Destination: Kingston, USA

Gatali in front of 99 international flags newly hung in Memorial Union.

Our small, beautiful campus welcomes the world

Two years ago, Amandine Umutoni Gatali was sitting at her computer in Pretoria, South Africa, trying to figure out where to go to college. She knew she wanted to study in the United States, but wasn’t sure where. A cousin was living in Newport so, on a whim, she Googled “universities in Rhode Island.”

URI popped up.

She plugged civil engineering—her intended major—into the site’s search tab and liked what she saw: a combined five-year degree in engineering and a language, with a year studying abroad and working as an intern.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is the best thing ever,’” says Gatali. She applied two weeks later and was accepted.

Just a few of URI’s international professors…

Associate Professor of German Sigrid Berka, a native of Germany, directs URI’s International Engineering Program (IEP, see main article). “International faculty bring a different perspective on life to the campus,” says Berka. Cultures have different ways of solving engineering problems, she says: the French tend to use more math; the Germans might plan ahead extensively before tackling a project; engineers from India might explore the entrepreneurial potential. “We [each] think in a different way; we do things differently,” she says. And all those differences enrich  URI.

Assistant Professor of Business Administration Koray  Özpolat grew up in Turkey, lived in Kyrgyzstan, and worked for years at the United Nations in Jordan, assisting refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Last year his URI students won national awards for their public service announcements about the value of cash donations to relief agencies. (See “News & Views” in fall 2012 QuadAngles:

Associate Professor of Music Manabu Takasawa, born  in Japan, is an award-winning pianist and the creator and director of the enormously-popular Piano Extravaganza!, an annual festival of concerts and competitions for young pianists in southern New England.

Dean of the Graduate School Nasser H. Zawia, originally from Yemen, is a biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences professor who has lectured in Saudi Arabia, China, Egypt, France, and Germany about his research showing how infants exposed to lead can get Alzheimer’s as adults. In 2011, under Zawia’s leadership, the Graduate School hosted internationally renowned neuroscientist Patrick Aebischer to help launch URI’s new Interdisciplinary Neurosciences Program—just one of several international experts invited to speak at URI in recent years.

She also applied to colleges and universities in other states to keep her options open, but URI won her over, and in the end, she settled in the leafy village of Kingston. While the other schools were slow to respond or ignored her, URI filled her inbox with spirited emails that sent a clear message: We want you.

“They were really, really helpful. I was like, ‘I’m in.’ After that, I didn’t even look at other schools,” says Gatali, now in her junior year at URI.

For decades, the University has attracted international students—and professors—but now it’s going all out to welcome the world. That push comes from President David M. Dooley and Provost Donald H. DeHayes, who are trying mightily to make URI more international to prepare students for a global economy.

The University is charging ahead.

First, it’s trying to offer more dual degree programs. One of the most successful pairings is Gatali’s area, the award-winning International Engineering Program (IEP), which offers a dual degree in an engineering field and a language—Chinese, French, German, or Spanish. The program is thriving: nearly all of the graduates find jobs, some at BMW in Germany or with the Total petro-chemical company in Paris.

The number of students fluent in languages other than English is on the rise, thanks in part to the dual degree programs, also in business, pharmacy, textiles, and education. More than 20 percent of undergraduates take a language every semester, and that number is expected to soar in the coming years.

“We’ve witnessed an exciting sea change as we’ve expanded our language offerings,” says Winnie Brownell, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “We’re continuing our core programs, but we’ve also added Chinese, and we’re delighted that we’re about to ramp up Arabic.”

The time-honored tradition of studying abroad in such far-flung places as Nepal, New Zealand, and Guatemala is still in place but being touted more vigorously, again as a way to expose students to other cultures. The University offers 200 programs in more than 60 countries.

In the last three years, the number of undergraduates studying in other countries has almost doubled, from 315 to 615 students, says Dania Brandford-Calvo, director of the Office of International Education (OIE), partly because of a “desire to discover other cultures and hone professional skills” in the global workplace.

The world comes to the classroom.

Through their research, URI professors from Germany, Japan, Russia, Turkey, and other countries have made their presence felt around the world; now the world is taking a seat in the classroom nearly every day.

That happened this fall when Mara Trachtenberg ’96 had her digital photography students collaborate through a Skype link with students in Bangalore, India, in a class taught by Annu Matthew, a URI Professor of Art who is on a year-long Fulbright. Students in both countries were captivated and capped off their work with multi-media exhibits.

