Alumni Spotlight: Rachel Howell


Why did you study abroad with VT's Automotive Engineering program in Germany?

I minored in German and it is very difficult to study abroad as an engineering major and actually get useful credits from it so i decided to spend a summer doing research in Germany. Virginia Tech has an exchange program with Technische Universitaet Darmstadt. My experience was a research experience for undergrads (REU) funded by the National Science Foundation (therefore I was paid in dollars not euros). Some students did their research at Virginia Tech and then eight of us worked in Germany.

What made your study abroad experience unique and special?

What I enjoyed about this experience was working closely with German PhD students. They were extremely friendly with us and took us out after work and on weekends. It also gave me insight into how research is done in Germany versus the US and I had the opportunity to hang out and meet other German students. My only complaint was that we lived in a house with all of the Americans participating in the program (8 of us). I would have preferred to stay in a German dorm or find our own housing so that I wasn't just spending time with fellow Americans. In addition to research, the department I worked with allowed us to attend workshops related to automotive engineering and as part of my research I drove TUD test vehicles (ie really nice BMWs). Unlike the US, there are less lawsuits and concern about liability so things were more flexible in getting to drive test vehicles.

How has this experience impacted your future?

Even though I only spent a summer in Germany it greatly improved my German language skills and definitely built up my resume. Since then I have strayed from engineering (I'm currently doing development work), but the experience still allowed me to travel all over Europe and I'm hoping to start graduate school in Germany this fall. Gaining international research experience I feel has also helped me as I apply for grad school because it's something many of my peers do not have. My summer in Germany also helped spark the desire for all of my many future travels. Since then I've spent a year in Korea, short term trips in central America, and now I'm completing an internship in international development in Uganda.