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The Steger Center pictured against a hill of trees
The Steger Center for International Scholarship in Switzerland is Virginia Tech’s European campus center and base for operations and support of its programs in the region.

Expanding horizons

Summer trip lets graduate students explore different approaches to higher education

Each summer for the past 14 years, a group of graduate students has embarked on a global research adventure that alumni have called mind-blowing, challenging, and fun. 

The Global Perspectives Program, launched in 2006, is an interdisciplinary program that allows participants to explore differences in academic practices and higher-education issues through collaboration with students, faculty, and administrators at universities and technical institutes in Switzerland, Italy, France, and Germany. 

Students must complete two graduate courses — Preparing the Future Professoriate and Pedagogical Practices in Contemporary Contexts — before they can apply for the program, which includes seminars in Blacksburg during the spring and a 10-day trip to Europe in the summer. To help minimize the cost for participants, the Graduate School covers the majority of expenses.

In each country, students visit universities and other higher-education institutions, participate in research discussions and presentations, and develop their own research projects.

 “It’s not like going to Zurich for a day,” said industrial and systems engineering doctoral alumnus Greg Purdy, a member of the 2015 group. “We’re going to all different types of universities and institutions.”

Vice President and Dean for Graduate Education Karen P. DePauw, who developed the program, said students talk with academic administrators, faculty members, and students at each institution. “We tour the universities and explore labs, classrooms, libraries, and other spaces — especially those that have been adapted for new technologies and ways of teaching,” she said.

Students on a cathedral roof
Students stop for a photo atop the Milan Cathedral.

Exploration and research

Virginia Tech’s Steger Center for International Scholarship in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, serves as a base camp for the students. In addition to the visits to universities, the students explore cities and towns, museums, and castles and learn about the regions’ culture, history, and politics.

They keep journals and write about their observations and personal reflections in addition to their group and individual research. 

Since 2010, participants have collaborated with students at the University of Basel in Switzerland on research projects exploring higher-education issues with global impact. The students present their work each summer at the Swiss Embassy in Washington. 

Expanding beyond Europe

DePauw said the program has attracted the attention of universities across the United States. Several have modeled their own programs on Virginia Tech’s. 

In 2012, DePauw led a group of students to Chile for a weeklong program visiting three universities. And in 2016, she added a fall experience, with students visiting universities and technical institutions in Ecuador, including a trip to the Galapagos Islands.

Participants spent time with faculty and students at the University of San Francisco, Quito, and talked about how that university serves students living in the Galapagos with both on-site and online classes. 

Computer science doctoral alumnus Mohammed Seyam said he was struck by the different focus of education in the Galapagos. “The relationship was not between students and industry — it’s the students and their environment, the surroundings, what they get from that and what they put back into it.” 

Civil and environmental engineering alumna Emily Garner said that perspective extended to faculty, noting how a water quality scientist viewed her work. “Her research was really shaped by finding better ways to address problems with limited resources. She was very aware of how her research could benefit the community and the people.”

A life-changing experience

DePauw said the program exemplifies the key aims of a transformative graduate education experience. “The GPP scholars enhance their knowledge and understanding of global higher education, gain a cultural understanding of diverse contexts in the field, engage with new colleagues across academic disciplines, and grow personally and professionally through shared experiences,” she said.

Purdy said participants have described it as life-changing. “They all say they learned a lot and they can’t really quantify the experience. You learn about culture, society politics — pretty much everything.”