Science beyond borders: international student exchange

By Laura Cassiday

In This Section

October 2017

  • International student exchange programs offer undergraduate and graduate students the ability to study or conduct research at a university in a different country.
  • Exchange programs offer many benefits to students, such as improved responsibility, flexibility, and leadership skills; laboratory facilities, equipment, or expertise not available at home; and scientific collaborations.
  • The most successful research exchanges are built upon relationships between professors at home and host universities.

As an undergraduate student at the University of Arkansas, in Fayetteville, USA, Sarah Mayfield received an opportunity that most food scientists can only dream of: the chance to study chocolate in Belgium, a country famous for that confection. As part of her undergraduate honors thesis, Mayfield prepared and analyzed chocolate products containing conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)-rich soybean oil at the University of Ghent’s renowned Cacaolab. “The Cacaolab has all the equipment they would have in a company that makes chocolate, but at a lab scale instead of an industrial scale,” says Mayfield. “I was able to do research that I wouldn’t have been able to do in Arkansas.”

In addition to research opportunities, international student exchange programs offer the ability to immerse oneself in another culture, learn a foreign language, take classes from experts in a particular field, and forge collaborations. With increasing globalization and communication capabilities, arranging an international student exchange has never been easier.

International affairs

AOCS member Roland Verhé, professor emeritus at the University of Ghent, has been instrumental in facilitating the exchange of thousands of students across the globe. In 1988, Verhé became a scientific coordinator for the newly formed Erasmus Programme, a European student exchange program established by the European Commission. The program was named for the Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1465–1536), an early proponent of international education. The Erasmus program provides scholarships and support for EU students to study at one of more than 4,000 partner institutions in 37 countries. A key aspect of the program is that students do not pay tuition fees to the host university. Grants are available to help cover travel and living expenses in the foreign country.

In 2004, Verhé and fellow AOCS member Andrew Proctor, professor of food science at the University of Arkansas, applied for a grant from the Atlantis Program, a student and faculty exchange program funded jointly by the EU and the US. They received a grant to fund student research exchanges in the area of biorenewable resources. Students from the EU could receive financial assistance to study at one of three US universities (University of Arkansas, Iowa State University, and Kansas State University), while US applicants could choose among three European universities (University of Ghent; University of Graz, in Austria; and National Polytechnic Institute of Tolouse, in France). Although the Erasmus program continues, US funding for the Atlantis program ended in 2013. Verhé has also helped develop student and staff exchange programs in other regions of the world, including China, Mongolia, the Middle East, and Africa.

According to Verhé, a successful international exchange program requires a strong network of partner institutions with clearly defined expectations. “I don’t want students to waste their time,” he says. “If we send out a student to a partner in the network, we know exactly how many credits he is earning and how to translate grades into the home university of the student.” Before the student leaves to study abroad, a contract should be made and signed by the student, the home university, and the host university. “Then there is never a discussion when something goes wrong,” says Verhé. “We know exactly what a student has to do, and if he’s not doing his examinations and things like this, he is not able to obtain grades.”

Types of exchange

For science students who wish to study abroad, there are three types of exchange programs, says Verhé. The first involves only coursework. The student attends lectures at the host university and obtains credits and grades that transfer to his or her home university. In the second type of exchange, the student completes a research internship in a lab at the host university. The research may contribute to the student’s undergraduate, master’s, or doctoral thesis at their home university. In the third type of program, students complete both coursework and research at the host university. “I am in favor of this last option because if a student is only coming for a research internship, they stay in the same laboratory doing experiments, and the majority of the student population is attending lectures,” says Verhé. “The social experience is better if a student is able to attend lectures and be part of a group. Otherwise, students, especially shy students, sometimes isolate themselves.”

Because Mayfield was concerned about falling behind in her coursework at the University of Arkansas, she chose a 3-month research internship at the University of Ghent that took place during her summer break. “It wasn’t a formal exchange program in the sense that you go there and do classes, and you’re with a bunch of other students, but there was an agreement between our two universities to send students back and forth,” says Mayfield. She did not take any classes at the University of Ghent, but instead focused on her research analyzing the physical and chemical properties of shortening and chocolate made from CLA-rich soybean oil. The work not only comprised her undergraduate honors thesis, but also resulted in two peer-reviewed publications.

