Opening Doors Home and Abroad
Each spring, as snow and ice give way to green leaves and fresh grass, we throw open our doors and invite the world in. Metaphorically speaking, it is springtime at WPI—and the School of Arts & Sciences has opened its doors to new partners near and far. After years of collaboration and relationship building, the university has developed academic agreements with two local institutions, College of the Holy Cross and Assumption University, as well as with a Swiss partner, Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW). All three agreements promise to broaden students’ opportunities, foster faculty collaboration, and serve WPI’s core commitments as a global school anchored in the Worcester community.
Even as COVID pushed academia inward, Jean King, Peterson Family Dean of Arts & Sciences, and her colleagues looked outward, turning informal partnerships into new pathways for student learning. For Assumption and Holy Cross, this meant acknowledging their shared history as Worcester-based institutions of higher education and finding new ways for students to access WPI’s world-class graduate programs. For ZHAW, the agreement codified years of faculty collaboration and a common approach to student learning. According to Dean King, these three agreements meet the moment, not only for students, but for society at large. “We cannot solve problems like climate change without moving beyond our silos and incorporating the expertise of others,” said King. “Higher education is at a point where we need to leverage what we do well and what our partners do well to address the problems we face and meet the needs of our students.”
"We cannot solve problems like climate change without moving beyond our silos and incorporating the expertise of others."
—Jean King, Peterson Family Dean of Arts & Sciences
Finding Strength in Cultural Differences
WPI found a ready-made partner in ZHAW. The two universities enjoyed collaboration well before talk of a formal agreement, including regular transatlantic visits by students and faculty. Each year, WPI students rank Switzerland among their top-three choices for IQP project centers, driven as much by cultural interest as the country’s storied engineering and life sciences expertise. “Our partnership with ZHAW was a decade in the making,” explained King, citing longevity as a key to success. “In all of our relationships, we have a better chance of a future together when we share a deep history together.”
ZHAW also offered WPI students a broader connection to industry than they could get from studying in the United States alone. A product of Switzerland’s unique education system, ZHAW connects its students to companies and research facilities that require them to apply theory to real-world applications. “A high percentage of our students’ research projects are done together with industry,” explains Urs Hilber, dean of ZHAW’s School of Life Sciences and Facility Management. “Industry needs a problem solved through a new process or product, and [our students and faculty] do the research.” For Hilber, the similarities to WPI’s approach was clear, making the possibility of a deeper, more formal relationship between the two institutions promising.
Building on their shared approach to applied research and teaching, ZHAW and WPI developed a dual-degree program that allows graduate students to study at both schools’ campuses, earning two master’s degrees in less time than it would take to earn them separately. However, the advantage of the program is far more than just expeditious—by design, it allows students to create synergistic curricula that match the realities of today’s marketplace. Students may choose to pursue two degrees in the same field, or in separate but related fields. “Imagine that you’re a student at ZHAW who is interested in merging data science with your medical engineering degree,” explained Carolina Ruiz, associate dean of Arts & Sciences at WPI and one of the program’s architects. “You can match your engineering degree at ZHAW with a data science degree at WPI, and work with a dedicated advisor at each university to tailor your coursework and master’s thesis to meet both your interests and each institution’s requirements.”
While an interdisciplinary approach to education has long been a mainstay of higher education, WPI’s collaboration with ZHAW allows students to leverage the expertise of faculty from two universities, giving them a more diverse and international academic experience. Additionally, students within the dual-degree program will be required to study in both Worcester and Zurich, offering an immersive experience in both American and European cultures. “Going abroad, you’re a bit out of your comfort zone,” Hilber acknowledged. “Getting to know other people is how you manage—and that’s also how you become a member of new networks, get new ideas, and make friends forever.”
Change Starts at Home
As much as it prides itself as a global school, WPI equally honors its more than 150-year history in Central Massachusetts, as evidenced by new partnerships with two Worcester colleges. In 2023, WPI President Grace Wang signed a memorandum of understanding with the College of the Holy Cross, and a similar agreement with Assumption University. These partnerships, forged with neighboring institutions mere minutes from WPI’s main campus, will provide bachelor-to-master degree pathways for undergraduate students at Assumption, Holy Cross, and WPI. For those students interested in pursuing their master’s degree at WPI, WPI faculty advisors will work with them to select courses that satisfy their master's degree requirements and that further their academic interests.
WPI stands to benefit from these agreements with a new cadre of highly qualified, local students matriculating into its master’s degree programs; however, the relationship is symbiotic. As an undergraduate-only institution, Holy Cross can now offer their students a streamlined pathway to a local and esteemed graduate school. Through this new program, students can complete their Bachelor of Arts degree at Holy Cross and their Master of Science or Master of Engineering degree at WPI in an accelerated timeline. As undergraduates at Holy Cross, students may apply two qualifying courses toward their master’s degree at WPI, accelerating their path to completion. “As two local institutions, we’re finding ways for students to work with both schools,” noted King. “They will now realize, ‘Wait—I could go to Holy Cross and WPI. I don’t have to choose.”
The agreement allows Holy Cross’s graduating students to matriculate into any participating graduate program at WPI, beginning with the mechanical, engineering, computer and electrical engineering, computer science, mathematical sciences, and physics programs—and with more to follow. Elisabeth Hiles, director of strategic initiatives and planning at Holy Cross, sees a seamless transition from undergraduate to graduate-level work as another benefit to students. “They’ll have an advisor at Holy Cross who partners with an advisor at WPI to discuss course planning,” said Hiles. “This means that our students will start getting familiar with the WPI system as early as their sophomore year.”
For Assumption students interested in the field of neuroscience, the agreement with WPI provides a pathway to WPI’s new MS in neuroscience program. Similar to the agreement with Holy Cross, Assumption students may begin planning for their MS degree as early as their sophomore year. “Undergraduate students at Assumption will be able to double count courses toward their graduate degree,” explained Ruiz, noting that the accelerated pathway is open to students in neuroscience, biology, psychology, or a related field. “Because the process can start early in their undergraduate work, it will help make for a much more targeted graduate experience.”
Michele Lemons, professor of biology and director of the Center for Neuroscience at Assumption, sees the collaboration as a win-win for all involved. “Our students [graduate with a] solid understanding of neuroscience fundamentals, which will be an asset to WPI’s graduate program,” she said. “Also, many Assumption students are interested in staying in the area after graduation, and having a local option for a graduate degree can be exciting.”
In addition to allowing Assumption students a means to study in WPI’s neuroscience program, WPI students now have a streamlined path to several graduate degree programs at Assumption. Per the agreement between the two universities, qualified WPI psychology students may be admitted to two of Assumption’s prestigious master of art’s degree programs: clinical counseling psychology and behavior analysis.
The Future is Collaborative
By cross-pollinating with other institutions, WPI will offer students an even richer academic experience—as well as open doors for the university as a whole. “This creates new pathways for students, and that’s our first objective. But it also allows our faculty to find new ways to collaborate on research and teaching initiatives,” said Ruiz. “We’re always thinking interdisciplinarily and globally in the School of Arts & Sciences, so these partnerships come naturally.”
Each of WPI’s three new partnerships is built on the belief that the problems facing the worldwide community are too complex to be solved in silos. According to King, this awareness starts with students. “Today’s students are much more complex beings, in terms of what they’re asking for academically. Often, they’re looking for hybrid approaches to learning that may not always be obvious,” she said. “Higher education has long talked about being interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary—but no one institution can do it all. It’s time that we see this as an opportunity to use collaboration as a resource.”