Ashley Tran, who spent last year at Cambridge University in England, says her first international experience woke her up to the gigantic possibilities around her.

“Studying abroad exposed me to such diversity, not only to diverse people, but also to diverse ways of living and learning,” she says. “Discovering that what we consider the norm in the United States is not the norm elsewhere in the world is very eye-opening.”

The Cambridge-MIT Exchange program (CME) is an undergraduate student exchange that gives MIT and Cambridge University students a chance to swap places for a year; 14 MIT departments, including economics and all major science and engineering departments, participate.

The program was one of the first initiatives of the Cambridge-MIT Institute (CMI), which was established in 2000 as a pioneering partnership between these two world-class institutions. Each year, MIT and Cambridge exchange about 35 third-year students. Since the program began, 417 students have participated.

“This is a small world, and MIT students will become leaders of a world that is getting even smaller,” says Peggy Enders, MIT associate dean for undergraduate education and director of the CME program. “They need to know how people in other countries live and think, and they’re not going to know unless they get out there and see it for themselves.”

“Definitely, the greatest value of the program is learning a different way to learn,” says Tran, a biology major who plans to become a doctor. “At Cambridge, we wrote lots of essays, which forced me to think conceptually. At MIT, we do problem sets, which are more quantitative. Because I’ve had both experiences, I have a much deeper knowledge base that supports biological concepts.”

Students are often surprised by the academic differences at Cambridge. There are no graded problem sets or tests, just a big exam at the end. And, in general, students must learn material independently.

At Cambridge, learning is more relaxed than at MIT but no less challenging. Students don’t learn less, they just teach themselves more. And also different for MIT students is that at Cambridge, students only study subjects in their major.

With more unstructured time, MIT students say they can improve their time management skills and also enjoy more free time, while Cambridge students at MIT love learning that draws on the real world, but many are astonished by MIT’s tough workload.

Clearly, Tran says, the trip expanded her. “I had never been to Europe before. But now, I am much more sensitive to an international perspective and have much greater respect for people outside the U.S.”