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Flamenco and Sangria

Trojan Engineering Undergrads in Spain …and it wasn’t all Flamenco and Sangria

October 27, 2003 —

(back row) Gustavo Buenrostro, Jason Chan, Merrick Mosst, Jason Giggles, Jeff Dralla, Nels Beckman, Rand Voorhies, Gregory Mooney, Jon Watkins, Steve Bucher, Fima Macheret, Ammar Chinoy, Kendra Yates, Carrie Blalock. (front row) Melissa Lorenzen, Veronica Loete, Lindsay Johnson, Rita Roohi, Associate Dean Louise Yates, Krupa Savalia, Lilibeth Gangas, Jennifer McLean, Christine Keushguerian, Rahul Dutta. (seated) Marisa Margaretich, Geoff Shiflett. At El Escorial monestary.
by Christian Camozzi*

The academic plates of engineering undergraduate students are fully loaded. From civil engineering to chemical engineering, students juggle thermodynamics with calculus, chemistry with computational methods, hoping to cram their required courses into eight scant semesters. This leaves little room for free units—dessert. You might think there’s no time for a semester abroad. But you would be wrong, and the dessert servings are getting better.

The School currently offers a summer overseas program, a chance for engineering students to venture abroad, but still take courses that fulfill their academic requirements. This past summer, 22 students, three teachers, two administrators and one teacher’s assistant trekked to Madrid, squeezing Spanish courses and museum trips into the students’ already-busy curriculum.

The program actually has a considerable history, having debuted in 1981 with a session in Madrid. It took an eight-year hiatus, then returned in 1989 and has been held consistently every other year, alternating between London and Paris.

The program has grown significantly in terms of academic offerings. In 1981, it offered one class and an internship; in 2003, it expanded to four different classes, three of which were upper division courses in the engineering curriculum. These courses are taught by USC faculty and fulfill graduation requirements for the School’s different engineering majors.

“This means that students can participate in an abroad experience without pushing their graduation date back,” says Krupa Savalia, a sophomore from West Orange, N.J., studying biomedical/biochemical engineering.

Southern Spain has a unique mix of Catholic and Moorish (Islamic) influences, as can be seen by this Catholic shrine leaning against a wall that displays traditional Moorish architectural details.
Given the success and popularity of the most recent session—the program saw the largest number of participants in its history—the School now hopes to offer the program every year, expanding the list of overseas options. Next summer, students will head to Paris, while Rome remains on the program’s radar screen.
To coordinate this program, the School partners with the ACCENT International, Inc., an international education organization that works with over 50 American colleges and universities. This organization helps organize study abroad programs and provides reliable housing and computer facilities, as well as some helpful advice and guidance for students.


This support is key since the students’ schedule can be intense. “Classes are extremely fast-paced,” says senior Christine Keushguerian, an environmental engineering major. “The same amount of material taught in the fifteen-week semester is covered in just six weeks.”

She adds, “The time constraint was a major challenge. When faced with the decision to finish a thermodynamics problem or view the collection of Salvador Dali’s masterpieces at the Reina Sofia, which would you choose?”

Associate Dean Louise Yates with Krupa Savalia, Rita Roohi, Jason Giggles, Lilibeth Gangas, Jon Watkins, Lindsay Johnson, and staff member Erika Pratt in the Plaza de España, Seville.
The bond that students and faculty develop, though, balances this intensity. Classes are small, and this past summer’s participants made a number of excursions, including trips to Seville, Granada, Segovia, and Cordova.

“You get to know people much better,” says Geoff Shiflett, associate professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering who has taught the thermodynamics course during the past three sessions. “I don’t usually go out to lunch or ride a bus for six hours with students,” adds Steve Bucher, who taught an advanced undergraduate writing class this past summer. “When you’re on a bus for six hours at a time, it’s hard not to bond.”

This camaraderie energized the program participants. “The students and teachers shared dinners, outings, overnight trips, excursions, and the excitement of a foreign environment,” says Keushguerian. “We fought through the same language and custom barriers,” adds Jason Chan, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering.

Back in the United States, students reflected on their experience in Madrid, preparing papers for Bucher’s writing class, which is a required course for engineers. Many students said they look at their field in a new light, and each seems eager to develop into a global engineer. Junior Ammar Chinoy sees this as “an engineer that, culturally speaking, transcends geographical boundaries.” Chan, who plans to attend law school with his engineering degree, agrees: “With engineering being such a global profession, there is a great need for students to experience other cultures. As future engineers, we may need to coordinate tasks or projects with companies or clients based in other countries. Or we may find ourselves working for large international companies that need engineers who are able to work in different locations around the world.”

An international student from Pakistan, Chinoy adds, “I realize the important role that cultural immersion plays in structuring a global engineer.” He believes that a study abroad experience profoundly affects students, making them “more versatile and universal in nature.” As he sees it, this change comes as students understand and adapt to cultural differences. “Adaptation essentially eliminates further culture shock,” he says, “and results in the development of an able and truly global engineer.”


Resoundingly, the returning students appreciate the value of their experience, the power of their broadened perspectives. They are quick to connect it to the professional work they will do in the future. For many of the students, this was their first trip outside the United States, and their time in Madrid made them more aware of their own cultural identities. Suddenly, they found themselves as foreigners.
Melissa Lorenzen and Mariana Blanco are relaxing by a fountain in Seville.
“Living my whole life in a small suburb twelve miles away from USC, I have always had the luxury of going home whenever I pleased,” says Keushguerian. “Being away from family and friends for a substantial period of time has given me a stronger sense of independence and responsibility.” But that doesn’t mean she didn’t face challenges along the way. “Studying abroad is all about the frustration of miscommunication,” she points out. “It’s about the need to play charades when buying nail polish remover and pointing at fruit you don’t know the name of.”


Chinoy, though, sees a payoff for all the frustration. “The program allows engineers to adapt to a different culture and become more open-minded, creative, and well-rounded individuals.” He jokes about the stereotypes Americans have about Spanish culture. “When visiting Spain, you learn that the country has more to offer than bulls, flamenco, sangria and siestas.”


But perhaps the main difference students discovered between American and Spanish culture had to do with energy conservation. As Chinoy explains, “Europe in general, and Spain in particular, prioritize conservation in terms of reduced consumption. Spanish electrical, transport, and telecommunication systems are all influenced by this quest for efficiency.”

He points out, “The lack of air conditioning, time-controlled lights, and smaller vehicles are all elements of Spanish culture that Americans are not entirely acquainted with.”

Fima Macheret sitting by one of the many fountains decorating the plazas of Seville.
Senior Jennifer McLean, who is majoring in environmental engineering, agrees: “The entire city of Madrid has been designed to save energy and increase efficiency wherever possible.”

Chan adds, “The streets of America, especially Los Angeles, are a stark contrast to those of Madrid, and those of Europe as a whole. Large sedans and SUVs don’t dominate Madrid’s roads. Instead, highly fuel-efficient subcompacts seem to be the automobile of choice.”

In recognizing these differences, students can see how their professional work as engineers will be culturally specific. They see the importance of being mindful of people’s culture as they carry out their work. In a very real way, they understand that the concepts they learn will touch people’s lives, that their work is closely tied to the world around them.

After all, as Savalia put it, “Engineering affects everyone, no matter where they live, and is ultimately a means of serving humanity.”

*Christian Camozzi’s article was based on stories written by program participants Jason Chan, Ammar Chinoy, Christine Keushguerian, and Krupa Savalia for their engineering writing class.