Melissa Daigneault has a passion for studying abroad, stemming from her time traveling across Europe after graduating from college.
“I gained so much self-confidence during that trip that I understood how much it would benefit my students to have that kind of empowering experience while still undergraduates,” explains Daigneault, who teaches at Texas A&M University.
That’s why Daigneault, a lecturer in the construction science department in the College of Architecture, says she was thrilled when she was offered the opportunity to be the faculty advisor for the semester-long, study abroad and internship program, “Wingtips, Work Boots and Wigs.” The program, which began in 2010, provides up to 20 upper-level undergraduate construction science students the opportunity to spend 19 weeks in London studying construction law and risk management.
What makes this program so unique is that many of the students are able to graduate a semester early, which helps justify the costs involved with the program, especially with parents. The students earn up to 15 credit hours while fulfilling not only their departmental internship requirement but also their semester away requirement for the College of Architecture.
“Because it is such an intense semester, as well as a costly one,” Daigneault says, “I feel a tremendous responsibility to provide these students with an academically challenging and meaningful experience, to maximize the budget and the time, both during my preparation and while we’re there.”
Kirby Miller, a senior from Houston, says she was originally hesitant about going.
“But after listening to Professor Daigneault and feeling her passion about study abroad, I was in. She did a great job of balancing classroom time with learning through experiences. She coordinated so many interviews with people and companies and organized trips which were all academically enriching. I honestly believe I learned more studying abroad than I had in my previous two years of sitting in a classroom,” Miller says.
“It’s a lot of extra work, but it’s definitely worth it,” says Daigneault. “It’s a unique opportunity for a faculty member to engage in high-impact teaching on a daily basis with a small class of students. It’s amazing to see them work as a group and ask truly thoughtful questions. You can see that there’s problem solving and critical thinking happening that you might miss teaching a large class on campus.”
“Not only that,” she continues, “but what you can teach about construction science when you’re standing on the Tower Bridge becomes a more organic, meaningful experience. The students can tie in their experience with their class work and that makes for great discussions. The students also write and blog extensively about what they are learning because it’s so stimulating to them.”
Everything becomes a learning experience, Daigneault says.
“When my students go out in the evening, they are exposed to a broad range of ideas . . . from the political to the social,” she adds. ”It challenges them to consider other options and broaden their horizons. It also makes them appreciate being Americans.”
As Adam Cashner, a senior from Conroe, says, “The study abroad experience not only gave me better knowledge in my field of construction, but it also broadened my view of other countries’ customs and environment. The greatest part of the study abroad experience was being out of your comfort zone, because that is where you’re tested.”
The second component of “Wingtips, Work Boots and Wigs” is an internship. Daigneault explains that students are placed with the help of the department of construction science’s construction industry advisory council.
“The advisory council has member companies with offices in the U.K., such as Balfour Beatty, which took on five Aggie interns,” she explains. “Our visa sponsor placed the remaining students in various companies in London where they worked in such areas as property development, facilities management and industry-related research.”
As senior Jared Caskey from Irving points out “The work experience is great, but that can be obtained anywhere. The experience and understanding that comes from spending that much time in a foreign country is priceless.”
“So many of these students have never left Texas, much less the country,” Daigneault adds. “They might work with barristers and solicitors rather than ‘attorneys,’ and there’s more emphasis on historic preservation and respecting the sightlines for various monuments but basically, the practice of construction law and risk management is very similar in both countries. That makes London a perfect place for our students to do an internship.”
Kirby elaborates, “Experiencing other cultures, different cuisine, vibrant atmospheres, walking everywhere and anywhere, touring unbelievable ancient architecture, accents, royal history and fantastic public transportation…and experiencing all of this on your own without the comfort of family close by, with friends, new and old, is something so empowering, inspiring and exciting that words cannot even come close to describing it.”
“It means they’re forced to figure it out for themselves, because they can’t just turn the car around and go home,” says Daigneault. “Going to college is a step out of the nest, although for many students that’s still only 60 or 90 minutes from home. Studying abroad is a much bigger step, one that builds self-confidence and makes a huge difference in the lives of my students.”
Nancy Pena, a senior from Edcouch, Texas, agrees.
“I know that in order for companies in Texas and the U.S. to be contenders in this ever-expanding world market, it is vital that our students understand the different cultures and practices of the world,” she says. “No textbook or classroom can show you what another culture is really like. I can honestly say that what I learned from this experience has broadened my outlook on the world and will affect my decision-making for the rest of my life.”