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Friday, October 20, 2017

Academics & Research

STEM programs receive first study abroad opportunity in France


Jaime Ortiz, Alain Mermet and Heidar Malki collaborate to send STEM students abroad. | Nola Valente/The Cougar

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics students can enjoy a freshly baked baguette and a view of the Eiffel Tower while adding an overseas experience to their resume in spring 2018.

UH received a $20,000 grant from the French Embassy to allow STEM students to take relevant coursework and participate in research at Université Paris Sud.

Engineering technology professor Heidar Malki received an award to visit France last October, then received an invitation from the French Embassy to write a grant for the exchange of students when he returned to the United States.

“We are going to send up to 10 students, and each student will get $3,300 in scholarships for one whole semester to go to Université Paris Sud,” Malki said.

This is the first program at UH that offers STEM students the opportunity to study in France, and the idea now is to expand the trend, said Vice Provost for Global Strategies and Studies Jaime Ortiz. Each year, up to seven undergraduates and three graduate students will be selected.

Advancing STEM experiences

The University of Houston has two formal study abroad programs in France.

A bi-annual Hilton College partnership with Université Angers allows two students per spring semester to study French, international marketing and specialized hospitality and tourism topics.

A first time partnership between École Supérieure des Sciences Économiques et Commerciales  in Paris and the Bauer College of Business sent up to 24 graduate students to the city of lights for a week. Students learned the history and marketing of Luxury Brands, and doing business and conducting marketing activities in an International setting.

Bauer intends to repeat the program in 2018.

“Learning abroad is pretty much all either arts, architecture, social sciences and so on, but not so much in the STEM fields,” Ortiz said. “So that’s what we are working very hard to emphasize and strengthen across campus.”

Computer engineering technology junior Pedro Saiz said exposure to a different culture, language and styles of learning would be an asset for a resume and future interviews.

Saiz found UPS to be a world-class researching institution and said he would like more experience to become familiar with their research methods through networking with foreign professors and students.

“I think it is amazing STEM majors are finally being granted the opportunity to go overseas,” Saiz said. “I think this exchange program is going to generate very possible results that will probably lead to more opportunities for future students.”

Undergraduate-level courses are offered only in French, but graduate level courses and research opportunities are available in English.

“That’s gonna be a little difficult for some of our students, but they could maybe take other courses that they have,” Malki said. “We are not going to restrict them and say it has to be in say, electrical engineering. They could maybe take some French courses and do some research.”

Malki said he hopes to enable underrepresented students and minorities in STEM fields to study abroad.

Giving a group the opportunity to learn about culture and academics from other countries can begin a chain reaction, Malki said, because they bring back their own experiences, become ambassadors and encourage others to go overseas, too.

Transforming students

Alain Mermet, attaché for science and technology at the Consulate General of France, works to foster collaborations between France and the United States in terms of research, higher education and innovation. He said the connections are there, but they need to be strengthened.

“Both universities are great institutions,” Mermet said. “Paris Sud has a lot of Nobel Prizes. It’s known for this in France in the STEM field, so I am confident that it’s going to be a very successful partnership between the two institutions.”

He said he noticed a huge transformation in his students who returned to France from the United States during his time as a professor and study abroad adviser at Université de Lyon. They were more mature, open and independent, he said.

“I think it’s 100 percent benefit for all the students, and I think it has to be the same for American students,” Mermet said.

Global awareness will be an asset for prospective employees and forthcoming generations overall, Mermet said. Considering the number of French companies, he said, it’s important to have cultural knowledge along with scientific training if students want to find a job in these types of companies. 

For some, financing a study-abroad program can be a concern.

Mermet and Malki both highlighted the major cost-contrast in the respective countries’ education systems. Each year, public universities in France cost 500 to 800 euros, compared to approximately $10,000 at the University of Houston for in-state students, they said. 

But there are other ways to make studying abroad affordable.

“It depends where you shop, where you go for restaurants. In some areas it was cheaper than Houston,” Malki said. “Even restaurants, sometimes you just pay like 20 euros for a three course meal. Here you can’t buy that for $20. Transportation, you don’t need a car.”

Once in France, the partner university will handle all the logistics involved in hosting students and vise versa when French students come to Houston in the exchange, Ortiz said.

The deadline for the online application is Oct. 30. An essay where students explain how this opportunity would benefit their career is required. For more information, students can contact Malki at [email protected].  

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