Until this week, 12 Peruvian engineering students had never set foot on the University of Central Florida campus, but on Saturday they will graduate as full-fledged Knights in a first-of-its-kind international partnership for the university.

The extraordinary program through UCF’s College of Engineering & Computer Science began two years ago in partnership with the Universidad San Ignacio de Loyola in Lima, Peru, and is graduating its inaugural cohort – seven men and five women.

Charles Reilly, associate dean for the College of Engineering & Computer Science, hopes this will be the first of many groups of international students to earn a bachelor’s in industrial engineering from UCF in their home country. While other UCF programs provide courses abroad, this is the first program that offers all upper-level classes for a major in a foreign country.

Students such as Valeria Laynes jumped at the chance to receive her engineering degree from an American university.

“UCF’s professors practically brought UCF to us,” said the 20-year-old industrial engineer, student athlete (she plays basketball at USIL) and employee of IBM. “I am really overwhelmed. I cannot express how happy I am to be graduating from this university.”

The students will arrive on campus beginning on Wednesday and Thursday and for the first time will walk the halls thousands of Knights see daily. On Friday, they will officially tour the campus, and on Saturday, they will receive their degrees along with 3,500 other graduates at summer commencement.

“It’s an incredible group of very bright, very dedicated students,” Reilly said. “The fact that all 12 are coming for commencement, I’m blown away. It’s fantastic how proud they are to be UCF Knights.”

Four years ago, USIL’s former president reached out to Reilly and suggested a meeting and an idea. His country was in need of industrial engineers. Could his university work with UCF to graduate industrial engineering students in an international program?

“My first reaction was, ‘He has got to be kidding,’” Reilly said.

But then, USIL’s leader detailed the university’s other partnerships: Broward College in Ft. Lauderdale offers an associate of arts degree; the University of South Florida in Tampa offers a bachelor of science in business administration, and the University of Houston has a bachelor of science in hospitality management.

“Suddenly, it became very possible. I realized that Broward would teach all the lower-level courses we needed, things like composition, calculus and science. All we had to worry about was the upper level engineering classes. It could be done just working within our college. That’s when it became a very real possibility,” Reilly said.

It took two years to work out the details, financials, permissions and logistics with the Lima university and UCF’s regional accreditation agency. USIL’s Center for Global Education was attractive because it emphasizes a fully bilingual education with program-specific courses in English.

USIL’s bilingual students received their associate degrees from Broward College, then transferred to UCF and finished their core UCF courses in industrial engineering at CGE.

In the spring of 2015, UCF held its first class at USIL. The commitment of USIL’s new leadership and the center’s director and staff made what seemed like just a dream into a UCF opportunity, said Reilly.

No engineering program is for the easily dissuaded. One course each semester was offered as distance-learning by a UCF faculty member. Six of the face-to-face courses were offered in an accelerated format so UCF faculty could teach them in Lima during summer break.

“The program was hard,” acknowledged Laynes. “We had no time to sleep. All we did was study, read chapters, do our homework – and about half of us play sports – it was overwhelming. We had to learn how to organize ourselves, work together. But we did it.”

UCF industrial engineering faculty traveled to Lima to teach nine engineering courses required in the program. USIL also hired qualified, English-speaking engineering faculty who meet UCF requirements to teach nine other courses.

“These students perform like American honors students,” Reilly said. “They are very driven, engaged. As a result, our faculty couldn’t be more excited to teach them. We were trying something new, but our faculty love doing it and were treated very well by the students and USIL.”

Jorge Flavio Sarmiento, 21, said he plans on going to UCF for his master’s, probably next year. “It’s been a very good experience for me,” he said.

But for now, he can’t get to UCF fast enough. He’s making the trek from Lima to Orlando with his mother and aunt, whom he said “are so excited and very proud.”

“I visited Orlando three times in my life, but never went to the UCF campus,” Sarmiento said. “I realize that in doing this international program, I have perhaps missed the whole student-life experience. I want to live, for at least a few days, a slice of that student life.”

Reilly said he hopes this is the first of many other opportunities with USIL and other international partners.

Laynes has another suggestion.

“I think UCF should send their students here to Peru,” she said. “This way they can relate more with us and see our culture. They could see that while it is really different here, we want to work as hard as they do. The 12 of us, we are really eager to show the world all that we have learned at UCF.”

Waldemar Karwowski, chair of Industrial Engineering and Management Systems at UCF, agreed.

“Valeria’s suggestion is a good one. We would like to see reciprocal student exchanges between Lima and Orlando,” he said.

And, having worked closely with the Peruvian students, he thinks UCF could take it even further.

“Another goal is to have multinational teams of students working together on their senior engineering design projects,” he added.