International Exchange Experience Pays Dividends for U of A Student

Jessica Perez (second from left) with her research team at the Harefield Heart Science Centre
Jessica Perez

Jessica Perez (second from left) with her research team at the Harefield Heart Science Centre

When Jessica Perez decided to partake in a year-long exchange program at the University of Essex, she planned to treat the experience as a gap year before starting graduate school. She expected to make new friends, explore a new culture and learn in a different environment. Earning a role on a research team at a prestigious research center was an unexpected added bonus.

Perez's stint in England was not her first time to study abroad. The former Honors College Bodenhamer Fellow and current biomedical engineering master's student previously participated in short-term, faculty-led programs in Sweden and India. While Perez enjoyed the short-term programs, she did not think they allowed her enough time to fully experience the new cultures.

"I just felt like the three-week programs weren't long enough for me, so when I found out I could do a year-long exchange program I knew it was the right time to do something longer," Perez said.

While Perez was in England, her adviser, Kartik Balachandran, encouraged her to meet with some of his current research collaborators working in London. She took his advice, and the results paid dividends.

"When I was visiting with Dr. Balachandran's colleagues, they mentioned that sometimes American students assist with their research," she said. "I continued to stay in touch with them after our visit and ended up earning a research position in their labs at Harefield Heart Research Centre."

In addition to the academic benefits Perez reaped from her exchange experience, she also gained a new mindset toward her education.

"Being in Essex made me realize how stressful school is and how much of that stress I put on myself," she said. "They don't really have that stress over there because they keep a good balance. I've tried to maintain that same balance since I've been back at the University of Arkansas, and it really helped make my first semester of graduate school seem a lot easier, even though it was the most demanding semester I've ever had."

Being abroad was not always easy for Perez, a native of De Queen, Arkansas. Missing weddings, birthdays and holidays was hard for her, but she said those situations were made easier because she was surrounded by other students who were going through the same things. Overall, Perez said the rewards of studying abroad far outweighed the tough times.

"I went abroad to study and take in a new culture, but I never expected something bigger to come out of it," she said. "The research experience I'm getting as a result of being an exchange student is life-changing and career-changing. My decision to study abroad was the best decision of my life."

Perez's research experience at Harefield Heart Science Centre began Jan. 23 and will conclude in the summer.

Students interested in learning more about study abroad opportunities should contact the Office of Study Abroad and International Exchange.


Amanda Cantu, director of communications
Graduate School and International Education


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