URI launches engineering partnership in China with six-week trip to learn language, culture

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KINGSTON, R.I. – May 5, 2006 — Nate Walker has just seven weeks between the day he graduates from the University of Rhode Island on May 21 as the school’s top computer engineering student and his first day on the job in New Hampshire with the global engineering firm BAE Systems.

Yet instead of celebrating and relaxing, he is taking six of those weeks to travel to China with 13 other URI students to learn to speak Chinese and to help lay the groundwork for a partnership between his alma mater and a university in China.

“This is the first real exposure that URI engineering students will have to China, so it’s something I want to be a part of,” said the Burrillville resident who will earn dual degrees in computer engineering and German at URI’s commencement. “I’m a little worried about picking up the language, but for me the more interesting part will be learning about the culture.”

The China trip is the first step in establishing a Chinese option in URI’s International Engineering Program, which requires students to major in both an engineering discipline and a foreign language and then spend a year abroad studying and interning at an international company. The innovative program, the first of its kind in the nation, attracts top engineering students from throughout the country and provides them with the cross-cultural experience that many global engineering firms seek in their employees.

“China is the most rapidly growing economy in the world, and many companies are asking for engineering grads who know some Chinese and who have had direct experience with the culture,” said John Grandin, director of the program and a URI professor of German. “No one can learn the Chinese language in six weeks, but this trip will give our students a good start on language development and basic conversational skills, and they’ll experience many aspects of the Chinese culture. They’ll also get to visit some companies and research institutes to get a glimpse of the Chinese business world.”

“You never know where your career is going to end up, and the way the engineering market is, people change jobs often,” added Walker. “So if that happens, the more diverse my background is, the better.”

The students will be based in the city of Hangzhou, just south of Shanghai, at Zhejiang University, one of the country’s top three engineering schools. Perched on the edge of a lake and surrounded by mountains, the city is a popular tourist destination for the Chinese.

The visit by the URI students will solidify connections with Zhejiang University and enable URI to send students on semester-long visits next year, ultimately leading to a full-year program and an exchange of students between the universities, an arrangement URI has with several schools in Europe and Latin America.

According to Grandin, Attleboro-based Texas Instruments deserves considerable credit for encouraging URI to launch a Chinese option in the International Engineering Program. The company provided seed money to fund the planning process for the initiative and is subsidizing the visit this summer. In addition, its president, Thomas Wroe, has established a scholarship for students enrolled in the program.

The Chinese government is also supporting the initiative by providing URI with a language instructor for the next three years who will teach beginning and intermediate level Chinese language courses at URI’s Kingston campus.

Grandin said this is the first time that China has provided a Chinese language instructor to an American university. “They like the concept of linking language training with engineering, as we do with our International Engineering Program, so they were happy to provide us with a visiting assistant professor.”

Joining Walker on the trip from May 23 to July 8 will be: Jenna D’Amico of Kingston, Alexandra Dempsey of Greenville, Robert Ellwood of Huntington, N.Y., Ana Franco of Grayson, Ga., Aaron Hebenstreit of New Britain, Conn., Katrina Josephson of Peace Dale, James Leuzarder of Wakefield, Linda Nico of Cumberland, Graeme O’Connell of Bangor, Me., Cassandra Pinner of South Kingstown, Melanie Rand of Coventry, Curtis Richard of North Grafton, Mass., and Nicole Stanton of Crawfordville, Fla.