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Engineering student who is grandmother will study in Switzerland

  • headshot: Andrea Schwallier

Posted on May 18, 2018

Starting another degree three decades after being in a college classroom would be difficult for anyone. 

For Andrea Schwallier, pursuing a second bachelor's degree also means juggling her family responsibilities with courses in electrical and computer engineering and a summer co-op position at X-Rite Inc., where she works as a product tester. 

This summer, the mother to five children and grandmother to three, is headed to Switzerland for a study abroad program; it will be Schwallier's first time overseas. She'll return to Zurich for the fall semester.

"This is not the course I thought I would be taking with my life, but it's fun," she said.

Thirty years ago, Schwallier graduated from Grand Valley with a biology degree. She was soon married and raising a family and thoughts of going to graduate school slipped away. With her youngest child now firmly entrenched in high school, Schwallier revisited the idea of earning another degree that would put her in the workforce fast.

She took CNC machine courses at the Geek Group, a nonprofit organization in Grand Rapids, and finished a welding class at Grand Rapids Community College. "It seemed if I were going to do this, I should go full time," she said.

She re-enrolled at Grand Valley and soon found herself in introductory engineering courses. After learning about a two-week computing and information systems summer course at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences, Schwallier began researching if it was financially doable.

"The staff in Padnos International Center kept saying, 'Don't worry about the money,' there are scholarships and other forms of assistance," she said. 

Schwallier applied for numerous scholarships and was one of five students who earned a Mark A. & Elizabeth C. Murray Scholarship, awarded to students who want to study abroad but would not be able to do so without financial assistance. She also received the Thomas and Joyce Wisner Engineering Scholarship and the James B. Miller Endowed Engineering Scholarship.

"I really appreciate the scholarships because I'll need to cover housing, plane tickets and food," she said.

After the two-week course Schwallier, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder, will finish her co-op at X-Rite then plans to return to Zurich University for the fall semester. "Because I have ASD, I wanted to go with other students first to help me feel comfortable in the city, learn the bus system and the university," she said.

Lindsay Corneal, associate professor of engineering, said it can be difficult for engineering students to study abroad because the program requires three co-op semesters. She added Schwallier is the type of student who makes the most of opportunities.

"Andrea is a great example of a student who knew she wanted to have a study abroad experience and worked with her faculty and advisors to make it work," Corneal said. "Because of her willingness to push herself beyond her comfort zone, I think she will greatly benefit from participating in the study abroad program."

In addition to engineering courses, Schwallier said she's looking forward to learning more about Switzerland's culture.

"Switzerland has a great sense of community involvement that I really admire. I would like to learn how they do what they do and bring that back to my circle of influence," she said.