International Engineering Program leadership transition coincides with new challenges

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KINGSTON, R.I. – January 26, 2010 – The International Engineering Program at the University of Rhode Island is a model for universities around the country interested in providing engineering students with cross-cultural opportunities. It was the first to offer students a complete language degree, a complete engineering degree, and a year abroad, all in five years.

Now, after more than two decades, the program is experiencing another first – its first change of leadership. John Grandin, a professor of German and the program’s executive director since its inception in 1987, is beginning to transition to retirement. And his successor, Sigrid Berka, already has her hands full.

Formerly director of the MIT-Germany program, one of the cornerstone applied international study initiatives at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she was named associate director of the URI program in August and will take over as its executive director when Grandin fully retires. In December, she was recognized by German Consul General Friedrich Loehr with a German-American Friendship Award for her accomplishments at MIT and her quick start at URI.

“URI has the most in-depth academic preparation in the country for engineering students looking for global opportunities,” said Berka, who grew up in Germany and came to the United States as an exchange student in the 1980s. “It’s unmatched anywhere. The University truly sees the value of cross-disciplinary engineering education, and of sending students abroad for a full year.”

Students in the program study an engineering discipline of their choice as well as German, French, Spanish or Chinese, and they spend a year abroad studying for six months at a partner university and interning for six months at a global company.

“It’s truly a life-changing experience for our students, many of whom end up working for the company where they interned,” Berka said. “Not only do they become bilingual engineers, but they learn how to attack problems with a global mindset.”

The URI International Engineering Program is one of the most prestigious and rigorous programs on campus. It attracts top students from around the country, and leading global companies aggressively seek them out upon graduation.

While the German, French and Spanish components of the program are well established, the Chinese program is just two years old and will require extra effort to build relationships with Chinese companies where students can intern.

“We’ll have nine students going to China next year, and it will be a big challenge to find company placements for them and ensure that all the students’ language abilities are up to par,” said Berka. “The University has made a commitment to grow the Chinese program, and that will mean hiring additional faculty and adding upper level Chinese language classes.”

In April, URI President David Dooley will travel with Berka and others to visit Zhejiang University, the program’s academic partner in China, to develop business relationships with Chinese companies.

During a recent strategic planning meeting of the International Engineering Program’s Advisory Board, members discussed what areas the program might explore expanding to in the future, with India, Brazil and the Middle East among those suggested. Any such expansion would depend upon the University having the resources to support language and culture studies in those areas.

An equally pressing challenge facing Berka is an effort in Germany to reform its system of higher education, which will likely change the curriculum and potentially make it less compatible with the URI system. The International Engineering Program sends approximately 20 undergraduates to Germany each year, plus an additional four to six graduate students, to study at the Technical University of Braunschweig.

“It looks like we may have to adapt our curriculum somewhat to accommodate the changes they are making in Germany. They are making it more difficult to continue with our dual degree masters and Ph.D. programs,” Berka said, adding that on a recent trip to Germany she strategized with education leaders at Braunschweig about how to continue those programs.

Despite these challenges, Berka is excited about her new role at URI, the leadership opportunities it provides, and the greater impact she can have on the lives and professional success of the University’s engineering students.

“I’ve found that being a matchmaker between faculty, researchers, companies and students has been a fantastic experience,” she said.

For more information about the URI International Engineering Program, visit

Pictured above

German Consul General Fredrich Loehr presents the German-American Friendship Award to Sigrid Berka, associate director of the URI International Engineering Program. URI Department of Communications & Marketing photo by Michael Salerno Photography