URI International Engineering Program alumnus awarded Fulbright to study energy engineering in Taiwan

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 25, 2021 – Before coming to the University of Rhode Island, Zachary Smith had never been overseas. But during his combined six years in Kingston, Smith made stops in Germany, China and Taiwan, thanks in part to prestigious scholarships.

“Before that I was Rhode Island born and bred and never traveled,” said Smith, of North Kingstown. “So, when I got the opportunity during college, it opened up my world view. Suddenly there was a possibility to travel abroad and to meet people of different cultures and learn about their way of living. I found that pretty exciting and neat.”

Smith, who graduated from URI in 2020 with degrees in electrical engineering, German and Chinese, will be headed back to Taiwan this September after being awarded a Fulbright grant to pursue a master’s degree in energy engineering at the National Cheng Kung University in Tainan City. The Fulbright grant will cover the first year of the program, along with a second year if he maintains at least a 3.0 grade-point average.

While at URI, Smith was part of the groundbreaking International Engineering Program (IEP), where students study an engineering discipline and a foreign language, and was a student in the demanding Chinese Language Flagship Program, one of only 12 such programs in the United States. The professors in both programs were excellent, said Smith. He especially praised Sigrid Berka, director of the German and Chinese IEPs.

“Dr. Berka is just the best person in the world,” said Smith, who earned the 2020 Excellence Award in Chinese. “Even though she’s a director, she is very hands-on. She’s very willing to help students and use her overseas networks to pair students with internships abroad.”

Among his trips abroad, Smith received a Beatrice S. Demers Foreign Language Fellowship to study for a year in Germany in 2017 and a David L. Boren Award to fund his Chinese Flagship Program capstone year in Taiwan in 2019. But the Fulbright was unexpected.

“Honestly, it came as a surprise,” said Smith, who works as an electrical engineer. “Just as with the Boren, I wouldn’t be going abroad unless I received this scholarship; it opens a new door.”

Last fall, the recent graduate wasn’t considering applying for a Fulbright; he was searching for a job at the height of the pandemic. While walking around the Kingston campus, practicing his Chinese with a friend, Smith stopped in to see Kathleen Maher, director of the Office of National Fellowships & Academic Opportunities. Maher asked Smith what he was up to and why he wasn’t applying for a Fulbright. She opened the Fulbright website to the Taiwan description and found that there was a new award that fit exactly with Smith’s future aspirations – a master’s program in energy engineering.

“It was too good to be true,” Maher said. “At my urging, he whipped together an application and got his recommendation letters together. Since I knew him well and considered him vetted already, I knew he could pull it together and it was worth it even with the national deadline only weeks away.”

For Smith, who plans on pursuing a career in the renewable energy industry, the Cheng Kung program is a perfect fit. Taiwan is one of the leaders in the manufacture and development of cutting-edge solar panels. And along with taking classes in various energy sources – wind, solar, bio, hydro and nuclear – he will be working in the lab of a professor who is researching new age solar panels.

“The classes will give me a familiarity with the workings of solar cells, wind turbines – how they’re used, how they’re made,” he said. “Also, I’ll be presenting a master’s thesis, and hope to work in the lab and write my thesis on the exciting work that they’re doing. I would like to spend time learning about that and hopefully seeing if there’s a career in solar cells in either research or the electrical engineering side, creating solar panels or making mass solar arrays.”

While his first trip to Taiwan for the Boren scholarship was cut short in March 2020 because of the outbreak of COVID-19, he doesn’t anticipate any problems in September. Until a recent surge in cases, Taiwan has successfully fought the pandemic, seeing only about 2,500 total cases and 14 deaths since the outbreak.

With what he learns in Taiwan, Smith hopes to work in research or manufacturing on cutting-edge solar panels. He eventually would like to work for the federal government at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Renewable energy has been an interest of his since before coming to URI, and he pursued degrees in German and Chinese partly because both countries are leaders in renewable technology. The idea of an energy source – such as wind or sun – that is infinite fascinated him, he said, along with renewables’ benefits as a clean energy source.

“Living in the United States, we don’t have the air pollution problem like they have in India or China,” said Smith. “I went to China in January of 2016 and the level of air pollution shocked me. The Chinese population live in this situation their entire lives and have no say as to what they’re breathing into their bodies. That was my sophomore year; it invigorated me to continue pursuing electrical engineering and keeping renewable energies as a goal to pursue.”

“It’s a definite that renewable energy is the future,” he added. “That’s the one thing that not many people are debating around the world. We may disagree on a lot of things, but when it comes to clean energy, global warming and renewable energy in general, it’s exciting that all the world’s scientists and engineers can come together and work on a common goal. That camaraderie is rare.”

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program is designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and those of other countries by providing high-achieving students with the opportunity to research, study or teach abroad.

URI students and recent graduates who are interested in applying to the Fulbright program should contact the URI Office of National Fellowships and Academic Opportunities for guidance and institutional endorsement.