URI Spanish International Engineering Program 1 of 4 chosen to help launch Obama’s Latin American initiative

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Among schools chosen in first round of president’s program to strengthen ties with southern neighbors

KINGSTON, R.I. – January 17, 2014 – Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry today honored the University of Rhode Island for its leadership in helping to launch a presidential program to enhance ties with Central and South American countries.

URI was one of four schools chosen from an initial round of proposals from 47 schools to participate in “100,000 Strong in the Americas,” an initiative of President Barack Obama’s to increase the number of U.S. students studying in Latin America to 100,000 and the number of Latin Americans studying in the United States to 100,000.

Biden and Kerry joined members of Rhode Island’s congressional team for ceremonies at the U.S. Department of State to praise the University’s Spanish International Engineering Program (IEP), its director Megan Mercedes Echevarria, URI associate professor of Spanish and Film Media, and Winifred Brownell, dean of URI’s College of Arts and Sciences. Kerry and Biden personally extended their congratulations to Echevarria and Brownell.

“The selection of the University of Rhode Island to participate in this presidential initiative is a tribute to the hard work of our faculty and staff in the colleges of Arts and Sciences and Engineering in truly making our International Engineering Program a global leader,” URI President David M. Dooley said. “We are grateful to Secretary of State Kerry for his support and recognition of URI’s successes in developing relationships with many countries, international industries and universities around the world to help build an international community that appreciates and values the vast riches of the world’s cultures. In this case, we are very excited about strengthening our relationships with our very important Latin American neighbors who share many of our interests in creating a secure, educated and prosperous future for our respective nations.”

Echevarria’s winning proposal led to a $50,000 grant to help launch URI’s Spanish IEP’s emerging presence in Chile. The funds will help jumpstart opportunities for URI engineering students to engage with Chile through internships at Chilean companies, a summer undergraduate service-learning research project in Valparaíso, an academic exchange with URI’s partner school, Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Valparaiso, and a new course to be taught at URI by Echevarria that will focus on innovations in sustainability in South America. The class will be taught entirely in Spanish.

Like URI’s other International Engineering Programs, the Spanish version allows students to earn a bachelor of science in engineering and a bachelor of arts in Spanish over a five-year period. Each of the IEP offerings provides students with a 12-month experience abroad, which includes a semester of study at a partner university and an internship at a company or research center.

The 100,000 Strong in the Americas program is supported by the U.S. Department of State in partnership with NAFSA: Association of International Educators and the Partners of the Americas. NAFSA is the world’s largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education, and Partners of the Americas is a leading voluntary and development agency with more than 45 years of experience in the Americas.

“This part of the presidential initiative is focusing on developing collaborations in science, technology, engineering and mathematics between Peru and Chile and the United States,” said Echevarria, who has been running the Spanish IEP for six years.

She said the program builds on URI’s longstanding Spanish IEP, which began in 1998 and has sent URI students to Spain and Mexico for internships, research and study, and has brought students from those countries to our campus for study and research.

“Without understating the amazing opportunities that our partners in Spain provide, we actively encourage students to consider studying and interning in Latin America not only because there are many global companies with operations there, but also because for a number of our students the unique opportunities available in this region will be instrumental in helping them reach important personal and professional goals,” said Echevarria. “This additional funding will allow us to really broaden our program in South America and strengthen our relationship with our new Chilean partner university. Now is an exciting time to be working and studying in Latin America because its economies are growing and innovation is happening.”

Since she has been running the Spanish branch of the IEP, enrollment has grown from 50 students to more than 100 students. Currently 16 of those students are abroad, and Echevarria projects the number of students going abroad over the course of this year will grow beyond 30 with the addition of the Chilean initiative and participation in 100,000 Strong.

She said she believes the federal government and participating organizations recognized the groundbreaking work and the longstanding infrastructure of URI’s International Engineering Program in selecting Rhode Island’s flagship public institution. “We have been offering for many years precisely the kind of the initiatives that the 100,000 Strong program prioritizes,” Echevarria said. “Internships, exchange programs and research opportunities that take students far away from our campus and give them the opportunity to work as part of an international and interdisciplinary team have been part of the IEP for more than 20 years.

“The IEP is all about removing students from their comfort zones where they can be challenged to experience new cultures, new ways of thinking and new approaches to solving problems. In the long run, this is the best way to build bridges among nations and address the challenges of our time. We break down barriers person to person. People on the ground in these programs build the relationships and the trust that later on lead to major breakthroughs.”