Julian Silverman, now a postdoctoral research and teaching fellow in chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, USA, participated in a student exchange program as an undergraduate at McGill University, in Quebec, Canada. His 1-month summer program at École Supérieure de Chimie Physique Électronique de Lyon (CPE Lyon), in France, included both coursework and a lab component, as well as opportunities for sightseeing (Fig. 1). “Every morning from 9 to 10 a.m., there was a French class,” says Silverman “Every day there were also lab tours, a literature project, or a few experiments. I didn’t get my hands too dirty, but it was a good bridge between my sophomore year in a university chemistry program and research.”

Figure 1

FIG. 1. Between classes and lab work, students find time to visit cultural sites in their host countries, such as Vieux Lyon, a renaissance district of Lyon, France. Credit: Julian Silverman

Although exchange opportunities exist for graduate students, they are not as common as those for undergraduates. “The nature of the business is that a graduate student is usually on a professor’s grant, and the professor wants results,” says Proctor. “So what we’re trying to do at the University of Arkansas is to embed the international experience into the work itself. For example, if we have two professors working together on a project, then they can exchange students and continue their project at the other institution.” Proctor notes that one of the University of Arkansas’ exchange partners, the Technical University of Graz, in Austria, has one of the best mass spectrometry facilities in the world, and student and staff exchanges have fostered research collaborations between the two universities.

As a master’s degree student at Istanbul Technical University in Turkey, Derya Kahveci participated in an Erasmus exchange program at the Technical University of Denmark, in Copenhagen. “I was familiar with Professor Xuebing Xu’s work, and I wanted to have the opportunity to work in his lab,” says Kahveci. “I did not know much about Denmark when I applied for an Erasmus grant. I chose the lab rather than the country, and it turned out to be a wonderful choice in both aspects.”

In Xu’s lab, Kahveci studied the lipase-catalyzed synthesis of diacylglycerols in ionic liquids as solvents. “I can honestly say that this exchange of eight months actually changed my life afterwards,” says Kahveci. “After two months of my stay, Professor Xu offered me a PhD position in his lab, which he later moved to Aarhus University [also in Denmark].” So after defending her master’s thesis in Istanbul, Kahveci moved back to Denmark for 3 years to complete her PhD in Xu’s lab. Then she returned home to Istanbul, where she is now an assistant professor at Yeditepe University.

For undergraduate or graduate students who hesitate to commit to months-long exchange programs, short courses are an opportunity to obtain a quick snapshot of the science and culture of another country. For example, in July 2017, a group of undergraduate and graduate students from the University of Arkansas attended a 2-week short course on food science and culinary arts at the Technical University of Graz. The course included lectures, laboratory and culinary exercises, and group activities. The students also went on several field trips, including visits to a major chocolate company, a winery, and an oilseed press (Fig. 2). In 2018, a similar short course for Austrian and other EU students will take place at the University of Arkansas.

Figure 2

FIG. 2. A visit to an edible oil mill during the Technical University of Graz’s short course on food science. Credit: Andrew Proctor

Mayfield, now a PhD student in the food science department at the University of Arkansas, participated in the recent short course at the Technical University of Graz. “I particularly enjoyed learning about the relationship between analytical and sensory analysis of food flavors. I also went to Graz a week early and stayed a week later to do some work in their analytical flavor chemistry lab,” says Mayfield. “As a graduate student, it’s not very feasible to go abroad for a whole semester solely for the cultural experience, but if it’s for research and fits into your overall thesis, then it can be very beneficial.”

New horizons

Whereas some undergraduate students choose an international destination based on the strengths of a specific university or laboratory, others make their selection based on a particular region, language, or culture. As an undergraduate at Neubrandenburg University of Applied Science, in Germany, Fabien Schultz studied for a semester in Uganda. “I wanted to improve my English and experience a culture outside of Europe, so I had three options: Australia; the US; and some English-speaking countries in Africa, such as Uganda,” says Schultz. “The study fees were quite high in Australia and the US, and visiting Africa has always been a dream of mine, so that’s why I went to Uganda.” Under his own initiative, Schultz contacted Kampala University in Uganda, and inquired about the possibility of an exchange. Officials at Kampala University approved, so the two universities put together a collaboration contract, and Schultz’s study fees were waived.

