International Man

Ned Nielsen opens doors—and a global view—for hundreds of engineering students

by Myrna DeVries Anderson ’00
Winter 2012

It all started with a knock at the door in the spring of 1995. Engineering professor Ned Nielsen—with more than two decades in the laser and aerospace industries—had been at Calvin for a year when two of his students came to his office to ask him to get them internships in engineering. “I said to them, ‘Why not?’ and two weeks later, they both had internships,” said Nielsen. “Then I had 20 kids at my door, and by the end of the spring semester, they all had internships. Then, in the fall of ’95, kids started coming to my door that weren’t my students. I didn’t know who they were, and I had to ask them: ‘Are you an engineering student? What’s your concentration?’” By the end of the year, he had placed 70 students in engineering internships.

To date, Nielsen has helped to place 1,800 students in internships, both in the United States and in other countries. He has led 790 students on tours of engineering firms and cultural sites in seven European countries through his annual interim. For seven years, Nielsen has taught Calvin’s summer engineering program, through which 110 students have studied German and engineering at universities in Bremen and Berlin.

“He has been the engine behind the international programs we have right now … ,” said Calvin engineering professor Randy Brouwer. “He has been the champion of these international experiences.”

He creates global opportunities, Nielsen said, because students increasingly need them: “Engineering and business are international now. Employers are looking for graduates that have international experience.”

Nielsen learned the need for an international résumé during his career in industry. At one point during the 24 years he worked at Laser Alignment Inc. (where he eventually became vice president of engineering), one of his biggest clients was a German company. “If you go to Germany and you can’t say anything in German, you come across as the ugly American,” he observed, “but if you can say something, it shows respect.” In 1982, at the age of 40, Nielsen, who has a master’s of science in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan, enrolled at Calvin to study German. His skill in that language opened many doors at engineering firms, and he now requires all of his students to master at least German 101.

Nielsen first taught at Calvin in 1967 at the college’s Franklin campus. He came to Calvin as a full-time professor in 1994.  

His practice of placing students in internships was well under way when he made his first international placement in 1999. “Those are harder,” he admitted. Since then, he has placed 79 students in international internships in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, Puerto Rico and Germany.

Nielsen has a proven process for all would-be Calvin engineering interns. “I sit down and talk to them, which takes hours and hours and hours,” he said. “I talk to the kids about what their desires are. This isn’t just about sending résumés; the companies expect me to do a little filtering.”

He also schools the students in the art of presenting themselves to employers: how to write a résumé (“We analyze everything, one word, one sentence at a time”); how to obtain an internship; how to prepare for an interview; how to conduct oneself in the workplace. At first, Nielsen taught students these skills one on one. By 1996, he was holding seminars on the subject. And because many students wanted to intern in their hometowns over the summer, he devised a method to land those opportunities: Nielsen asks the student for the names of 10 companies in his or her hometown and the name of the chief engineer at each. He then writes a letter to each chief engineer on Calvin stationery, including the student’s résumé and photo. “There might be 50 résumés in the HR department, but the chief engineer has one résumé in his hand … ,” Nielsen said. “That carries so much weight.”

Nielsen deals only with chief engineers, and he goes to great lengths to maintain his professional ties. In 2008, while in Bremen teaching Calvin’s engineering summer program in Germany, he used a free day to meet the new chief engineer of TRW, a vehicle braking systems firm. Nielsen took a four-hour train ride from Bremen to Koblenz and a taxi ride to TRW, where he met with the chief engineer. “It was a courtesy call, and I thanked him for taking our students. We had two students there,” Nielsen said. The visit took 15 minutes. Then he rode the train for four hours back to Bremen. “It is very important to establish and maintain the personal relationships,” he said.

In 1997, to give a wider swath of students an international experience, Nielsen created the “Business, Engineering and Religion in the Context of European Culture” interim, which he co-teaches with various faculty and friends of Calvin. The three-week January course is a tour of European engineering, manufacturing and research facilities in Germany, France, Belgium and the Czech Republic, designed to give students a global view of business.

The course also traces the history of the Reformation through visits to churches and other sites. “We go to Heidelberg, where the catechism was written. We go to Wittenberg, where Luther nailed the thesis on the door,” Nielsen said. “This is a Christian college, and I think learning about your faith is a big part of being a Calvin student, don’t you?” “Business, Engineering and Religion” is currently Calvin’s most popular off-campus interim. Fifty students are already enrolled for next year’s edition. Nielsen knows of 13 couples who have met on that trip and later married. “Nice,” he commented.

