URI’s International Engineering Program Celebrates 30th Anniversary

The University of Rhode Island recently celebrated the anniversary of one of its most unique and successful programs, the International Engineering Program (IEP).

More than 140 alumni, faculty and staff joined the program’s founders at URI’s Alumni Center to reminisce and celebrate the program’s milestone.

The five-year program enables students to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in engineering and a Bachelor of Arts in a language, while also completing a semester of study and a semester of internship abroad.

In 1987, the IEP started with six students and one language (German). Thirty years later, 405 students have enrolled in the program, 668 internships have been completed, and there are six languages offered.

“When we started the program, we never thought it would go for 30 years and certainly had no idea that it would grow the way it’s grown,” said John Grandin, the IEP’s first director. “It’s amazing to see the way the program has developed.”

Grandin joined the faculty at URI in 1970 as an assistant professor of German. It wasn’t until 16 or 17 years later, that he developed the framework for the IEP with Hermann Vietts, the new dean of Engineering at that time.

“I always thought the idea of combining professional studies with an undergraduate degree in a language made a lot of sense,” recalled Grandin.

Grandin and Vietts shared the story of their first IEP conversation with the anniversary event audience. According to the long-time colleagues and friends, the conversation was very informal and may or may not have taken place while indulging in a couple of German beers.

“We talked about how things are becoming very international,” said Grandin.  “Nobody was talking about globalization then, but things were getting international and this was impacting engineers. I felt nothing was being done in higher education to prepare engineering students to work internationally.”

After tossing various ideas back and forth, the dean and the professor soon developed the basic framework of the program, which included five years of study, two degree and an internship abroad.

“For someone to have the vision 30 years ago that the world was going to need people to go into the global workforce and move seamlessly between different cultures was forward thinking,” remarked Sarah Koenig, a 2007 IEP graduate. “Coming from a multi-racial family, I lived it every day, but for someone to foresee how it could apply to the business world is something special.”

French IEP graduate Koenig, who works as an industrial manager for Pratt & Whitney, a United Technologies Corporation, is one of several IEP alumni who met their spouse while a student in the IEP.

Once Grandin and Vietts established the structure of the IEP, the next step was to find the necessary resources to develop the program.

“I submitted a grant request to the United States Department of Education,” recollected Grandin. “We received a pretty big amount for those days, which gave us the money we needed to travel abroad, line up internships, set up special classes for the engineering students and develop recruiting materials.”

Setting up internships was a team effort between Grandin, Vietts and Heidi Kirk Duffy, the chairperson of the IEP advisory board.

“We worked closely with the German consulate in Boston,” said Grandin. “Hermann knew some companies who did work in Germany, I knew some German companies who did work in the United States and Heidi had some contacts in Germany who she approached quickly and aggressively.”

In 1992, Richard Vandeputte joined the dean’s staff as the assistant dean of Engineering. He was immediately impressed with the IEP.

“I thought it was an excellent idea to combine a language with engineering and an internship abroad,” recalled Vandeputte.

According to Vandeputte, a comment made by a member of an engineering accreditation team that visited URI spurred the expansion of the IEP.

“We were promoting the German IEP at the time and one of the comments made by the accreditation team was that if it’s really an international program, maybe you should have more than one language represented,” said Vandeputte. “I said to myself, ‘yes, of course.’ I spoke French, my parents were French, I was an engineer, so I thought, why don’t I try to start a French IEP.”

With Grandin’s support, Vandeputte started the French IEP later that year.

The German and French programs set the stage for others to follow. The Spanish program was created in 1999 and Chinese in 2006.

When Grandin decided to retire in 2010 at the age of 70, he was very concerned about finding the right person to take over the program and enable it to flourish.

“We needed someone who understood the language curriculum and understood the engineering curriculum,” said Grandin. “Interdisciplinary studies can be tough to accomplish in higher education. You run into a lot of obstacles.”

In Sigrid Berka, URI not only found a capable successor to Grandin, but someone who has taken the program to unprecedented success.

Under Berka’s leadership, an Italian IEP was added in 2013, directed by Professor Michelangelo LaLuna, and a Japanese IEP is on the way with the first pioneering student researching/interning in Japan in 2015-2016 and a minor in Japanese established in 2016. Once all of the students who are currently enrolled in IEP graduate, the number of alumni will surpass the 600 mark.

While the number of graduates and the success rate of the program are impressive, Berka is especially proud of the relationships that are formed along the journey and the personal growth each student gains.

“As IEP directors, we have nurtured these students for five-plus years as our advisees and shared with them the initial excitement of their study abroad experiences,” said Berka. “We have supported them with scholarship and internship applications, steered them through difficult hurdles abroad, and enlisted them as our ambassadors upon their return.”

Berka has witnessed how much the students are transformed by the study abroad component of the program.

“You see how they have matured, grown and changed as a person, and that they come back with expectations for a fuller life,” commented Berka.

That sentiment was evident at the 30th anniversary event, where alumni reunited with those they went to school with and shared their experiences with those they met for the first time.

“When I see my protégés after several years of being out in the real world at a reunion such as this, it amazes me what has become of them, what stories they have to tell, and how fond they still are of the IEP directors and their peers, with whom they shared ‘the best year of their lives,’” said Berka.

For many IEP graduates, their experience in the program not only influenced their path as professionals soon after graduating, but many years later.

Upon graduating from the IEP in 2008, Michael Raiche worked as a design engineer and manufacturing engineering for MTU Aero Engines, Germany’s leading engine manufacturer. After seven years, he felt like it was time for a change.

“I wanted to move from jobs where I was a process-taker to those where I could be a process-maker and an MBA would allow me to do that,” said Raiche. “This lead me to the Harvard Business School. The experiences I gained through the IEP and work abroad uniquely positioned me as a business school candidate. I believe my resume, skills and experiences, along with an exceptional letter of recommendation from Dr. Grandin, were the reasons I was accepted.”

Having graduated from Harvard this year, Raiche now applies his engineering background and newly acquired business skills at Fluke, a multi-national corporation headquartered in Everett, WA, which manufactures, distributes and services electronic test tools and software.

Raiche credited the IEP for his success and personal growth.

“The IEP pushed me outside of my comfort zone and gave me the confidence to succeed anywhere,” stated Raiche. “I’m thankful for the impact it has had on my life and for making me who I am today.”