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Peter Dusicka: A bridge to the world

By Melanie Supersano

A chance to investigate seismic safety on the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge with internationally renowned professor Ian Buckle made choosing the University of Nevada, Reno to pursue doctoral studies an easy decision for Peter Dusicka, a Vancouver, British Columbia resident.

"I talked to Dr. Buckle at a conference after studying in New Zealand and he told me about the facilities at Nevada where he had recently been hired. We talked about the Bay Bridge project — which is not only highly interesting, it's practical, too. It was coincidental that we met, but he was quite the inspiration for me coming here," says Dusicka, 29, who began studies at Nevada in summer 2000.

"I wanted to build on my experience from Canada and New Zealand," adds Dusicka. "In my field, the United States is quite progressive and has invested a lot of money in research."

Buckle, who is director of the Center for Civil Engineering Earthquake Research, notes that his recruit is highly competent: "He is a very capable young man in many ways. He plays competitive tennis and he's an active outdoorsman in addition to his studying for his doctorate. He designed and fabricated the specimen used for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge seismic testing and conducted the experiments on the shear link assembly — steel plates bolted to the suspension bridge's tower, which are designed to be sacrificed during an earthquake — and they performed far above CalTrans' expectations."

Dusicka's dissertation is related to his work on the Bay Bridge project, but will be more generalized, he says: "It's a continuation of the work. It's looking at the behavior of the shear link, while using high performance steel, a fairly new material that has high deformation capability and high strength — unusual for steel, which is typically brittle at high strengths. Designers and engineers can potentially use the concept in other projects."

Which is why Dusicka likes earthquake structural engineering in the first place: "It's a very challenging field within structural engineering. It's one that can potentially impact a lot of people. The results of what you do eventually directly benefit society."

He has also been involved in numerous smaller projects using the 50-ton shake tables in the Louis Wiener Large-Scale Structures Laboratory, including working on testing a medical "arm" device the designers intend to market to California hospitals.

"I feel that my experience at this university would be extremely difficult to match anywhere else," he says. "While studying here, I've been quite fortunate in that I've been exposed to a lot of things: practical engineering, state-of-the-art research, as well as teaching. The problem with me is I like them all."

Dusicka was the 2002 winner of the Structural Stability Research Council Vinnakota Award for best paper.

The Intensive English Language Center
Twenty years preparing international students at Nevada

Think back to when you were a student at Nevada. At the best of times, it was challenging and sometimes downright difficult, right? Now, imagine doing that in Tokyo, with all your classes taught in Japanese, and you get a sense of the enormous task facing the hundreds of international students — the majority from Asia — who come to Nevada each year to get their degrees.

"It takes quite a bit to say 'I'm going to do a bachelor's degree in a completely unrelated language,'" says Deirdre Vinyard, director of the university's Intensive English Language Center.

The Intensive English Language Center, located in Cain Hall, is the front door for most of the new international undergraduates who come to Nevada. They typically have studied English grammar in their home country for several years, but usually don't have strong speaking or listening abilities. At the center, students preparing to enroll in a degree program immerse themselves in English, receiving 20 hours of instruction a week in classes that emphasize academic skills such as textbook reading, essay writing and note-taking. IELC classes may have students from a dozen different countries, but the language of instruction is always English.

"Everything here is different from other places," says Xuelian Wang, 28, from Jinzhou, China. Wang, one of more than 100 students currently enrolled in the IELC, is improving her English before enrolling in the music education master's program. "Here they prepare you for studies," she says. " I think I have improved very fast."

Connecting Nevada with the world

International students such as Wang, who graduated from a music conservatory in China, comprise a pool of talented and well-educated students that many countries salivate over.

"People don't realize that other countries vie for international students," Vinyard says. "It's very competitive. IELC provides a really important link in the international recruitment chain. The university gets a lot of students because they have the ability to go into the English program first. About 85 percent of our students then go on to get their degrees."

International students at the IELC pay for their intensive language classes, so no state funds are used for their instruction. "We're a self-supporting program, so we really fluctuate with world economies," Vinyard says.

In 1988, under the center's first director, Lee Thomas, the IELC facilitated the opening of the university's Japan campus in Tokyo, which existed until 1994. Vinyard was the first academic coordinator on the Tokyo campus, returning to Nevada to succeed Thomas as the IELC director in 1989. Nevada still maintains a close relationship with NIC-International, the Japanese language school in Tokyo that is the university's former partner. With more than 300 enrolled, students from NIC still comprise the largest contingent of international students at Nevada.

"For Nevada students to be competitive in today's globally-oriented workplace, they must have an education that exposes them internationally," Vinyard says. "Only a small number of Nevada's students can study abroad, so what about the rest? Putting a student from Japan next to them in a business class or a student from Turkey on their soccer team provides exposure to the rest of the world in a way that's both personal and meaningful."

How do they do it?

To listen to Volkan Akbas speak eloquently about his beloved Turkish national soccer team's performance in the World Cup, you'd never imagine that the 23-year-old IELC graduate spoke little English when he arrived at Nevada.

"I had taken a little English in Turkey," he says. "But, at the time, I wasn't interested so I didn't study." Akbas graduated from the IELC and is now pursuing a master's degree in business administration.

Vinyard says the IELC's approach to teaching English is very different from older techniques, which emphasized the grammar and structure of language:

"We're immersing the students in relevant and interesting content areas, so they're doing lots of rich language activities in the classroom. We focus on the kinds of content they'll be encountering when they're undergrads."

For students such as Akbas, the instructors at the IELC were key. "They are wonderful," he says. "They really know what they're doing. They're very kind and have time for all students."

All IELC instructors have a master's degree in teaching English as a second language and have lived overseas — both IELC requirements.

For Vinyard, who has been present for all of the center's 20-year existence, bringing foreign students to the United States plays a major part in educating the world about this country.

"These people will go back and be teachers and leaders in business and government," she says. "I think it's one of the best things we can do to increase understanding and to gather allies in the rest of the world."


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