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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Developing a Global Engineer: Study Abroad Experiences of Engineering Majors in One University System

  • Author(s): Seccia, Lesley
  • Advisor(s): Ho, Hsiu-Zu
  • Conley, Sharon
  • et al.


Extensive literature on study abroad outcomes documents the benefits of study abroad for all undergraduate students, regardless of academic major. However, engineering majors, at 5% of all undergraduate students nationally who study abroad, are substantially less likely to study abroad than their social science peers, at 17.3% participation (IIE, 2016). Yet engineering majors have much to gain from international experiences: engineering is a global profession, and these future engineers will be expected not only to work in diverse teams but also travel and work abroad.

The purpose of this study is: (a) to explore the goals, motivations and challenges or barriers that undergraduate engineering majors face in their decision-making regarding study abroad, particularly in comparison to those motivations and barriers identified in the literature; (b) to identify outcomes of study abroad for this group of students and how they believe study abroad might impact their future; and (c) to explore students’ decision-making regarding engineering study abroad from academic advisors’ perspectives. These advisors not only support undergraduates’ academic needs on campus but also help them plan for study abroad.

The theory of reasoned action (Fishbein & Azjen, 1975) and transformational learning theory (Mezirow, 1991) formed the theoretical framework for this study. Combined, these theories form the basis of a conceptual model to explain the decision-making process of studying abroad and how study abroad can be a transformative learning experience for study abroad participants.

This study employed a mixed methods methodology (Creswell, 2014) to address the research questions. First, a survey was sent to engineering undergraduates who had participated in study abroad at 8 different undergraduate institutions within a university system. Then, based on survey responses, in-depth interviews were conducted with 11 of the survey participants. Concurrently, 7 academic advisors were interviewed in order to shed light on the advising process for engineering majors to study abroad.

Personal and institutional factors were found to be the primary considerations in deciding whether to study abroad. Personal factors included students’ desires for cultural experiences and their internal drive to overcome any obstacles they faced. Institutionally, curriculum restrictions for engineering majors and student fears about delay in graduation challenged study abroad participation. Outcomes included students’ alteration of career plans, increasing their insight into other cultures, and increasing their comfort with working abroad.

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