Greetings from Abroad
Thanks to technology, businesses across the world are more interconnected than ever. Globalization also means that having strong technical abilities isn’t enough to succeed anymore—even in engineering.
Long a staple for liberal arts students, study abroad is becoming a critical component of engineering programs. David Allen, dean of the College of Engineering, has identified the college’s international education program as one of his priorities.
Until three years ago, the college’s program was fledgling. Now, Allen conservatively estimates that UNL has one of the 20 largest engineering study abroad programs in the country. Only five students participated in 2003. In 2005, 52 students enrolled in a summer study abroad program. In the 2006-07 school year, more than 100 engineering students will study abroad.
In exchange, engineering students from China, Brazil and France have chosen to study at UNL.
Associate Professor Kevin Houser attributes the program’s rapid growth to greater national interest in globalization. In fact, Congress declared 2006 “The Year of Study Abroad.” At the college level, Houser credits Allen for providing the start-up resources necessary to create a sustainable study abroad program.
The inspiration for the program came 11 years ago when Allen, then a faculty member at Texas A&M University, and his graduate student Jorge Soares began a cooperative research program on pavement mechanics. Soares later joined the faculty of the Universidad Federal do Ceará in Fortaleza, Brazil. Allen and Soares began encouraging students and faculty from UFC to join Allen on American study abroad programs. The unofficial partnership was the foundation of a program supported by the Fund for Improvement of Postsecondary Education.
As Seen Through the Eyes of the Students
By 2003, Allen was dean of UNL’s engineering college. The exchange program he started with Soares became formalized through the U.S.-Brazil Higher Education Consortia Program. The U.S.-Brazil program is a partnership between countries that provides cross-cultural educational and training experiences for students in a variety of disciplines including engineering. Kansas State University and the Universidade Federal de Pernambuco also became partners.
The program’s growth is impressive, but success didn’t come easily.
Shortly after receiving a grant for the U.S.- Brazil program, UNL discontinued its Portuguese language program because of budget cuts. Portuguese is Brazil’s official language.
Timing also was an issue because the Brazilian school year begins in March and ends in December. The universities’ solution to both problems was sending UNL students to Brazil in January to learn Portuguese and acclimate to their new environment for eight weeks before classes officially began.
Surprisingly, said Marilena Carvalho, international programs coordinator, one of the greatest barriers was getting students interested in the program. Engineering students are accustomed to following a prescribed academic program and were hesitant to forgo summer internships or postpone graduation to study abroad for a semester, she said.
“Liberal arts students know they need to study abroad to get a world view,” Carvalho said. “Engineers don’t always understand that.”
The college has support from the Accreditation Board for Engineering & Technology, the official accreditation agency of engineering schools. The organization requires accredited U.S. engineering schools to demonstrate that graduates have “the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global and societal context.”
To generate interest before launching the semester-long program, Carvalho—who was raised in Brazil and attended college there— planned a four-week summer program to introduce students to the country.
It worked. Of the 15 students who spent summer 2004 in Brazil, five returned for a semesterlong program in spring 2005. Nine undergraduates from UFC studied at UNL in fall 2005.
Participants from the pilot program, many of whom were skeptical at first, became some of the best recruiters. UNL’s chapter of the International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience has more than 40 members. IAESTE finds local internships for students who study abroad at UNL and promotes the study abroad program to other engineering students.
One of the program’s strengths is its flexibility. Carvalho said the summer experiences are most popular because they begin shortly after the spring semester ends, allowing students to return to Nebraska for summer classes or internships. The college now offers two- to four-week summer programs in China, Italy, Brazil and France.
UNL faculty teach the summer courses, which include Basic Portuguese and Brazilian Culture, and the History of Engineering, Science & Technology. Students receive UNL academic credit for these courses, which are available exclusively through the summer study abroad programs. They learn about the engineering behind significant historic sites, complete independent projects related to their majors and spend one week sightseeing.
Semester programs are available at Xi’an Jiaotong University in China, UFC in Brazil and the University of Rouen in France. Students who study abroad for a semester take classes at internationally renowned universities and can take internships with UNL’s industry partners, which include a structural design firm.
Studying abroad can be expensive. However, Carvalho said, students may apply for scholarships and grants from the college and UNL’s Office of International Affairs. They also can use student loans to pay for study abroad courses, she said.
Getting more students to commit to semesterlong programs is a major goal for the program. Houser said to make that happen, long-term programs must dovetail with UNL curriculum.
“It’s a tough sell if a semester abroad means that a student will graduate a semester later,” Houser said.
For three years, Houser has led the Italy program, which is formally incorporated into the architectural engineering curriculum. The course AE 3770, Global Experiences in Architectural Engineering, satisfies a graduation requirement.
But perhaps the greatest selling points of international education are the intangible benefits.
“Study abroad is memorable, even life changing, in a way that on-campus courses rarely are,” Houser said. “Making personal observations of the lighting of the Pantheon is more meaningful than viewing slides in a classroom.
“As educators, we should take responsibility for more than just technical knowledge, and study abroad is also about personal growth. Many of the students that participate return as better people—not just better engineers, but better citizens of the world.”
Three architectural engineering students agreed to share their Italy study abroad experiences with Engineering@Nebraska: senior Andrea Wilkerson, sophomore Steve Gollehon and junior Daniel Hilgendorf.
E@N: Why did you choose your destination?
E@N: Did you experience culture shock? How did you handle it?
E@N: What were some of your favorite moments from the trip?
E@N: Did anything frustrate you?
E@N: How did studying abroad enhance your college experience? How do you expect it to impact your life in the future?
E@N: Will you study abroad again? Where would you like to go?