What makes a community? It’s a seemingly simple question that architecture students in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, as well as some of their peers in the Presidential Global Scholars (PGS) program, unpack as they spend the semester at the Steger Center for International Scholarship in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland.

Students find community in multiple layers. The first is the personal and professional relationships they build within the Steger Center. Fifty-four students from different academic programs, research interests, and backgrounds live together in the renovated 18th century villa. They share small classrooms and study spaces, eat delicious meals prepared on-site, and live in dorms and nearby apartments. They make plans to celebrate each other’s birthdays and special events, plot weekend travel plans, and develop lasting friendships.

Academic study is central to the internal community as well. Because the students spend so much time together, they invariably learn from each other’s work, research, and intellectual perspectives. Additionally, faculty members Paul Heilker and Heinrich Schnoedt — through a Faculty Teaching Group Grant from the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning — offer a lecture series that provides a more comprehensive understanding of Riva and the local Ticino culture. This orientation gives students the opportunity to see how their colleagues from diverse academic disciplines process and interpret the same new experiences.

College of Architecture and Urban Studies students working in a classroom in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland
The Steger Center's 18th century villa seamlessly melds traditional architecture and design with modern spaces for student work. Here, students work on projects in the architecture studio. Photo by Phil Miskovic for Virginia Tech.

The lecture series also serves as a gateway for the second level of community: full immersion in and service to Riva San Vitale. The small lakeside community of about 2,000 residents bustles with activity during the summer months, but it is more tranquil and subdued during the academic year.

Students offer a “ciao” or “buongiorno” to the locals they pass in the street. Now experts in local cheeses and chocolates, they buy snacks in the nearby grocery store — and they have memorized the hours of operation, which include a midday closure for lunch. One student joined a local basketball team, and others play at the local table tennis club. Recently, students celebrated carnivale with the local community, where they ate “chicken and fries” at a nearby church. One student described the event as “something like a Rotary Club dinner. It just had that small-town feel to it, like we were part of the community.”

In the spirit of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), the Steger Center students share their time and talents with the  community through service projects. Students practice English with the same local children who smile and wave as they pass through the villa’s garden path every day.

Elle Smith, a philosophy, politics, and economics major in the PGS program, described how environmental cleanup projects have turned into lifelong friendships with local residents. “We hike all day looking at amazing views, or put on waders to go into Lake Lugano and collect trash to clean the environment. We often stumble upon World War II ruins and find history all around us. At the end of the day, the Ticinines welcome us with coffee and stories. We all reflect on the day and exchange customs back and forth as we listen to popular songs. These friends who can communicate by service are what have built both my professional and social relationships.”

For architecture students, coursework also is tied to service. They design municipal projects beneficial to the town and plan to present their work to the community during a public event at the end of the semester.

Sara Steinert Borella, executive director of the Steger Center, described the tradition of opening Villa Maderni to members of the community for the end-of-term exhibition. The mayor, the members of the city council, and other partners will visit the center April 29-30 to view the students' work. She said, “The spring 2022 show features projects that reimagine the relationship between the lake and the town. We can’t wait to see the exhibit and to join the subsequent conversations with the members of our extended Steger Center community.”

Though classes are held in the villa, Riva San Vitale is a launch pad for the third level of community. Students incorporate their own design, policy, and practice research into a global context. Through international travel, on-site research, and further immersion, students experience firsthand what it means to be members of the global community.

By car, Riva is only 39 miles from the center of Milan (roughly the same distance as Blacksburg to Roanoke). But students generally hop aboard the convenient and efficient European train system, with a station just blocks from the villa and trains to Milan departing every hour. From there, the rest of Europe is just a train or budget airline ticket away.

Jamal Ross, a political science major in PGS, summed up the experience this way: “Coming together with more than 50 Hokies from varying backgrounds and working together every day has been such an amazing experience. Developing connections with visiting faculty and locals in different countries has allowed for a worldwide network I may not have created if not for this study-abroad experience.”

Two students sit together outside in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland.
PGS students Jamal Ross and Elle Smith enjoy a moment in the Steger Center villa's garden. Photo by Phil Miskovic for Virginia Tech.

The Steger Center experience includes faculty-led trips across Europe that amplify and contextualize classroom lessons. With weekends and the occasional longer break, students also have ample time to supplement their experience with independent trips and activities. Architecture students see firsthand some of the oldest and most iconic structures of the continent and draw inspiration for their own designs.

For PGS students, the semester culminates in a research project on global value. One student is comparing costs of EpiPens in the United States and in European nations and the reasons behind the variations; another is examining education systems in Nordic countries compared with Virginia. Global immersion allows for this comparative study.

Josie Rao is an Environmental Science major in the PGS program. She described how her cultural immersion overlaps with her research. “When you live in Europe, you naturally start to compare your experiences to your experiences in America. So, it’s really rewarding to research a topic you are passionate about while being immersed in the culture you are comparing.”

For students at the Steger Center, part of Outreach and International Affairs, the semester is more than a standard study abroad.  It’s about developing personal and professional relationships with peers; giving back to the small town that welcomes Virginia Tech; and learning how the design, policy, and practice they study fits into a broader global context. 

Sophia Campana, a PGS student, said, “The flexible nature of the program lets me research what I’m passionate about. I’ve learned so much from the faculty, staff, and my classmates, both PGS and architecture students. When we come together to share our perspectives and learn from each other, we can meaningfully experience and truly understand our place in the world.”

Written by Phil Miskovic

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