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How study abroad shaped four UMBC student experiences

May 21, 2019 2:10 PM
May 20, 2019 by Catherine Borg

Many students come to UMBC with the goal of leaving the familiar behind to take on new challenges and gain a fresh perspective. Once they’re on campus, that’s also what inspires some Retrievers to explore international learning opportunities.

Balancing course requirements, activities, research, and other responsibilities, while also pursuing study abroad, can prove challenging. But for these four UMBC students earning undergraduate degrees this month, it’s also been transformative.

Building self-confidence for any situation

When Aliyah Smith ’19, mechanical engineering, started at UMBC as a Meyerhoff Scholar in 2015, she knew right away that she wanted to study abroad in her first year. She was also worried that it would be a challenge to graduate on time in an engineering major if she pursued study abroad, so she took a very strategic approach: an international summer internship. It worked out seamlessly, with Smith enjoying a nine-week mechanical engineering internship at the University of Oxford. That summer also left her with an intense travel bug.

Smith became determined to find a semester-long study abroad opportunity that could fit her degree plan, and that could immerse her in a culture different from others she had experienced before. She spent the spring 2018 semester studying at American University of Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates. With help from her department and UMBC’s Education Abroad Office, she coordinated her course plan to make all the pieces fit together.

Aliyah Smith at her study abroad program’s farewell dinner in downtown Sharjah. Photo courtesy of Smith.


“As an engineering student and future engineer, I believe gaining a global perspective is imperative,” Smith says. “My goal as an engineer is to help solve the world’s problems and studying abroad has helped me view problems through a different lens.”

“Studying abroad has taught me how to connect and form relationships with people that are different from myself. It has allowed me to see the similarities and differences among cultures and more particularly, appreciate the differences,” Smith says.

Aliyah Smith (front right) at her study abroad program’s farewell dinner in downtown Sharjah. Photo courtesy of Smith.


From a practical, professional angle, she notes, “Most research groups are comprised of engineers from around the world. It is very important that I know how to collaborate with the people in these groups.”

Smith’s international experiences have also helped her grow in ways that apply to aspects of her life beyond academics. “At eighteen, I had to figure out how to travel from country to country and problem solve on my own, forcing me to be more outgoing and self-reliant,” she shares. Through study abroad she grew her self-confidence and fine-tuned skills “that I can apply to any situation and in any job, such as interpersonal skills, diligence, and persistence.”

Aliyah Smith working in lab at the University of Oxford. Photo courtesy of Smith.


In the fall, Smith will attend Stanford University’s Ph.D. program in aeronautics and astronautics. She also recently shared her experience as a Meyerhoff Scholar in a
special segment on WYPR, Baltimore’s NPR station.

Growing international experience

As a 14 year old, Gabriela “Gabi” Salas ’19 traveled to Ecuador for a service trip and was troubled by inequalities experienced by young women in the community where she worked. That trip “solidified my commitment to service” she says. It also led her to apply to UMBC’s Sondheim Public Affairs Scholar program and to major in global studies and gender and women’s studies, to prepare her to have an impact through her career.

Gabi Salas in UMBC’s Public Policy Building, where the Shriver Center is located. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.


On campus, Salas became actively involved with the Hispanic Latino Student Union and with the Global Brigades and Human Rights Brigade programs. An alternative spring break program with Global Brigades took her to Panama. “It did so much for me in terms of adding to my experience of working with Latin American women.” That trip also confirmed for her that working on reproductive health research and policy in relationship to Latinx women was the path she wanted to follow.

Salas earned an Undergraduate Research Award to develop a project on the use and accessibility of contraception for women students at UMBC, mentored by Amy Bhatt, associate professor of gender and women’s studies. She evaluated what contraception women at UMBC access through surveys and interviews. Her goal was to explore whether or not stratified reproduction is embedded in our society enough to impact the reproductive rights of college-aged women.

Gabi Salas presenting at URCAD 2018. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.


