Auburn, Offenburg exchange program provides international experience for American, German engineering students

Published: October 10, 2018
Updated: October 12, 2018
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Auburn University’s Samuel Ginn College of Engineering has created a new exchange program, giving students the opportunity to gain international experience and earn credit hours by studying engineering for a semester in Offenburg, Germany.

Offenburg University of Applied Sciences sent two students to the Plains for the fall 2017 semester. Three Auburn mechanical engineering students completed the exchange this spring.

The Auburn trio — seniors Lillian Conway, Patricia Doolan and Aura Reyna — said they all anticipated a study abroad experience would be part of their Auburn career. They just didn’t know where or when to go.

“Our first goal is to have our students go abroad,” said Bob Karcher, assistant dean of Student Services in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering. “Whether it’s six weeks or six months, we see the benefit in students going abroad, experiencing another culture.”

Karcher and other engineering officials visited a number of schools in the Baden-Wurttemberg state of Germany to find the ideal partner institution. The end result is a semester-long exchange program with all the courses from Germany mapped to Auburn’s curriculum.

“The mapping process for this program involved input from all five major universities in the state of Alabama,” said Sushil Bhavnani, professor of mechanical engineering and faculty director of the Offenburg exchange. After a series of meetings, five courses taught in English at Offenburg were reviewed, augmented where needed and subsequently approved.”

For Conway, Doolan and Reyna, spending six months in Germany during Auburn’s spring semester was perfect, especially as the experience kept them all on track to graduate on time.

The adjustment was nothing for Reyna. Hailing from Houston, Texas, she is used to being quite a distance from home. She said she never had a desire to go to Germany — Spanish is her second language and she took seven years of French — however, she said she did want to go somewhere where she would understand the language better.

“I think it's really awesome to just push your limits and try different things,” said Reyna.

“I’ve always wanted to go somewhere in Europe because, if I was going to go somewhere for six months, I wanted to go somewhere I could explore as much as I could while being there,” added Doolan. “Actually for the last six weeks, I’ve been in a different country like every week.”

Peter Treffinger, a professor of mechanical and process engineering at Offenburg, said all international students are encouraged to travel in their free time.

“If you’d like to explore Europe, Offenburg is a very good location,” he said, as the mid-size town has access to a number of airports and a high-speed train making it easy to travel to cities in northern Germany, France and Italy.

“You’ve got a tremendous bunch of opportunities,” he added. “The only thing is you have to take it, and I think the best thing we have here is people to support you.”

An abroad trip to Germany is ideal for engineering students in Alabama, as nearly 90 German companies have operations in this state, including the Mercedes-Benz assembly plant in Vance.

“I think that is part of the reason our students have such great interest in it,” said Karcher. “I think the history of Germany and the technology is fascinating to our students and to study in a country where technology is so important. That’s very appealing to engineering students.”

Birgit Teubner-Jatzlau, director of the International Office at Offenburg, said their students may not recognize the value of learning beyond the borders of Germany.

“They think it’s a company, which is next door to their home,” she said. “It’s wonderful to work there as an engineer, but they underestimate that they work worldwide. We have companies here which have branches in many, many countries, including the U.S., and engineers must travel nowadays. They must be fluent in foreign languages, they must experience, or have an experience in different cultures and mentalities. This is why our students should go abroad for a semester, especially to Auburn.”

Bhavnani said it was intentional to invite German students during the fall semester.

“Athletic events at Auburn facilitated yet another unique opportunity for these students to enrich their campus experience and truly become part of the Auburn Family,” he said.

Julia Schmidt and Sandra Dieterle, the Offenburg students who first came to Auburn, said they always considered studying abroad, but didn’t know where. Offenburg is partners with 70-80 international institutions so they had plenty of options. However, both were approached by professors encouraging them to consider participating in a new program with a university in America.

“When he mentioned that there was a new partnership coming up which would give me the chance to actually study abroad, not just doing my internship abroad, it was, like, jackpot,” said Schmidt, a biomechanics major. “I definitely said yes to take this chance to go abroad and see how university works in America.”

Dieterle’s family farm isn’t far from Offenburg so she lives at home and commutes for classes, a common practice for many Offenburg students.

“[Auburn] was a whole different life setting for me because I was on my own. All the new things like living right next to the university, just taking a few minutes by bus to get there. That was new,” she explained. ”Besides that, the whole spirit is different. Like, this is a small university. Everybody’s traveling here, but it’s more like going to work, and in Auburn it’s like you live for Auburn. Like, your entire life is happening on campus.”

Being the first Offenburg students to come to Auburn, Schmidt and Dieterle didn’t know anybody upon arrival. Auburn, of course, welcomed the newcomers, and not just those in the Office of International Programs and College of Engineering.

“I think Auburn is a great place to go to, especially if you’re not sure about if you can do it because there’s so much help there,” said Schmidt. “People are so nice [in Auburn]. I had this situation where I was standing on campus like, ‘Where am I going? Where am I?’ and people stopped immediately asking, ‘Do you need help? Is there anything we can do?’”

“Going abroad is just an amazing experience,” she added. “People told us within the first few weeks about the Auburn Family and I totally get it. This university is so much bigger than Offenburg, but still you feel welcomed.”

Auburn students found the same to be true in Offenburg. Faculty, fellow students and the International Office all were more than willing to help.

“All the German students are so welcoming,” recalled Conway. “We’ve made so many friends just because people are like, ‘Oh, hey, you’re American.’ We’ve made friends just in the lunchroom because they scooted over so we could sit there.”

Treffinger said he is grateful for the new program as he felt Auburn students enriched his lectures and labs because they were involved, raising interesting questions and working well alongside German students.

Conversely, Conway said one part she appreciated was how many of her Offenburg professors had work experiences that they would often reference. She said it helped to hear practical applications of classroom topics.

“They’re immersed in the culture,” said Karcher. “Not only are they learning a course such as, perhaps, thermodynamics, in the classroom in Germany, they can do that in the U.S., but they’re learning how Germans do it.

“They’re learning how Germans operate and how they do engineering, and I think that makes a real difference. We don’t all operate the same. While the math is the same, the way in which we do the problem solving and go about engineering is a bit different from country to country.”

For more information about the Offenburg program and other global programs for engineering students, visit http://eng.auburn.edu/global/.

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 29,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn's commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact. Auburn's mission to educate, discover and collaborate drives its expanding impact on the world.