Established in 1824, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) is the oldest technological university in the English-speaking world and the western hemisphere. It has long been a leader in science, technology, and engineering. Among its faculty members and alumni are a Nobel Prize winner, six members of the US National Inventors Hall of Fame, six winners of the National Medal of Technology, and five of the National Medal of Science. It has a particularly illustrious history in civil engineering, awarding the first ever degrees in the subject in the US back in 1835, and subsequently expanding its range of subjects so that it features 37 different departments today.
RPI also has a long history of admitting Chinese students. The first two from Guangzhou enrolled as long ago as the fall of 1878; their names were phonetically recorded as Wing Chung Pawn and Kwok S Lo. The latter went on to have an illustrious history, returning to China in 1881 armed with the civil engineering knowledge he had picked up at the university. He used it to make significant contributions to the country’s development, working on its highway building program. As late as 1928, his contribution was highlighted by the China Monthly Trade Report, which said he had ranked as “one of China’s foremost foreign trained engineers” at the time, as a member of one of the first groups of students to return after studying abroad in the US.
To this day, Chinese students continue to make up a large proportion of the international applications that RPI receives: more than half of them in most years, sometimes adding up to more than 2,000 applicants!
The school has an impressive history of inclusivity. In 1890, it became home to one of the earliest branches of the Club Hispano Americano, the first organization for Latin American students at an American university.
However, the reasons Chinese students are often attracted to RPI go far beyond its history. The university is a thriving research hub to this day. It has 34 research centers, receives more than $100 million in research funding each year, and allows more than 900 students to take up undergraduate research. Students can start research as early as the second semester of their first year – an opportunity they’d be unlikely to get at many other universities until they’re graduate students. They’re encouraged to explore research opportunities within their major and further afield.
The university’s leading areas of focus include Energy, Environment, and Smart Systems; Biotechnology and Life Sciences; Media, Arts, Science and Technology; Computational Science and Engineering; and Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials – but there are also numerous others.
RPI offers an immersive learning environment within its campus, but the university also offers immersive learning opportunities elsewhere. They include field research, opportunities to study abroad, internships – usually over the summer – and co-ops, or six to eight-month paid experiential learning experiences. An RPI program – known as The Arch – provides a built-in opportunity for students to complete at least one co-op or extended internship. The university has extensive connections to the industry: top co-op employers include the likes of IBM, Cisco, Johnson & Johnson, and the Nasa Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The university also has a particularly stellar reputation for encouraging and helping to develop its students’ entrepreneurial leanings. All students can take advantage of the university’s Severino Center for Technological Entrepreneurship, which offers to coach and mentor student start-up businesses, connecting them to networks and resources; while they also have access to a variety of maker spaces.
RPI students have gone on to set up a range of innovative start-up businesses. For example, in 2009, alumnus R J Scaringe set up the electric vehicle maker Rivian, a challenger to Tesla that has raised over $13.5 billion in its November 2021 IPO, and was commissioned in 2019 by Amazon to build 100,000 battery-powered delivery vans by 2030.
RPI also attracts students thanks to its attractive campus, located at the top of a hill next to the city of Troy, part of New York state’s Capital District, along with the nearby cities of Schenectady and Albany, the state capital. The area is renowned for the richness of its culture, with a multitude of events, plus dining and shopping options. It’s also just three hours from cities including New York, Boston, and Montreal, and within about an hour of four different mountain ranges.
With a history of educating students from China that stretches back into the 19th century, RPI is a college that understands their needs. Add in its focus on research from undergraduate level and on learning through experience, along with its extensive support for entrepreneurialism, and you have a university that continues to be one of the most popular options among Chinese students looking to study in the US.
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