URI international engineering students in Germany

The marrying of engineering and languages is something URI does like no other. Technically, it began as a solution to the problem of shrinking language classes, but it’s turned into a one-of-a-kind International Engineering Program that’s been a national model for more than two decades. Today, our International Engineering Program has more than 400 graduates working around the world for such engineering titans as Johnson & Johnson, BMW, Dow Chemical Co., and more.

It’s a five-year program that offers a lot:

  • Two degrees – a B.A. in Spanish, German, French, or Chinese, and a B.S. in the engineering field of your choice;
  • Half a year studying abroad at one of our partner institutions in Germany, France, Spain, Mexico and China;
  • Half a year in a paid internship with a leading engineering company in Germany, France, Spain, Switzerland, Mexico, Canada, Brazil, China, or Liechtenstein;
  • A living-learning community on campus where conversations occur in a foreign language as often as in English and students support one another’s shared career and personal goals.

After about two weeks, everything becomes very normalized, you start to integrate and immerse, and it becomes more natural. You start eating, breathing and talking the language.

“You actually become proficient in the language and do relevant work in the field, which is absolutely amazing to any employer. Companies WANT you because of your language skills and your engineering skills,” said Payam Fahr ’12, a mechanical engineering and German major from Fairfax, Va. During his internship at the BMW Research and Innovation Center in Germany, he drove many kinds of cars – “living in the corners, feeling those lateral G’s” – testing the tactile response from the steering feedback, brakes, and suspension, and working with Lions Racing Team.

The International Engineering Program has a great track record of attracting women. In fact, about 23 percent of our international engineering  students are female, compared to 16 percent in the College of Engineering overall. Colleen Grinham, a civil engineering and German major from Middleboro, Mass., interned at Bayer in Leverkusen, Germany. “Bayer has a few American sites, so they see American a lot, but they rarely ever see an American who can speak German. I was one of the only female students who wasn’t a secretary, but was an engineer. They were very proud of that,” she said.

If the idea of spending a year abroad is a little uncomfortable for you, Payam says that “after about two weeks, everything becomes very normalized, you start to integrate and immerse, and it becomes more natural. You start eating, breathing and talking the language.” Sarah Wood ‘12, an ocean engineering and Chinese major from Springfield, Ill., is proud so say that she writes ocean engineering papers in Chinese. “To hear a language and understand it without translating it in my head is unbelievable. I love that in a few years, I’ll be able to get a job in ocean engineering in China and I’ll feel as comfortable in China as I do in America.”

Recognition for the program has come from, appropriately, all over the map. Most recently, it’s been recognized by the German government, and received the prestigious Andrew Heiskell Award in 2012 and the Senator Paul Simon Spotlight Award in 2011 for innovation in international education and internationalizing its engineering curriculum.

Professor Sigrid Berka, who leads the program, sees a bright future for International Engineering at URI. “The value to globally operating companies is that our students can be used as cultural ambassadors between engineering cultures in America, France, Spain Germany, China and elsewhere.” She’s working toward an Italian International Engineering component, exploring the addition of Arabic or Portuguese to the program, is reaching out to high schools well beyond the borders of the United States to recruit students from diverse cultural backgrounds, and recently worked with the German railway company Deutsche Bahn on new partnerships.

Founder John Grandin conceived the International Engineering Program to boost enrollment in language classes. You could say it worked – and then some. With students studying and interning in nine countries – and nearly all graduates landing jobs – language classes are growing and an innovative solution has turned into an overwhelming success.

Photo credit: Payam Fahr