Worcester Polytechnic Institute's (WPI) revolutionary and international project-based approach to education is in the national spotlight as Natalie A. Mello, the university's director of global operations, is the winner of this year's Sally M. Heym Award from NAFSA: Association of International Educators Region XI.
Presented Nov. 11 at NAFSA's regional conference, the Sally M. Heym Award recognizes individuals who have provided innovative, creative, and inspired leadership for colleagues, both in the region and at the national level. It honors a professional who has made outstanding contributions to the field of international education. NAFSA is a professional association that promotes the exchange of students and scholars to and from the United States.
In August, NAFSA presented Mello with its Lily von Klemperer Award. This prestigious award, named after the founder of the education abroad profession, is given annually to one person in the field of education abroad who has mentored colleagues and maintains the highest standard of professional ethics, while sharing their skills, knowledge, and expertise with fellow education abroad specialists.
"Natalie Mello embodies the true spirit of the Sally M. Heym Award and the Lily von Klemperer Award," said Vince Schaff, chair-elect of NAFSA's Region XI. "She is concerned with and focused on helping other colleagues to 'learn the ropes' of education abroad. Motivated by her strong commitment to advancing the field, Natalie shares her extensive knowledge and experience openly without seeking personal reward. She has a strong ethical compass that keeps her acting in accordance with the best interests of the field. This, combined with her continual, generous outreach to colleagues, during which she shares her knowledge and experience, makes Natalie an outstanding choice for the Sally M. Heym Award and the Lily von Klemperer Award."
A Paxton, Mass. resident, Mello has spent more than a decade at WPI and was named director of global operations within WPI's Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division in 2000. She oversees the administration and management of WPI's Global Projects Program including student recruitment, risk management, health and safety issues, participant orientation, and faculty development and training. Off campus, Mello is involved with national education abroad organizations, particularly in the area of risk management, and is known for developing a model for responsible risk management for off-campus experiences. In addition, she is chair of the Advisory Council for The Forum on Education Abroad, chaired the Forum's 2008 Annual Conference, and contributed to the 2005 edition of NAFSA's Guide to Education Abroad for Advisers and Administrators.
Since the launch of the Global Projects Program in the 1970s, WPI has sent more engineering and science students abroad than any other American university. All WPI undergraduate students are required to complete two research-driven projects: through the senior-year capstone project, students gain real-world design or research experience within their major field, meanwhile, the junior-year project brings together students from various disciplines to research and address challenges that affect people and communities across the world, spanning from downtown Worcester, Mass., to Cape Town, South Africa.
The projects program is the essence of the WPI Plan, which is the university's groundbreaking approach to undergraduate education that combines theoretical study with project-based problem solving around the world. The junior-year projects are conducted around the world at WPI’s 26 Project Centers, and the university boasts a 60 percent participation rate in its study abroad program. Over the years, thousands of WPI students have gained hands-on experience in tackling important global problems that blend science, technology, social issues, and human needs. To that end, students develop an understanding of other cultures, and also see how their lives and work can make an impact on their host communities.
For the past two years, U.S. News & World Report’s "America’s Best Colleges" edition has praised WPI's revolutionary project-based curriculum and study abroad opportunities, calling them "outstanding examples of academic programs that are commonly linked to student success."
According to Richard Vaz, WPI's dean of interdisciplinary and global studies, the NAFSA awards recognize Mello's national prominence in the education abroad field as well as the university's national leadership position in that arena. "Natalie has developed policies and management strategies that have helped WPI build one of the most dynamic and impactful international programs in the country, he said. "At the same time, she has provided national leadership by helping other institutions adopt policies similar to those developed at WPI. WPI's approach to study abroad – experiential, faculty-led, and central to the curriculum – creates many challenges and opportunities. Natalie and her team have been instrumental in providing thousands of students with powerful, well-designed, and safe learning experiences around the globe, and in facilitating the involvement of faculty across campus."
In addition to her leadership role at WPI, Mello has also been published and has presented in the areas of engineering education, education abroad, and educational outcomes assessment. A member of the NAFSA Trainer Corp, Mello was a mentor in the NAFSA Academy, and she sits on the Inter-associational Task Force on Health and Safety in Study Abroad. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Connecticut College, a graduate certificate in Teaching English as a Second Language, and a Master of Liberal Arts from Clark University.
"What I enjoy most about the field of education abroad is the spirit of collaboration among an amazing cadre of professionals," Mello said. "Colleagues are willing to share their experiences, their expertise, and their time with each other, and this makes for a truly rewarding profession. At WPI, the goal is to produce creative thinkers and problem solvers. Part of the WPI student's experience is to face real problems in an international setting – to get out of their comfort zone. I enjoy seeing the transformation that occurs in students after they have undergone one of the most significant experiences of their undergraduate career. Facilitating that growth is extremely gratifying.”