By Dawn Strickland
I first traveled to Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher with my father and sister a decade ago. It felt like we were walking in a cloud that day. It was foggy, rainy, and gray — weather typically associated with Ireland. While we couldn’t see beyond the clouds, we could hear the unmistakable sounds of the Atlantic Ocean below. And we paid attention to the signs — none of us wanted to be like the stick figure plunging into the sea.
When I returned to the Cliffs of Moher this past July, the skies were clear, the sun was shining, and I could finally observe what I had only heard the first time: breathtaking views of the sky and ocean as far as the eye can see. And of course I had to take a picture of the stick figure sign for my family back home as a reminder of our past trip.
For this visit, I was in Ireland not for vacation but for work. For five weeks, I served as the faculty lead for a dozen industrial engineering undergraduate students in Georgia Tech’s Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering and the Stewart School of Industrial & Systems Engineering faculty-led summer study abroad program at the University of Limerick. I taught ISYE 3133 (Engineering Optimization) and MATH 2603 (Discrete Mathematics) concurrently, and the students and I worked hard. For five weeks, we met four days a week for classes that lasted from 9 AM until 3 PM, with office hours and academic advising included as well.
Oftentimes, I would arrive in the classroom in the morning only to find my students already there, studying. We all lived in an apartment-style dormitory 20 minutes from the city center. Living abroad in that environment and having such an intense class schedule made it easy to really get to know and connect with the students, who had been in Ireland for five weeks taking aerospace engineering classes prior to my arrival. They gave me solid advice related to the cafeteria: Be sure to sample the multiple types of potatoes at every meal. Chips (french fries), mash (mashed potatoes), and roasties (roasted potatoes) were among the varieties—it wasn’t unusual to have all three on your plate at once.
We commiserated about the lack of air conditioning on warm days and about water issues in our apartments, but those inconveniences didn’t slow down my students. Every weekend they traveled to different parts of Ireland or Europe. They traveled cheaply — budget airlines and youth hostels — and they definitely brought an industrial engineer’s perspective to planning their adventures. They were hyper-scheduled, and I admired how well they packed a lot of cultural experiences and travel into a short amount of time.
It can be challenging for engineering students to study abroad since many programs require sequential coursework at varying levels of rigor. This is what makes Georgia Tech faculty-led programs so special. The experience may not be quite as immersive as if you were taking a course directly from the University of Limerick, but the rigor is guaranteed and the opportunity to have an international experience is priceless. In the academic office, we always encourage students to study abroad as long as it doesn’t prohibit them from moving along in the curriculum.
It’s safe to say that at times we all missed the comforts of home. We missed our families, pets, top sheets, firm pillows, and normal-sized towels. But I also observed a great group of engaged students comprehend the concepts covered in these foundational classes while taking advantage of exploring not only the country where we were based, but also different countries throughout Europe.
When it came time for advising the group and planning their schedules from now until graduation, it became clear that this would be the first of many international experiences they will undertake. There are so many international opportunities for them at Georgia Tech, and this program encourages them to take that next step to pursue an exchange or a completely immersive experience like working abroad.