When the nuclear disaster unfolded this spring in Japan, Sara Ferry had a better understanding of the situation than most college seniors. Thanks to the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), she spent last summer working on commissioning tests for a new nuclear reactor in Finland, receiving hands-on experience rare for an undergraduate.

“I got a chance to see what goes into putting a reactor online,” said Ferry, who worked in Paris as an intern at Areva, the nuclear energy company building the Finnish plant. “When you go to commission the safety of a plant, you consider events you never expect to happen.”

A nuclear science and engineering major, Ferry said that while Japan faced “the worst possible chain of events,” she hopes that there isn’t a huge backlash against nuclear energy. “If we want to have power at the levels that we do, we really don’t have a choice.”

Ferry is just one of about 500 MIT students and recent alumni who gained international work experience through MISTI last year. The program currently supports professional and research internships in 11 countries — Brazil, Chile, China, France, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, and Spain. In addition, hundreds of MIT students have had the chance to work with faculty supported by MISTI’s Global Seed Funds on projects in Australia, Russia, Uganda, and elsewhere.

“Hands-on experience outside their home country is indispensable to students who hope to compete in today’s global economy,” said Suzanne Berger, director of MISTI and a professor of political science. “International internship programs are a growing trend, but MISTI was a pioneer, and our model remains unique. We see it as core education so we make sure all student costs are covered — even air fare.”

MISTI made it possible for Ferry to live and work within sight of the Eiffel Tower. “It guarantees you will have the funding that you need to be able to go, because not all the internships pay a living wage,” Ferry said.

MISTI also helps students acquire language skills, learn about the culture of their host country, and navigate logistical issues such as obtaining a visa and finding housing.

“The first time you go abroad can be intimidating,” Ferry said. “With MISTI, someone’s there for you.”

She first traveled to France the summer after her freshman year, when MISTI helped her secure an internship at CEA Grenoble, a technological research organization funded by the French government. Ferry conducted research into applied physics and received credit for her work in a scholarly journal.

Last year, she spent the summer working with an international team of scientists and engineers on the commissioning of Olkiluoto 3, a pressurized water reactor slated to begin commercial operations in Finland in 2012. “I was writing software so that the engineers onsite could calculate the coolant flow,” she said. “It made the project a lot more fun to know it wasn’t just any job for an intern…what I was doing was a useful and needed task.”

In the fall, Ferry intends to return to MIT to pursue a doctoral degree in nuclear science and engineering — but first she plans to spend another summer in Paris. She recently received a fellowship from the Dean’s Office in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences to work at Le Laboratoire, an experimental art-science museum in Paris.

“For three summers in a row now, I’ve found a very precise job that I really wanted and MISTI helped me get that job,” Ferry said. “The big thing about MISTI is that they make sure that price is not an obstacle to going abroad…MIT really wants us to have that opportunity.”