Schultz’s girlfriend, Inken Dworak, a journalism student, arranged a similar exchange between her university and Kampala University. “We just booked a flight and went there, and we didn’t even know what was going to happen,” says Schultz. “We didn’t even have accommodations.” An Ebola outbreak coincided with their arrival in Uganda, which made their first few weeks in the country challenging. However, they remained in Uganda for 7 months, taking courses and teaching. “I’m a food biotechnologist focusing on lipid chemistry, and when I went to Uganda I took some chemistry courses, as well as some other courses that were interesting to me, like Swahili and the study of insects,” says Schultz.

Because the courses in Uganda were structured differently than those in Germany, Schultz’s credits did not transfer to his home university. Also, laboratory research was difficult to perform due to a lack of equipment and facilities, but Schultz was able conduct research in the field. He has no regrets about his time spent abroad. “From then on, every year I returned to Uganda for at least a month,” he says. “Now my PhD thesis at the Technical University of Berlin focuses on medicinal plants and lipids from the African rainforest.”

Schultz was so affected by his experience in Uganda that, together with Dworak and a Ugandan friend named Kyewalyanga Moses,,he founded a charity organization called ARUDEVO (African Rural Development Volunteers; to facilitate the transfer of knowledge in the region. Through ARUDEVO, Schultz and other visiting students and professors give workshops on topics such as food safety, soap production with local raw materials, and microbiology (Fig. 3). The organization also sponsors projects to help women, vulnerable children, and people with disabilities, and to provide mobile telephones to people in impoverished rural communities of Uganda.

Figure 3

FIG. 3. Fabien Schultz guides a soap-making workshop in rural Uganda. Credit: Inken Dworak

Culture shock

Some students are reluctant to participate in exchange programs because of a perceived language barrier, or they worry that the culture of the country will be too different, and they will not be able to fit in. However, such fears are often unfounded, particularly for students who can speak English. “All the young people in Belgium, and everybody working in a university setting, speaks English,” says Mayfield. Therefore, she had no difficulties in communicating with her research mentor or the people in her lab at the University of Ghent. “The only tricky thing was just being in the town walking around, and all the signs were in Dutch. Also, not many of the restaurants there have English menus,” says Mayfield. “But it was definitely manageable.”

“In Europe more and more, the working language is English,” says Verhé. However, students who wish to learn the local language often have opportunities to take classes at their home or host universities, and ample chances to practice with native speakers. Proctor notes that language is almost never an issue for European students who come to the US. “They’re all fluent in English,” he says.

Although cultures can vary significantly, international exchanges can help improve a student’s flexibility and ability to adapt to new environments, says Verhé. Schultz says that it took some time for him to adjust to the more relaxed attitude of many people in Uganda. “If I wanted to do something on a particular day, and I put out a schedule, I would have a hard time achieving it because people are often very late for appointments.” He recalls a university lecture that was scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. The students all waited until 2 p.m., when the lecturer finally arrived. “Although this big of a delay was uncommon, in the Ugandan culture it was a normal thing to do,” says Schultz. “Therefore, we had to always schedule alternative tasks and learn to be more flexible.”

As blonde-haired, blue-eyed Germans, Schultz and his girlfriend felt rather conspicuous in Uganda. “We were the first Europeans at that university, and also the only ones who were light-skinned, so we were quite a highlight at the university,” he says. At first, this made them feel insecure. “But in the end, everybody we met, especially the less-privileged people in the countryside, were all so welcoming and warm-hearted,” says Schultz. “When we came to their community, they would slaughter their only chicken just for us.”

Schultz did not realize the full cultural impact of his exchange until he and his girlfriend returned to Germany. “We noticed that German people complain quite a lot about minor things like the weather,” he says. “We realized that most people in Uganda lack material possessions, basic infrastructure, and some human rights, but they seem to be happier than we are in Germany. That’s when we said, okay, we have to give them something back, and that inspired us to found ARUDEVO.”

Lab cultures can also vary significantly among countries. Mayfield notes that the lab she worked in at the University of Ghent was much more formal and hierarchal than her lab at the University of Arkansas. “In our department at Arkansas, undergraduates can have conversations with graduate students and professors, and generally it’s not an intimidating thing,” she says. “But in Belgium, you don’t just walk into a professor’s office whenever you want to talk to them and say, ‘Oh, are you busy? I have to ask you a question.’ You have to make an appointment.” She also notes that PhD students, master’s students, and undergraduates were all on different hierarchal levels and rarely interacted. “It was kind of like, oh, you’re above me, so I feel weird talking to you,” she says. “And it wasn’t just that university. I talked to other European students, and they said it’s a pretty common thing throughout Europe.”

