Innovative engineering program earns prestigious award

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Organization recognizes URI’s global reach

KINGSTON, R.I. – January 26, 2012 – Exitoso. Réussit. Erfolgreich. 成功.

In any language, there is only one way to describe the University of Rhode Island’s International Engineering Program: Successful.

The interdisciplinary curriculum has been a part of the University for 25 years, and has garnered awards before, but in the last year, it has received unprecedented recognition across the globe. Since May, it has won four distinguished awards, including most recently the 2012 Andrew Heiskell Award for Innovation in International Education. The award was announced today.

Sigrid Berka, executive director of the International Engineering Program, will accept the award and make a presentation at the Institute of International Education’s headquarters in New York City on March 9.

“This award will bring lots of good attention to URI. By going to this conference, we are hoping that leaders involved in international education will spread the word,” said Berka, who will attend the conference with Raymond Wright, Dean of Engineering. “It’s our mission to get others to duplicate this flagship program, because we think this is the right way to educate and prepare our students for the global marketplace.”

The five-year dual bachelor program gets students to dovetail language studies with their education in engineering by pursuing a B.S. in an engineering discipline and a B.A. in a foreign language. Rather than studying German or Chinese for the sake of learning a foreign language, the program allows students to immediately apply their new language skills to a field of study in which they are driven to excel.

“It’s a powerful model because it gives language students a purpose,” Berka said. “If you look at the linguistic gains made when studying abroad, the highest gains apply to students studying and applying the language in an area of passion or interest during long-term immersion programs.”

Students choose to study Spanish, French, German or Chinese and pair that course of study with a degree in an engineering discipline. They spend the first semester of the fourth year studying abroad at one of the University’s partner schools in Germany, France, Canada, Mexico, Spain or China, and the second semester in a six-month paid internship at one of the University’s 78 partner companies in those countries.

They may work for companies such as BMW in Germany, Hasbro in Hong Kong or Nokia Siemens in China.

Colleen Grinham, a fifth-year student from Marlborough, Mass., spent the last year conducting alternative energy research at the Institute for Sanitary and Environmental Engineering at the Technical University of Braunschweig, and working in an internship at Bayer in Leverkusen, Germany.

During her time with Bayer, the aspirin maker, Grinham conducted three two-month rotations working on wastewater treatment, environmental solids processing and civil engineering.

“I always tell other kids that, for some people, the language is the easy part,” Grinham said. “That’s the way it was for me. I had to work hard on the engineering.”

Berka said the work students do abroad almost universally results in significant progress both with respect to linguistic skills as well as technical skills in the field in which they hope to work.

“They come back speaking technical terms that I’ve never even heard of as a native German speaker,” Berka said.

Those results, of course, don’t come easily. Berka said it is the drive and dedication of the students, as well as their willingness to step out of their comfort zone that makes them successful.

“It fits in with the University’s idea of thinking big,” Berka said. “IEP students think big. It’s a challenging program and they must be willing to take a risk. Living abroad means that everyday life routines can become a challenge since you need to tackle them in a foreign environment and in a foreign language. If you’re not a risk taker, you might not be a good fit for this program.”

But for those who are willing to put in the work and step into a foreign culture to face a demanding curriculum, the rewards are often immediate. The program boasts nearly a 100 percent placement rate.

That’s because as international barriers to trade, research and engineering break down, students such as those who graduate from the International Engineering Program are in high demand, even for companies that don’t have the global brand recognition of BMW. Japanese-owned Toray Plastics, for instance, is based in Quonset, R.I., but has facilities in Lyon, France and elsewhere.

“Manufacturing requires global solutions, even if you’re working locally,” Berka said.

The students’ success, and by extension the success of the program, is the reason the University has garnered so many awards recently. In addition to the Heiskell Award, the program’s founder and director emeritus, John Grandin, recently received the German Academic Exchange Service Alumni Award for International Exchange on Jan. 12 at the German Consulate in New York City’s United Nations Plaza. Grandin also was given the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages Award for Distinguished Service to the Profession on Jan. 6 at the Modern Language Association’s annual meeting in Seattle. The program was recognized with the 2011 Sen. Paul Simon Spotlight Award for Campus Internationalization on May 5, 2011, at the NAFSA conference in Vancouver.

“As a student, I’m proud when we get recognition like this because we see appreciation for what we’re doing from someone other than ourselves,” Grinham said. “We want to leave our mark on the world.”

For more information about the Heiskell Award or the International Engineering Program, call Berka at (401) 874-4700 or visit