REACH encourages engineers to work overseas

As part of the burgeoning Rensselaer Engineering Education Across Cultural Horizons program, 40 of RPI’s engineering students studied abroad for the Spring 2009 semester, while 50 international students studied at RPI. The ultimate goal of REACH is to have every engineering student experience education overseas, primarily at one of RPI’s partner schools, though the program is flexible and will allow a variety of programs to count as a student’s REACH experience. In addition, in an attempt to broaden the international focus of the university, the REACH program seeks to have equal numbers of students from other countries study at RPI. This program aims to realize the vision that “every student will have an international experience,” according to Associate Dean for Academic and Student Affairs Richard N. Smith.

Rensselaer’s partner institutions in the REACH program are the Technical University of Denmark in Copenhagen and Nanyang Technical University in Singapore. This past semester, 25 students came to RPI from each university, while 15 Rensselaer students went to NTU and 25 to DTU. Both partner universities teach in English, offer a “broad spectrum” of engineering courses, and have experience in international exchange, providing a “very welcoming” environment for the students, according to Smith. RPI hopes to add additional partner schools, broadening the potential international experiences for students. In addition to sending 10 students to the University of Hong Kong this summer for an eight-week international program, RPI is in discussions with universities in Finland, Australia, and China for potential partner schools. Currently, the agreement with DTU and NTU involves sending 50 students each way for each school, and, says Smith, if extended from eight to 12 schools, the REACH experience can be extended to every engineering student.

When the REACH program is fully realized, it will be a mandatory one, because “it’s an important goal for the campus to internationalize,” explained Smith. However, he is aware of several complications, particularly because engineering curriculums are very rigid, making it difficult to study abroad and graduate on time. Thus, Smith says the goal of sending everyone is “several years down the line.” Recognizing the unique needs of individual students, Smith noted that the REACH program is seeking a wider range of international experiences, which the program intends to announce this fall. Among the possibilities for non-study-abroad experiences are internships, on-campus courses, projects, and summer experiences.

There are still some issues the fledgling program must sort out. Students going abroad were required to plan out their courses for the rest of their college career and meet with their advisors about the classes they planned to take abroad in an attempt to mitigate this issue. Nevertheless, some unexpected problems arose. Peter Casellini ’10, who studied at DTU in the spring, explained that he was “blindsided” when he found himself in a master’s level course as a replacement for a basic engineering course at RPI. He explained that most of the classes taught in English were higher-level courses, making this an issue for many students in Denmark. In addition, differences in European and American grading systems made the transfer of grades and credits difficult. Smith acknowledged that it had been challenging to select classes at the appropriate level, saying, “We’ve been trying to deal with [the students in Casellini’s situation] reasonably.” Smith also cited the example of a student that found herself in a course that was above her head, but with some hard work, managed to pass it and “felt that she accomplished something.” He also noted that the program was working to make sure students understood how important it was to plan their schedules carefully, saying that this “can’t be underestimated.”

Despite the hiccups, Casellini spoke enthusiastically about his experience, and Smith was proud of the program and optimistic about its future. “We’ve taken something bold and made it happen,” said Smith. Casellini concurred that the program was a valuable experience. “[I] highly recommend it … [it] really opens your eyes; you get to work with people from other cultures and see other cultural perspectives on things.”