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A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

International exchange begins

By Liz Crumbley

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 22 - March 2, 1995

When engineers and construction workers from both sides of the English Channel finally met in the middle of their excavation for the Eurotunnel, the British were soberly wearing safety regulation hard hats and steel-toed boots, while the bare-headed French were drinking beer and smoking cigarettes.

The point of this continental image is that every nation has different safety standards and engineering methods, not to mention social, cultural, political, and environmental policies. Given these fundamental differences, the British and French engineering crews performed an amazing feat: Digging the tunnel from their respective sides of the channel, they met in the center within about three centimeters of one another.

Current engineering technology makes successful completion of such complex international projects possible, and Virginia Tech College of Engineering graduates are well trained to go forth and practice their profession around the world.

However, few engineering students in the United States are trained to cope with the cultural differences that they will encounter while working with foreign colleagues and clients. And U.S. engineers today are likely to work with international clientele, either abroad or in the numerous foreign-owned industries in this country.

Pamela Kurstedt, assistant dean of Engineering Enrichment Programs at Virginia Tech, has arranged several trips abroad for undergraduate students, including a visit in 1990 to the Eurotunnel site. "We want to help students understand that when they go to work as engineers, they not only have to work with technical issues, but also political, cultural, and even financial issues," Kurstedt said.

Realizing the need for large numbers of engineering undergraduates to have extensive exposure to foreign studies and cultures, Kurstedt and other engineering administrators throughout the U.S. and Europe have created AE3--the American-European Engineering Exchange.

Currently, AE3 is a coalition of 36 engineering schools, 19 from the United States and 17 from Austria, France, and Germany. Other U.S. schools include Georgia Tech, Rensselaer, Notre Dame, Purdue, and Texas A&M. Kurstedt says about 50 U.S. universities eventually are expected to participate. In 1996, engineering schools in Denmark and Spain will join AE3.

The long-term goal of AE3 is to develop a cost-effective and efficient procedure for the international exchange of several hundred students each year. The coalition will conduct its first organized exchange during the 1995-1996 academic year with two students from each of the 36 member schools.

"If we can handle about 80 students this year, the next year we can easily double that number," Kurstedt said. "Once the administrative procedures are in place and all the players agree, it should take no more effort to handle 500 students than it does 50."

Previously, Kurstedt had to negotiate with each European university to arrange for student exchanges. "If I needed to exchange with five French schools, I had to negotiate with each one separately. My colleagues at Georgia Tech had to do the same. We were duplicating efforts." Working as a coalition, the U.S. AE3 representatives will negotiate once with each European school on behalf of all participating U.S. schools.

AT&T has donated $225,000 to the AE3 program for administrative support over three years. The money will pay the International Institute of Education, which administers international programs including the Fulbright Scholarships, to accept applications and place students with AE3 member schools.

The European schools are eager to have large numbers of students in international study programs, Kurstedt said. When AE3 representatives met with Germany's minister of education, he announced his government's intention that every German engineering student have an international experience, not only to learn about other cultures, but to understand future customers.

Kurstedt discovered that the Germans and many other Europeans view international education as an economic decision. "Many educators in the U.S. don't yet realize how collaborative the world is," Kurstedt commented. "As engineers, we work a great deal with other countries. That's not easy if you haven't been exposed to other cultures, because there are a great many faux pas you can commit if you don't understand cultural differences."

Also, Kurstedt pointed out, numerous companies in the United States are now foreign owned, and their operations have changed accordingly. For example, Hoechst of Germany bought the former Celanese Corp. several years ago.

Don Lester, an engineering manager for Hoechst-Celanese, which operates a major plant a few miles from Virginia Tech, judges international experience as a positive factor in the resumes of young engineers. "Engineers in the U.S. will have to work with international customers," Lester noted. "Americans tend to think of the U.S. market first. The Japanese, on the other hand, look to international markets first. Corporate management in the U.S. needs to start looking abroad."

Scott Dewhirst, who recently earned his master's degree in civil engineering and has taken a job with the consulting firm Black & Veatch, traveled in 1992 to Japan with Kurstedt and a group of engineering students and faculty. The focus of the trip was learning from Japanese engineers about their construction of an island and airport in Osaka Bay.

Dewhirst said the experience was of real value to him, even though Black & Veatch is a U.S. company. "The trip to Japan definitely will help me deal with international clients. It was important to learn first-hand that other cultures and engineering methods are so different from our own."

Engineers devise nationally unique ways of practicing their profession, a fact that makes study abroad crucial, Kurstedt believes. "South Americans solve engineering problems differently than Europeans, for example. We increase our professional competence by interacting with engineers of diverse backgrounds-we learn more, so we can do more."