“I can’t count how many times he has traveled to Europe with groups of students—too many times to count ... ,” said Brouwer, one of the many faculty and other mentors who have accompanied Nielsen to the Continent. “When he’s gone to Berlin, or when he’s going on an interim trip, he’s seen all of this before, but I think he enjoys seeing the students see this for the first time.”

Provided they can keep up with him, said engineering department chair Leonard De Rooy, who has also made the Europe trip: “There are several times when the whole gang of students have a hard time keeping up with old Prof. Nielsen,” De Rooy said. “Nielsen is so excited to take them to the next location that he walks quickly.”

The engineering summer program is a more recent international innovation, featuring one week of study at Calvin and seven in Germany. Nielsen launched the course in 2006 in Bremen with 13 students. Last summer, more than 30 Calvin student engineers signed up to study German language and Engineering 202, “Statics and Dynamics,” at the University of Berlin. “It’s fun,” Nielsen said. “In Germany, you only teach four days a week, so we have three-day weekends to tour around.” The students sample German culture, tour engineering firms and visit Heidelberg, Klön, Koblenz, Hamburg, Dresden and other places.

Amy Ball took part in the summer program in 2008, though originally she didn’t want to go. A Grand Rapids native, Ball was studying electrical engineering at Calvin, and she didn’t like wandering too far from her home perch. “I’d always been scared of going out of the country, for one,” she said. After considerable persuasion by Nielsen, Ball consented to a summer abroad. She lived in the Teerhof on the banks of the River Weser, studied at the University of Bremen, sampled the local bratwurst and pig’s knuckle, and listened to the band playing by the river on Saturday mornings. She worshipped at All Saints Church (and tried to discern which of the nail holes was Luther’s). The trip had a long-lasting effect: “I was always a shy person, and it helped me become less shy and more outgoing,” Ball said.

The trip also had a lasting effect on her résumé, which upon her graduation bore a line reading: “Bachelor of Science in Engineering; Universität Bremen. “In every single interview I had, they asked me about that experience,” Ball said. “It not only stands out that you have international experience, it really stands out that you’re outgoing … . It says you have experience acclimating to different cultures. When you start a new job, there’s going to be that. You’re going to have to show that you can acclimate to fit in. And it shows that.”

Ball followed up the summer program with an internship at Johnson Controls, testing Bluetooth technology. She was hired just prior to her Calvin graduation by Texas Instruments, a job she selected over two other job offers. “I had gone to school close to home, had been close to home all my life, and I thought it was time for me to branch out and go somewhere else,” she said. Now Ball helps other Calvin students get jobs at TI.

The summer program is one way Calvin’s student engineers can squeeze an international experience into their packed schedules. They can also opt for one of the college’s four international engineering interims: “Transforming Cambodia,” “China Business and Engineering,” “Dutch Landscapes” and the Europe interim. They can also take an international internship or the Semester in the Netherlands.

By combining two of those opportunities, a Calvin student engineer can earn an international designation on his or her résumé. “The international degree designation in our program makes us unique among colleges,” said De Rooy. “We’re getting students because of the international designation.”

In fact, said De Rooy, all of Calvin’s international programs for engineers are attractive to prospective students. The engineering department currently enrolls 143 first-year students. “Ninety percent of those will graduate from Calvin College, De Rooy said of the incoming class. (Calvin’s overall average retention rate is 86.2 percent.) “About 50 to 60 percent of them will graduate in engineering,” he added. There are 370 students enrolled in the engineering department.

Much of the department’s success is due to the international programs pioneered by Nielsen, who is hoping to retire this year. “We’d have to replace him with two or three people to get all of the work done … ,” De Rooy said, “and he’s pretty humble about it, too.” His many efforts on behalf of Calvin’s student engineers earned Nielsen the 2011 Advising and Mentoring Award bestowed by the provost’s office.  

Ball said she’s grateful that Nielsen coaxed her into seeing a wider world. “He’s a great professor,” she said. “It will be kind of sad to see him leave Calvin because he’s helped a ton of students, not just me, on how to get an internship and do well.”

His motivation isn’t complicated, Nielsen said: “You know, you have a chance to do something nice for somebody, why not? And I’m thankful the Lord has given me this opportunity. And I’m thankful the college has given me this opportunity.”