While educational leaders across the country continue to ask how best to prepare students to compete in the global economy, MIT has found the answer right at home: the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives — better known as MISTI.

A pioneering program in applied international studies, MISTI now sends nearly 500 students abroad each year to intern in 10 countries — Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, and Spain. Plans are in the works to add Chile soon.

“We see this as a central, core part of an MIT education,” said Suzanne Berger, director of MISTI and a professor of political science. “Knowledge is created all around the world, and we need to educate MIT students in how to create knowledge in dynamic centers of innovation wherever they may be.”

A 2009 report by the MIT Global Council, Mens et Manus et Mundus, highlights the value of the program to MIT. The report recommends doubling the number of students who participate in MISTI each year to meet the increasing demand for global education.

“We’ve created at the Institute a real appreciation of culture and language as tools to allow students to function in the global world,” said Patricia Gercik, associate director of MISTI. “When we started [the Japan program in 1981], being international was not so much on top of MIT’s agenda.”

Today MISTI is free and open to all MIT undergraduates, graduate students, and recent alumni — whatever their major. MISTI prepares students to work abroad by providing instruction in the language and culture of their host country. “If the student invests [time and effort] in his or her education, MISTI will cover the cost,” Berger said. “MISTI has a single objective — to educate our students.”

Designing language software

Growing up in Kansas, Christopher Varenhorst, SB ’09, didn’t have much exposure to other cultures — he had been to Germany and England but “never thought much about being in a foreign place.”

Yet, struck by wanderlust freshman year, Varenhorst signed up for MISTI-China, and the experience ultimately transformed his education and his career. He bonded with a fellow student over their struggles to learn Chinese, and together they founded Lingt, a company that designs language learning software. The company was voted America’s Coolest College Start-up by Inc. magazine in 2009. The software is now being used in 5,500 classrooms in 85 countries.

“Lingt Classroom enables teachers to make online voice-based assignments, so they can give students feedback on their speaking outside of class. Traditionally, that’s very hard to do,” Varenhorst said.

He has traveled to China with MISTI twice. In 2006, he taught html and web design to high school students, and last summer he taught computer systems, entrepreneurial skills, and business planning to university students.

“I came to MIT wanting to be a computer guy,” Varenhorst said, but the MISTI experience gave him a new focus on education. Currently a graduate student in MIT’s Spoken Language Systems Group, Varenhorst continues to work on language learning applications and plans to focus his career on improving language education.

“It was really the MISTI experience that brought that out [in me],” he said. “I tell everyone I know to go to MISTI.”

Understanding other perspectives

Minmin Yen, ’11, was drawn to MISTI-Italy by her interest in learning about European research firsthand.

“I think it’s important to go to another country and really immerse yourself in someone else’s experience,” said Yen, a biological engineering major who lived and worked in Sardinia for two months with MISTI-Italy. “Understanding their perspectives — that’s something that can be brought back and integrated into how we approach experiments.

Yen, who worked in the pharmacology department of the University of Cagliari, spent the summer attaching gold nanoparticles to anti-tumor drugs and trying to optimize a coating that would make the result water-soluble. She also contributed to a journal article on a microscopy technique used to view different layers of the skin and describe the morphology of each cell layer.

“I think that interacting with other cultures in the same field early on will help me understand later how to collaborate with researchers abroad on the same topics,” she said.

“I’m hoping to go to grad school in immunology and infectious diseases or microbiology programs,” Yen said. “After grad school, I hope to continue to work in infectious diseases, mostly abroad, in countries with a high incidence of TB, for example.”

What did she discover about Italian research? “Work happened a little bit slower, with meticulous planning,” she said, and materials were used more carefully than in the United States because funding is scarce. “In Italy everybody has lunch together; it’s a very friendly and warm atmosphere. A little more people oriented [than here].”

Dream to start a school for girls

Ever since she was a child reading about Nzingha, a 16th century Angolan queen who defied colonial powers, Netia McCray, ’12, has longed to travel.

“I’m trying to make it to Angola and get to this crowning jewel of Africa. I would like to start an MIT for girls in their teenage years,” she said.

Although McCray had never been out of Florida before coming to MIT, she jumped at the chance to learn Portuguese, the language spoken in Angola. In January, she joined the first class of students in the newly formed MISTI-Brazil, because Angola is hard to get into, and “Brazil is the only country Angola really interacts with.”

“At first I was very narrow minded, like I could not possibly go abroad – because I thought I might never even get into MIT, (so I am already in fantasyland”), McCray said. But attending MISTI-Brazil was “the best decision of my life.”

A triple major in electrical engineering, computer science, and physics, McCray conducted nanotube research at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG) — but she discovered her real passion is education. Recently, she was accepted into MISTI 2.0, which provides funds for students to pursue ongoing projects with colleagues they’ve met abroad. McCray plans to work on educational development with her Brazilian contacts.

“I’m trying to start a nonprofit organization with MIT, UFMG, and the University of Luanda, Angola, to develop elementary, middle school, and high school foundations in math and science,” she said. “Now I want to help education development abroad because I found out that’s my true passion.”

Truly international experience

Aysylu Biktimirova, ’12, spent last summer with MISTI-Germany, but her experience truly had an international flavor. “The department I was working at had engineers from Turkey, Spain, Switzerland, Italy” — and that was a plus, she said.

“The interesting thing is that I didn’t feel alienated or different, because our goal was [similar] — to complete the project,” she said. “I felt that I was speaking the same language as they were, even though we came from different backgrounds.”

A native of Russia, Biktimirova is an electrical engineering and computer science major who plans to work in industry, ideally at an international company. After spending a summer teaching with MISTI-Germany, she returned last year to intern at OSRAM Opto Semiconductors, where she got the chance to write a fully automatic wafer engraving reader that is now running in production.

“This project was in a completely different area from what I’ve done before…I got to learn a lot of image processing techniques,” she said. “I realized that there are many other fields that I can contribute to.”

Biktimirova also learned about day-to-day life in Germany by sharing an apartment with German students. “I think the flexibility I learned from living in different countries — and the communication skills — will help me to adjust better and faster and find ways to handle difficult situations,” she said. “It’s hard to evaluate what I would be like if I didn’t [participate in] this program.”