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Building a Road to Rensselaer
Jose Holguin-Veras, professor of civil and environmental engineering, is not surprised that Aniceto Garcia Menocal and Manuel Coroalles were celebrated for their accomplishments. “In Latin America, engineering is considered a top career,” Holguin-Veras says. “Society there, as a whole, understands that engineers are very, very important. Somehow, in the U.S., they are being taken for granted. That’s kind of a result of engineers building the infrastructure that we know. But in Latin America, there are still a lot of needs.”

Holguin-Veras earned a B.S. in civil engineering in his hometown of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic and then traveled to Caracas to get his M.S. in transportation from the Universidad Central de Venezuela. He completed his Ph.D. in transportation at the University of Texas at Austin and has taught and done research in the United States since 1996.

“But guess what,” he warns. “The infrastructure in this country is beginning to crumble. It’s 50 or 60 years old. All major roads need to be put back into a state of good repair. Major investment is needed, and we don’t see it. We don’t need to get to the point where we’re crashing through the bridges. We basically need to invest, massively, in the major infrastructure before we get to that point.”

“In Latin America, engineering is considered a top career,” Holguin-Veras says. “Society there, as a whole, understands that engineers are very, very important. Somehow, in the U.S., they are being taken for granted. But in Latin America, there are still a lot of needs.”

He points to the 2005 Infrastructure Report Card for the United States from the Web site of the American Society of Civil Engineers, which assesses the current state of America’s bridges, dams, waterways, roads, schools, railways, aviation, etc. Of the 15 categories rated, solid waste got the highest grade: a C+. Ten of the 15 categories were awarded Ds.

“Civil engineering has a future in this country, that’s obvious,” Holguin-Veras says. “Somebody will have to do something, sooner or later. That’s a good reason for students and engineers from other countries to come here. The U.S. system is not producing as many engineers as are needed by the economy, and there will be an increasing gap between our needs and the supply of new engineers. That’s beginning to happen, and we don’t even know how badly we need them. Engineers will certainly be coming here from other countries.”

It’s a message Victor Marrero can bring to prospective engineering students in Venezuela. But Marrero wonders how Latin American students can afford a private university education in the United States. The young men who came from Cuba and Panama and other Latin American countries in the 19th century had wealthy families and, often, political backing to support their studies at institutions like Rensselaer. “There are fewer Latin American students now because there is little help for them,” Marrero says. “There is no help for them in their own countries and no help in the United States. They aren’t American citizens, so they don’t qualify for federal funding.”

From 1850 to 1950, developing countries sent their elite sons to topnotch schools like Rensselaer so they could go back home after graduation and use their educations to build essential infrastructures — railroads, bridges, waterworks, highways, dams, canals, and manufacturing operations. But engineering is far more specialized today, and many students want to study nanotechnology or aeronautical engineering or other advanced technologies that their own countries may not have the facilities or resources to utilize.

Marrero is a case in point. “The opportunities in Puerto Rico aren’t good. A lot of companies are leaving Puerto Rico, because tax incentives are being taken away. And there are no research opportunities on the island, so a person like me, who has finished a Ph.D., the only chance I have in Puerto Rico is teaching. That’s what I want eventually, but I don’t see myself going there.”

What Marrero envisions is staying here in the United States and working as a research scientist and eventually joining academia so he can help other students from Latin America come here and get a better education.

“A position where I could combine my deep interest in both research and teaching seems particularly appealing,” Marrero says. “I wish to become the type of professor who makes an immediate impact on the lives, and more importantly, the future of his students. In addition, I have found that of the small population of Hispanic engineers, very few have a Ph.D.

“There is a need to strengthen the participation of Hispanics in pursuing graduate degrees, and so I feel obliged to pursue a Ph.D. and hope to inspire others to do the same.”

Comments from Napoleon Ferrer ’55, president of the Venezuelan Chapter of the Rensselaer Alumni Association:

How is the alumni chapter helping to attract more students from Latin America to Rensselaer?

Napoleon Ferrer ’55
“The Rensselaer Alumni Chapter in Venezuela invites a group of high school juniors and seniors from different areas of Caracas, and we speak to them for an hour or two about RPI and its programs. Unfortunately, with the exchange rate today and the devaluation of Venezuela's bolivar, it is very difficult (expensive) for Venezuelan students to study overseas. Nonetheless, in January 2007, a Venezuelan student who is the grandson of Paul Lustgarten '54 will begin his studies at Rensselaer.

“The alumni chapter in Venezuela carries out many activities that are often publicized in the Venezuelan press. In September 2006, for example, we arranged a visit for two RPI professors, Drs. Timothy Wei and Luciano Castillo, and doctoral student Victor Marrero, who is also president of the Phi Iota Alpha fraternity. They attended and participated in a symposium entitled "Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy" that was held at the College of Engineers of Venezuela. During the group's five-day visit, they held meetings with the presidents (rectors) and professors of the Universidad Simon Bolivar and Universidad Metropolitana where efforts were made to reactivate and broaden the agreements signed several years ago between RPI and them. We discussed collaboration in distance education and among our technology parks. In addition, we had a dialogue with the leadership of the National Academy of Science and Mathematics and the National Academy of Engineering and Environment as well as with representatives of the College of Engineers of Venezuela and the College's Foundation for Professional Development which offers continuing education courses for engineers and architects. Each of these visits resulted in the dissemination of information on RPI.

“When we speak to high school students, we try to explain that RPI is one of the best universities in the U.S. for engineering, architecture, science, and technology, among other specialty programs. We provide RPI's brochures and distribution materials as well as share information from RPI's Web site. We also discuss our visits to RPI and describe the campus and new construction as well as the extraordinary accomplishments and transformations realized during the past six years under Dr. Jackson's leadership and implementation of The Rensselaer Plan. The truth is that many students are truly impressed and pleased by the academic standards and caliber of RPI but economic reasons make it impossible for them to study at RPI.”


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