“The energy level was so high in the classroom,” says Trachtenberg, a part-time URI faculty member. “The students were really excited about how easy it is to communicate with a totally different place. Besides the technological benefits, the students learned about other kids and other countries. They’re breaking down barriers.”

In an ambitious move, the University hopes to triple the number of international students. The effort got a boost last spring with the creation of the Global Steering Committee, an advisory group that advances communication throughout URI on global outreach, including recruitment. Also new on campus is the Associates in Cultural Exchange (“A.C.E.”) English Language Institute, in Taft Hall. In September, 15 international students, some from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and China, arrived to take intensive English classes with the A.C.E. institute for one or two semesters, before beginning their study program.

“The more we embrace people from different cultures and backgrounds, the more we move toward a world of mutual understanding,” says Nancy Stricklin ’76, M.A. ’95, special assistant to the Provost for global strategy and academic partnerships.

International alumni are on board to help as well. About 20 URI graduates living in Jordan, Brazil, Argentina, and other countries are serving as Alumni Association “International Ambassadors.” By answering questions and offering advice to international students considering URI, these alumni help with recruitment and can ease parents’ and students’ concerns about living in a foreign country.

Campus buildings reflect the global push, too. This fall, URI installed an International Hall in Memorial Union, with 99 flags representing the home countries of past and current international students. The newest residence hall, Hillside, is home to dozens of international pharmacy and nursing students.

No one could be happier with the global focus than Gatali. She grew up in Burundi and Rwanda, in central east Africa, and moved to Pretoria when she was 11, after her father got a job at the United Nations. His work on every continent except Australia inspired her to see the world.

“My parents always said you need to look beyond where you are,” she says. “They always told me there’s something bigger out there than what we have.”

She thought briefly about staying in South Africa for college, but her family convinced her to branch out.

In 2010, Gatali and her dad made the 8,000-mile journey to Kingston. She remembers the trees, so many she wondered if she were going to school in a forest.

Her father stayed three days. Her first few months were painful. She was homesick and rarely left her residence hall. It was her roommate, Kayla Santanella from West Greenwich, R.I., who persuaded her to get out and meet other people.

Gatali discovered that she liked talking about her homeland and took pride in being introduced as, “My roommate from South Africa.”

There were odd questions (“Do you have lions in your backyard?”) and food questions (“Do you eat Pop Tarts?”) and insightful questions (“What are politics like in your country?”).

Her life changed when she became an orientation leader, taking students on campus tours, coordinating diversity workshops, and advising students on classes. She learned how to speak with confidence in front of large groups; the next year, as a member of the Leadership Institute, she mentored new students one-on-one.

“Now I know how to talk to students who are so different from me,” she says. “I’m international; they’re from Rhode Island. I help them with everything. We’re all scared of what the university is going to be: Are we going to make friends? How are the professors? How is the social aspect? I tell them we’re all in this together.”

In no time, she says, she was “open to everything that was URI.” She joined a variety of clubs—the campus chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, the Student Alumni Association, and a multicultural group that promotes diversity. She started spending holidays with friends in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey, giving a thumbs-up to her first Thanksgiving turkey.

She’s a resident academic mentor in her residence hall, advising younger students on courses for their majors. A sign on her door shows how far she’s come: “Leave me a message if you need any help. Also, check out my office hours.”

Gatali is so comfortable she stayed at URI last summer to work in the environmental engineering lab, researching marine bacteria. She lived in an international house on campus and broke bread with students from Germany and France.

“If you open yourself up to possibilities, you’ll get experiences,” she says. “You have to start with one thing and then it snowballs into something bigger.”

Lately, she’s been helping the Office of Undergraduate Admission write emails to prospective students in India, South Korea, and South America, telling them how much she likes living among the trees, in a tight community with big ideas.

Next year, Gatali is off to Spain to work in an engineering firm, and then it’s back to URI the following year to finish up her degree. She’s an international student studying what she loves on both sides of the Atlantic.

In today’s global economy, she’ll hit the ground running.

“For me, studying in another country is the best way of learning,” she says. “You learn that there are different people out there, and that there’s a different way of life. It’s not something you can learn in class. It’s something you have to experience.”

—Elizabeth Rau