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Study Abroad/Internship Program Moving into New Territory

 Matt Pharris
Matt Pharris at Kylemore Castle in Ireland.
 Study Abroad Students
Weldon students who studied abroad in Ireland in the fall of 2013 at the Cliffs of Moher are (left to right) Amy Bogucki, Matt Pharris, Nathan Plag, and Eric Peckenpaugh.
 Amy Bogucki
Amy Bogucki at the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland.
 Denmark students
The first cohort of students to study in Denmark in the fall of 2013 were (left to right) John Rauchenstein, Margaret (Maggie) Willenbrink, and Matthew Morris. Here they are pictured at the Amalie Garden on the Waterfront in front of the Copenhagen Opera House.
As global health issues continue to rise, so too will the demand for biomedical engineers who are prepared to address such challenges in international settings. A study abroad program is a logical choice for students seeking to add international experience to their resume, and Purdue offers more than 350 general study abroad programs in dozens of countries. But until a few years ago, none were specific to biomedical engineering, and for Weldon students, who have a rigorous engineering curriculum, a general semester abroad program would often extend their academic tenure.

The Weldon School is changing that paradigm by developing custom international study and work opportunities for biomedical engineering students that enable them to continue their studies and, in some cases, complete an internship within the host country.

“Our goal is to provide Weldon students with global and cultural experiences in engineering to broaden their horizons, while also allowing them to graduate in four years,” said Jeremy Hale, associate director of undergraduate programs. “To do this, we build strong relationships with our partner universities to ensure that the rigor of the engineering coursework will allow students to benefit from the cultural exchange and continue their studies without falling behind.”  

The Weldon School currently has study abroad partnerships with two universities, and is seeking to add more.  An exchange program with the National University of Ireland in Galway, Ireland (NUIG) was established in 2010, and the first cohort of students attended in fall 2011. The newest study abroad program is with Denmark Technical University (DTU) in Copenhagen, Denmark. An engineering exchange was established in August 2012, and the pioneering group of Weldon students attended DTU in the fall of 2013. 

Both universities have engineering programs conducive to Weldon students continuing their studies. The NUIG program has a strong research and education program in biomechanics and biomedical engineering.  DTU's biomedical engineering program is housed in the electrical engineering department and has an outstanding imaging and medical device program.

Industry Partners Make All the Difference

The study abroad programs wouldn’t be possible without the support of industry partners. The partners establish travel grants and summer internships for students who are participating in the study abroad program. In exchange, they gain the opportunity to work with top Weldon students who have had an international experience. Two of our current partners are Fort Wayne Metals (FWM) and Hollister Incorporated.

Each summer Fort Wayne Metals, a production facility in Castlebar, Ireland, employs an intern from the Weldon School who has spent a semester as an exchange student at Galway University and an intern from Galway University who has spent a semester at the Weldon School.

“Much of our business is outside of the U.S., and we see how important international experience is for our employees,” said Scott Glaze, chairman and CEO at Fort Wayne Metals. “We believe that the collaboration between Weldon, Galway University, and companies such as Fort Wayne Metals results in a richer educational experience for students and a more highly qualified prospect for employers.”

In the summer of 2013, Matt Pharris was one of the Weldon School students who interned at Fort Wayne Metals. There he tested Nitinol and various stainless steel alloys for use in medical-grade wire and designed commercial processes for wire coatings. These products will become cardiovascular stents, pacemaker leads, etc. “Engineering is a people business, especially for a biomedical engineer,” said Pharris. “The role demands that one speak intelligently with physicians, customers, and patients in need.  Communication is an essential but acquired skill, and the chance to work with people of drastically different backgrounds and world views certainly helps to accelerate that process.  Studying and working abroad gave me that opportunity.” Pharris added that every day in Ireland was a memorable one and that he came away from the experience with a better understanding of international attitudes in the workplace.

Hollister Incorporated has been involved with the Weldon School internship program for many years. “It offers a great opportunity to the student to gain industrial experience and allows Hollister the opportunity to work closely with the students, and in some cases this has led to us employing students after they graduate, which is a win-win for everyone,” said Seamus Kavanagh, vice president, innovation and technology development at Hollister.

“These opportunities allow the students to apply the knowledge they learn in the classroom to real live situations and problems. The program also exposes the students to corporate research environments where they can get a better understanding of the expectations and all the future career possibilities open to them and will hopefully help guide them in the difficult decisions they have to make on future career paths.”

Students Reflect on Study Abroad Experiences

These sentiments are reflected in the reports of study abroad students, though perhaps not right away.

A couple weeks into her first semester at Purdue, Sarah Johnson, a NUIG student studying at the Weldon School this semester, thought, “What have I gotten myself into?” Not a surprising sentiment for anyone moving to a foreign country, let alone studying there.  Johnson and other study abroad students cite the size of the campus; the way classes, coursework, and exams are structured; even the social scene as some of the most striking differences that take some getting used to. But it is those differences that make study abroad so meaningful. “The exchange to Purdue has certainly opened my eyes to a whole new world of opportunities.” said Johnson. “I was quite closed minded before, not considering that there were many other opportunities outside of my own country.”

Margaret Willenbrink, a Weldon student who studied at DTU last semester, came away from the experience with a similar outlook.  “I have gained more international perspective, which is a great thing to have in the engineering field. It allows me to approach problems from a different viewpoint than I would have before this experience…I hope to bring some of [Denmark’s] aspects of innovation back to the engineering field here in the US. They are very much focused on collaboration. I would like to see engineering firms collaborating with one another in order to create the best solutions possible.”

Amy Bogucki, a Weldon student who studied at NUIG, already had one study abroad experience—a summer in Germany—under her belt before she set off to Ireland to study at NUIG. “I have a burning desire and incessant need to travel,” said Bogucki.  “I think experiencing new cultures and trying different things help individuals to grow as people and discover more about themselves. Having this study abroad experience was important to me because it forced me to leave my comfort zone and have these amazing experiences.” It’s a way of life she hopes to continue in a career that involves travel.

“We set high expectations for students traveling abroad,” said Hale. “These students are representing the Weldon School.” Not only is academic success an important factor in considering whether or not a student will be successful abroad, but also the intangible qualities such as a flexible and good natured personality, openness to other cultures, and ability to work independently and in a team. If successful, the student will expand their knowledge of the world and increase their sensitivity to other cultures--an exchange that goes both ways.

Jack O'Meara, a NUIG student studying at the Weldon School, looks for his internship this summer to reverberate in the future. “I think it will be a terrific experience for my professional career,” said O’Meara. “I think it will be extremely valuable to bring an American perspective to an Irish company.