went into the city to explore or visit a museum. Swinburne is in the suburbs, so it was easy to use the train at the university to travel or to take a trolley to the beach.
Weekends Enjoyed university-organized trips and excursions. Visited Phillip Island (penguins!). Did a three-day tour up to Adelaide that included a drive along the Great Ocean Road. “It’s modeled on California’s coastal highway. It’s really beautiful.” Also took a trip to Tasmania. “We saw Tasmanian Devils. They are real, even if they look nothing like the cartoon!”

TAKEAWAY MESSAGE: “I don’t think it was super difficult to find a program for studying abroad, but it does take a little bit of planning. I think the Study Abroad Office advises you to start a year-and-a-half before you plan to go abroad. It’s difficult to be planning for this sort of thing during your freshman year. But if you can, that’s going to be your best bet. It’s not a difficult process. They want to make it easy for you to go abroad.

“I got in the co-op in ‘A’ round. You have to get your academic advisor and your co-op advisor to sign off on going abroad. I had to let my co-op know that I might have to leave early, but they were great about it.

“For students who are interested, I think you should just talk to your advisor and tell them from the get-go this is something you’re going to be doing. They’ll be super supportive and provide you with resources. It’s good to have a little bit of an idea where you want to go, but you don’t need to have too much planned out. They’re very good at figuring out what you need to do.

“Obviously, engineering is a very global thing. But I don’t think it really hit me until I was abroad – oh, this is something that I could do anywhere, it doesn’t just exist here in Philly. It’s slightly different how they design stuff, but they go through the same thought processes and the same theories that we study. I feel like now, if I ever I want to go somewhere else and practice, I know I could.”