Personal growth

In addition to lessons learned in the classroom and experience gained in the lab, international exchange programs offer many opportunities for personal growth. “I’ve talked to many parents of exchange students, and they say, ‘My daughter or son was abroad for 6 months, and they returned a different person,’” says Verhé. “They have a much stronger personality, are more responsible, and are much more developed in their social behavior.” “Until moving to Copenhagen, I lived with my family, so being alone in a foreign country away from everyone was tough at times,” says Kahveci. “However, looking back, I’m glad I had to do it—it forced me to grow up a bit.” Mayfield says that her exchange experience helped her to become more independent in the lab. “When I started making the chocolate products, I had to figure out where to get the ingredients. I just assumed I would go over to the Cacaolab, and someone would have all the ingredients sitting out for me, but they didn’t.” Mayfield had to find and contact the appropriate people at the university for ingredients such as cocoa butter, locate their offices, and pick up the ingredients. “At the time that was very intimidating to me, but after doing it for a few weeks, I became a lot more confortable with it,” she says. “I learned a lot of communications skills and teamwork, so it was very beneficial.” Silverman also had to step outside his comfort zone as an exchange student in France. “I had to give this horrible presentation in French–my French has never been great—but the professors in the room were so kind,” he says. “It was a foreign place where you could try things and maybe fail a little bit, but you also had a supportive group of people who said, ‘Keep going,” which is all you really need at that stage.” Schultz says that his exchange trip to Uganda improved his responsibility and leadership skills. “When you go to rural Uganda, people ask you to give a speech or say a prayer, and speaking in front of that many people changed me quite a lot,” he says. “It definitely made giving a talk at the annual AOCS meeting seem rather effortless.” Schultz is also applying his leadership skills as co-leader of the AOCS Student Common Interest Group. In addition, an international exchange looks good on a resumé, and may help students advance their career after graduation, says Verhé. “Students who have done 6 months abroad have a big advantage because they know about social and cultural differences of other countries,” he says. “For people in positions with an international character, they are not afraid if the boss says, ‘You have to go to China.’ They are used to doing this.”

Making an exchange

For students who wish to participate in an international exchange, a first step is to contact their university’s international programs office. Administrators can help students choose a host university, select appropriate courses or a research internship, and secure funding. How much of his or her own money a student will have to pay varies. Typically, an international student does not pay tuition fees above what they are already paying at their home university. Scholarships and grants can be obtained to help cover travel and living expenses. Students with research internships often obtain a stipend from either the home or host university.

Forming connections with professors overseas is important for students seeking research internships. “The AOCS Annual Meeting is a perfect place to make that happen because we have so many professors from all over the world there,” says Proctor. However, he notes that often professors and their students at the Annual Meeting do not interact with their cohorts in other countries as much as they could. “International professors often keep their group of students with them,” he says. “The students could interact more with the student division, and the education division would benefit from more faculty involvement. Students and professors tend to stay in their cultural comfort zone.” Instead, Proctor recommends that professors and students interact more with their international colleagues at the meeting to develop collaborations that could result in student exchange programs. “The relationship comes before the program, and building mutual trust is essential,” says Proctor.

Verhé agrees that most research internships arise from a personal relationship between two professors. “I have never sent students to a university or to a professor if I don’t know the quality of that university or the strength of the laboratory,” he says. “It is very important that the professors know and trust each other.” He adds that an international exchange student must have both administrative support from the university’s international programs office, and scientific support from her advisor or professors.

Kahveci is currently the departmental coordinator of exchange programs at Yeditepe University. “My students hesitate to apply sometimes, worrying that they will have to spend more semesters to graduate due to the time spent abroad,” she says. “I always encourage them to look at it as a ‘once in a lifetime experience,’ and not only an academic achievement.”

Schultz also encourages students to take the step of participating in an international exchange, during a time of life when they have the career and familial flexibility to live for several months in a foreign land. “Of course, there’s some risk, but in the end it pays off, and this type of travel to a totally different culture becomes more complicated when you have a family or children,” he says. “It broadens your horizon, and it’s so much fun making new friends from other continents.”

Laura Cassiday is an associate editor of Inform at AOCS. She can be contacted at