While consulting with my study abroad counselor, she provided me with a very interesting piece of information; very few science students study abroad. She also postulated a few theories about why this might be including that science curricula often have more rigid class lists (no substitution with classes abroad) and that science as a whole puts more emphasis on controlled environments (e.g. labs) than the actual nuances seen in the social world we live in. Obviously, as a student of land management, the real world is my laboratory, and that made it a bit easier to pursue an education abroad. But my case is the exception, so I’d like to provide a few theories of my own on why an education abroad can be especially useful for those with a scientific eye.
Defeat of Scientific Determinism
Growing up, I was led to believe in science as perfectly logical deductive reasoning. Living in a highly technocratic society, I always wondered why social movements and policy lagged behind the “clearly right” solutions to the world’s problems that our top scientists must be coming up with. Upon entering university, my naïveté was soon shattered as I found out, to my great dismay, that scientific value and legitimacy could not escape our highly politicized world. Multinational corporations fund new buildings and determine research objective, while at the same time stifling legitimate concerns raised by independent thinkers because opposition might impact their bottom-line. Try as they might, even professors could not remain neutral while educating the incoming freshmasses and so their biases were transferred to and perpetuated with each cohort. A system that I had religiously believed in as “impartial” was soon exposed to be just another manipulation of common sense by the powers-that-be. With this new, albeit jaded, perspective, I became interested in alternative sciences and differing ideologies of management seen in other nations, a primary motive for studying in New Zealand. Studying my field under a different educational and political institution provided a more global perspective on the epistemic nature of science, pulling away that thin veil of “perfection” forever.
Fighting Epistemic Isolation
Engineers study with engineers. Foresters eat chili with other foresters. Architects never leave the studio. Each is an example of epistemic isolation. The philosophical field of epistemology is the study of how knowledge is garnered and transferred. In the case of academia at Berkeley, each field is taught in a specific building, by faculty within that department. With this realization, its hard to argue that academic fields aren’t isolated. Even I am guilty of isolating myself and putting myself into the “hard science” bubble. It took me until my final (ongoing) semester to finally begin to see value in policy and rhetoric.
Epistemic isolation was further reinforced by my peer group. I spent most of my time in forestry classes and so my study-group became my circle of friends, where all of us foresters could feel safe in assuming that forestry (our school’s version of the science that is) is best. Extrapolating this argument, if folks aren’t taught to value other fields and perspectives, how can multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder groups work together? Without a broad perspective, how can an individual, especially one who might someday have the authority to change public policy, make an informed decision?
I certainly bonded with Kiwi foresters while abroad, but I also got to pick the brains of artists, geologists, philosophers, engineers, and psychologists. Even conversations with non-academics were moving and each new friend broadened my perspective and ability to communicate across educational and cultural backgrounds. Taking a step out of an insular group back home may seem scary but it is ultimately what allows us, as individuals and a collective culture, to move forward together.
A Shift In Perspective
In your culture, who is on top? Who is the underdog? Now that you have those images, do you believe this hierarchy is universal?… I sure hope not.
At Cal Berkeley, many people poke fun at the engineers for being nerdy kids who spend all their time in the dark laboratory or on the computer running MatLab simulations. At the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, NZ, engineers run the block. The biggest social society on campus is EnSoc (Engineering Society). They throw the biggest parties, pregame the hardest, and their culture dominates the school. This is just one of many flips in perspective I experienced during my six months in New Zealand. While some realizations were not so flattering (e.g. ongoing race relations in the predominantly white South Island), every one was critical. I believe it is important to evaluate and reevaluate your place in the world and when I see how common sense varies by culture, it gives me strength and confidence in pursuing my own ambitions, regardless of societal norms. To me, this was the most powerful and moving part of being away from California. It forced me to review my perception of “normal” and highlighted some cultural nuances particular to California. I’m not saying that my Cali nuances are bad or problematic, just that cultural niches change geographically and temporally. The old adage of “change is the only constant” requires us to acknowledge that humanity is ever shifting. But far too often, individuals get caught up in their way; stuck in a rut defined by the same normative rules. Simply seeing a new landscape might jolt some to reexamine their habits while others might require some challenging social interactions before breaking through the boundary of introspection. Studying abroad certainly provides opportunities for both.
And so, I urge any and all students, and especially scientists, remotely interested in studying abroad to look inside and think about where they want to go and why? Do you want to challenged yourself with a new language (I didn’t) or experience a globally-renown department? Do you want to see a new landscape and culture? Whatever you want, you can surely find it somewhere on our great and diverse planet. And as a student, opportunities abound on all corners of the globe.