Salas also had the opportunity to spend a summer researching Mexican-American women’s reproductive health with a faculty member at Columbia University. This work furthered her interest in the field and her commitment to earning a Ph.D. to pursue sociological research on reproductive health. Along the way, she says, UMBC’s Sondheim Scholars and Shriver Center communities have supported her vision and goals, and helped her pursue her passions.

Seeing global challenges from different perspectives

Emily Duan ‘19, mechanical engineering, had always been intrigued by German design and engineering and longed to experience an extended stay in a country where she did not speak the language.

The Center for Women in Technology Scholar got to do just that through the International Winter University program at the University of Kassel in 2018. During the three-week intensive study, language, and cultural immersion program, Duan completed an environmental engineering course on renewable energy sources, an intensive German language course, and lived with a host family in Kassel, Germany.

Emily Duan in Germany in 2018. Photo courtesy of Duan.


Duan noted that she studied in Germany with students from around the world and that doing so allowed her to “view global challenges from different perspectives.” She shares, “It taught me to approach problems cautiously to avoid making erroneous assumptions, as well as appreciate the value of diversity in a group.”

Duan was especially happy to find the winter program in Kassel as she devoted her college career summers to internship experiences. She worked in automotive and energy research at Oakland University in 2016, at Baltimore Gas and Electric with the Distribution Systems Operations Support Group in 2017, and as a Robotics Institute Summer Scholar at Carnegie Mellon University in 2018.

In the fall, Duan will attend North Carolina State University’s Ph.D. program in mechanical engineering program.

Bridging multiple fields and approaches

With a double major in applied mathematics and mechanical engineering, Lucas McCullum ’19 worried that study abroad would simply be out of reach. But he wasn’t willing to give up on the dream. He had a feeling that an immersive and boundary-breaking international learning experience could have a big impact on his perspective and his sense of life and career possibilities.

McCullum found a way to fulfill this goal through Public Health in the Netherlands, an intensive international learning opportunity conducted through the Council on International Educational Exchange in Amsterdam. The course “allowed me to take a step outside my comfort zone and tackle challenges outside of my traditional academic path,” he shares. It also complemented his core research interest: using medical imaging to improve health outcomes.

As it turned out, McCullum was the only engineering student in the cohort. Although he initially felt uncertain, he says, “I used this as an opportunity to grow as a person and student.” In the end, he says, “it increased my self-confidence and sense of individuality.”

McCullum built off that experience and continued to grow his sense of confidence in collaborative problem-solving as a member of UMBC’s Kinetic Sculpture Race Team.

McCullum and a kinetic sculpture teammate. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.


McCullum further pursued his interest in advancing medical imaging through research. He earned an U
ndergraduate Research Award to study the use of piezoelectric materials (which generate electrical charge in response to mechanical stress) for more cost-effective tumor screening. He has already presented this research at the 2018 conference for Smart Materials, Adaptive Structures, and Intelligent Systems (SMASIS), and it will soon be published in UMBC Review.

Mark Zupan, associate professor of mechanical engineering and a mentor of McCullum’s, sees tremendous value in his drive to explore diverse learning experiences. Zupan, a strong proponent of international learning opportunities, reflects that McCullum “has truly had an enriched experience at UMBC while completing an immensely difficult double major and actively and successfully performing multiple types of research.”

Lucas McCullum (left) with his fellow presenters at URCAD 2019. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.


After commencement, McCullum will complete a summer internship with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, where he will work with a supercomputer to simulate fluid flow around a wind turbine. Next, he will begin Stanford University’s interdisciplinary master’s program in computational and mathematical engineering, with a focus on imaging sciences.

McCullum looks forward to pursuing every new opportunity with a sense of anticipation and possibility. As he shared in 2017, when highlighted for his work as a student researcher, “I believe that when we open ourselves up to new experiences, we allow new doors to open and new lights to shine.”

Learn more about UMBC students’ international learning experiences and plans for the coming months through this feature on the fourteen UMBC students and recent alumni just selected for the Fulbright U.S. Student programa new university record.

Featured image: Aliyah Smith visiting India during spring break while studying abroad in the UAE. Photo courtesy of Smith.