On a recent Friday, more than 40 graduate alumni and current graduate students gathered to celebrate a program many of them called life changing, and to salute the person who launched it more than 15 years ago.

The occasion was a belated 15th anniversary of the Graduate School's Global Perspectives Program (GPP), which offers students the opportunity to visit and study universities in Switzerland, Italy, Germany, and France each summer. While the trips include visits to historic and scenic sites, their primary focus is researching trends and issues in higher education.

Vice President and Dean for Graduate Education Karen P. DePauw developed the GPP program in 2005 as part of her landmark Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) initiative. She took the first group of scholars to Switzerland in 2006.

“Our goal was to prepare globally aware future faculty by extending their knowledge and understanding about higher education primarily in the European context,” DePauw said about establishing GPP, which has since expanded to include visits to universities in Chile and Ecuador. “The Global Perspectives Program enables graduate students to examine differences in academic practices and to develop innovative and effective approaches that foster international awareness and education.”  

The number of participating European universities has grown to nine over the years, spanning four countries. During their European tour, the graduate students visit universities and institutions and participate in workshops with students, faculty, and administrators at each. The GPP alumni said their experiences were, indeed, transformative.

Adam Phillips, an assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering at Washington State University who earned a Ph.D. in civil engineering, said his trip in 2015 was his first time abroad. When he started graduate school, he planned on a career in industry. “This trip changed my trajectory.” 

Deborah McGlynn, a Ph.D. candidate in environmental engineering and a member of the 2019 cohort, and other alumni said the trip prompted them to think deeply about what they planned to do with their lives. “It made me rethink where I wanted to go with my career,” said McGlynn.

The first GPP cohort in 2006 comprised 10 students, including Kayenda Johnson, LaChelle Waller, and Drew Lichtenberger, who attended the reunion. Lichtenberger, founder of Prepare a Future, said the first GPP crew called DePauw Mother Goose “because she always had a gaggle of graduate students in tow.” The gaggle has grown larger since that first trip.

To date, more than 250 graduate students have participated, representing all of the university’s colleges. In addition to the European program, DePauw has taken cohorts to Chile and to Ecuador.

Students who complete two Graduate School courses: Preparing the Future Professoriate and Pedagogical Practices in Contemporary Contexts are eligible to apply for the program. They must submit an application and an essay about their reasons for wanting to participate and how the experience will be useful to them as a future faculty member. The Graduate School, with the help of Virginia Tech donors, covers the majority of students’ expenses so cost does not prohibit participating in the experience.

Once selected, students attend tri-weekly meetings throughout the spring semester. The trips generally take place during the last week of May and the first week of June. Virginia Tech’s Steger Center for International Scholarship in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, serves as a base camp for the GPP students during the summer program. 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.

Scholars keep journals during the trip and are encouraged to share their adventures and insights on social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. In addition to the group project, each student also must research and develop an individual capstone project. For several years, they have presented their findings at the Swiss Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Several students noted that they use what they experienced to shape their own work as faculty members. Erin Lavender-Stott earned a Ph.D. in human development and is an assistant professor at South Dakota State University and a member of the 2015 cohort. She said many of the students at her university are first generation and have never left the region.

“I teach a family policy class. A lot of the first-generation students cannot afford to do study abroad, so I teach from a global perspective around child care and parental leave. They tell me frequently how amazed they are to learn about all these various countries’ culture and policies and how different they are from their lives in the Midwest,” Lavender-Stott said. “Teaching this content after having multiple discussions with fellow GPPers about childcare at the universities we visited in Switzerland, Italy, and Ecuador is amazing and allows me to bring my experiences to the classroom in unique ways.”

Michel Vargas, a 2015 alumnus from Ecuador who earned a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering and participated in the 2014 trip, now teaches at two universities. He said “It has left a profound mark on me. … That experience impacted my whole life. I try to teach my students why it is important to be a citizen of the world.”

Kim Carlson, an associate professor of practice in management at the Pamplin College of Business, who participated in GPP in 2009, said she taught study abroad courses for Virginia Tech in large part because of her experience with the Global Perspectives Program. “GPP gave me the confidence I needed to take students abroad.”

The Graduate School originally planned to hold the reunion in 2020, but the pandemic made that impossible. The 2020 and 2021 GPP cohorts also were unable to travel to Europe because of the pandemic. In May, DePauw arranged for a virtual GPP experience, with faculty and students from partner universities in Europe interacting with the GPP scholars via Zoom. Attending Zoom sessions instead of traveling did not lessen the program’s impact, according to Renata Carneiro, a member of the 2020 cohort. She earned her master’s degree at Virginia Tech from 2014-16, then left to work in industry. She returned to pursue a Ph.D. in food science and technology, and “to see if I could fit in the academy. I knew I fit in Industry.” She said the GPP experience, even virtually, was “mind blowing.”

As alumni recounted key moments of their experiences, many noted that the discussions with their fellow scholars were among the most important and lasting memories. Scholars found themselves gathering to talk on trains, over coffee, first thing in the morning and well into the evenings, in addition to group discussions.

“The conversations were the best part,” said Jess Kozarek, a research associate at the University of Minnesota St. Anthony Falls Laboratory who earned a Ph.D. in biological systems engineering and participated in the 2008 trip.

“I remember sitting around and talking at the Villa,” said David Kniola, assistant professor in the School of Education and a member of the 2007 cohort. “Wherever we were, the conversations were so rich and deep.”

Michelle Soledad, an assistant professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato, who earned a Ph.D. in engineering education, was a member of the 2015 Europe and 2018 Ecuador cohorts. She said the GPP experience and the conversations created opportunities for the Virginia Tech scholars to “get out of our comfort zone.” The experience also highlighted the global nature of her field, she added.

Kayenda Johnson, who earned a doctorate in industrial and systems engineering and is now a human-centered design specialist of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, was in the 2006 cohort and noted the influence of both the GPP experience and DePauw’s advice and guidance. “One of the things I have taken away from TGE and Global Perspectives is that you would say to us, ‘You have agency in the development of your graduate experience.’ The programs showed me what that looks like.”

“I’m so grateful to learn of the value of the TGE/GPP initiatives from the alumni and to know that the experience and the community created have had long lasting impact,” DePauw said. “I’m delighted that the alumni are paying it forward and enriching the lives of others within academia and beyond.”

The alumni also took time to salute DePauw, who retires this year after 19 years at the helm of the Graduate School. She assured the group that GPP will not end when she leaves in August. The incoming dean for graduate education, Aimée Surprenant, will continue the program, DePauw said.

“The Global Perspectives Program remains a unique and wonderful opportunity to increase awareness and understanding of higher education around the world,” DePauw said. “In addition, the Graduate School has established strong relationships with universities in Switzerland, Italy, France, Chile, and Ecuador. Connection and collaboration serve to inform a global perspective of higher education.”

The GPP alumni already are planning to mark the 20th anniversary of the program in 2025. Candice Piercy, a research environmental engineer who earned a Ph.D. in biological systems engineering and was a member of the 2008 cohort, summed up the alumni’s reflections on their GPP research adventures: “It was one of my favorite things that I did in Graduate School.”

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