According to Iñaki Arruabarrena, it was luck that landed him and Paul Bretos at the University of Nevada, Reno.
The pair, who are students at Tecnun School of Engineering in San Sebastian, Spain, recently wrapped up a semester at Nevada as the first students to participate in an exchange agreement between Nevada's College of Engineering and Tecnun. Tecnun is part of the University of Navarra, a top-ranked university in Spain that a recent New York Times survey placed in the top 50 universities in the world.
Arruabarrena and Bretos applied to spend an exchange semester at several different U.S. universities, ranging from California to Rhode Island, and the international office at Tecnun matched them with Nevada.
"I didn't know much about Reno," Arruabarrena admitted. But both Arruabarrena and Bretos say they "absolutely enjoyed" their semester here.
"The best part was meeting new people," said Bretos. "And trying to improve our English."
The exchange agreement, which has been in place for about a year, also allows Nevada engineering students to spend a semester at Tecnun or to participate in a special summer program in San Sebastian. Associate Dean of Engineering Indira Chatterjee said the College is hoping to send its first students to Spain in the fall of 2013.
"We look forward to growing our relationship with Tecnun and providing an opportunity for students from both our universities to gain global experience during their engineering education," said Chatterjee.
The exchange agreements are a key part of the College's commitment to provide a global engineering education to its students.
"We believe very strongly in global interactions," said Dean Manos Maragakis. "We are trying to expand our exchange programs."
In addition to the exchange agreement with Tecnun, the College of Engineering has exchange programs in place with universities in Beijing; Seoul; and Ingolstadt, Germany. Two students from Beijing Jiaotong University and one student from Seoul's Kookmin University have already spent a semester at Nevada, and last summer, five Nevada students attended an engineering summer camp at Beijing Jiaotong University. English-language courses are available through all the exchange programs.
Dean Maragakis and Associate Dean Chatterjee are in discussions with three additional universities in Asia to establish new exchange agreements as part of Dean Maragakis' participation in Governor Sandoval's trade mission to Asia.
While the College is hoping to grow its exchange programs, right now students can benefit from their small size. Personalized advising before students go on an exchange helps ensure that they can find courses at partner institutions that fit into their degree plan. Ingolstadt University also offers an opportunity for students to intern with a Germany company.
For engineering students already facing a tightly packed curriculum, the exchange agreements allow them to participate in programs that offer courses that can be applied toward an engineering degree. Chatterjee is hoping that will encourage more students to consider going abroad.
"These exchange programs complement USAC's great offerings because they are focused on engineering students," said Chatterjee. "They allow our students to study at technical universities, universities with strong engineering programs.
Bretos and Arruabarrena took classes in electrical engineering and computer science and engineering, which they will be able to transfer back to Tecnun. The students had favorable impressions of their classes at Nevada, reporting that they were about the same level of difficulty as they were used to at Tecnun. They also enjoyed the more applied emphasis of coursework in the U.S.
"Classes were more practical," said Bretos. "I like that part. We have a lot of homework and projects so now the finals are only 30 percent of the grade. In Spain, the finals are 70 to 80 percent."
Bretos and Arruabarrena noted a number of differences outside the classroom as well. Tecnun, like many European universities, offers limited campus housing, but at Nevada Bretos and Arruabarrena plunged into American college life, living in the dorm, eating at the Downunder Cafe, and - of course - attending Nevada football games.
"That was so different," said Bretos. "We don't have anything like that." But the biggest surprise about life in America was the transportation system - or lack thereof.
"I knew that here you need a car for everything, but I didn't know it was so necessary," said Arruabarrena. While Bretos and Arruabarrena admitted hitting their friends up for rides on a regular basis, they did get to experience life behind the wheel when they rented a car and drove to L.A.
"I enjoyed that," said Arruabarrena, laughing.
After wrapping up finals, Bretos and Arruabarrena returned to Tecnun, where they will graduate in May. Both are planning to attend graduate school in engineering, and after spending the semester at Nevada, they may have one more graduate school to consider.
When asked if they had any suggestions to improve the exchange program, Bretos had only one:
"Talk to our university and see if we can come for a year -- or more than one semester."