Evan Czajkowski spent last fall at the Steger Center for International Scholarship in Switzerland, learning about and exploring the countries of Europe, sampling some of the best cheeses and chocolates, and gaining a new perspective on the world. His time there was so impactful that he knew he’d return one day. He just didn’t think it would be so soon after graduating.

Czajkowski, who in May earned a bachelor’s degree in political science with a minor in history, joined Hokies from around the world for a special celebration of Virginia Tech's Sesquicentennial this summer at the university’s European living-learning center. Alumni, current students, faculty members, and administrators joined local residents and friends of the Steger Center for four days filled with activities, including a welcome reception and wine tasting, visits to famous sites across the region, a gala dinner, and a boat tour on Lake Lugano.

“This was an opportunity to showcase the Steger Center and share with the broader Hokie community more about the many exciting programs that take place here,” Executive Director Sara Steinert Borella said. “We also wanted to thank the community of Riva San Vitale for their true hospitality to Virginia Tech over the past 30 years.”

Don Hempson, associate vice president for international affairs, said during the welcome reception that the center is the university’s crown jewel for international engagement. “This is a truly special piece of Virginia Tech — a place for personal and intellectual growth, for exploration and transformation, and for community engagement.”

The center, which opened in 1994, is housed in historic Villa Maderni, a three-story, pale yellow building that dates to the mid-1700s. The main villa, an adjoining library, and former stables, now classroom and studio space, enclose three sides of a gated courtyard. In 2014, a modern classroom and multipurpose dining addition were constructed to serve the program. Frescoes decorate many of the villa’s ceilings and the walls of the central stairwell. Outside, spacious terraced gardens fill the rest of the site, typical of European construction of the period.

For many years, it served as the base for the university’s Center for European Studies and Architecture. In 2014, the center was renamed for former university President Charles Steger in tribute to his vision of broadening the university’s global presence.

Today, the Steger Center, part of Outreach and International Affairs, serves as Virginia Tech’s primary European campus, providing a base of operations for numerous international education programs. Students live and study in the center while participating in a wide range of semesterlong or summer programs at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

“We help students from any major gain a global perspective and intercultural competencies that will give them an edge in their future endeavors at home and abroad. Our students engage locally to make the most of their study abroad experience. Whether through project-based learning, directed research projects, or engagement with the area’s schools or sports clubs, we work to help them learn to be at home here in Riva San Vitale,” Steinert Borella said.

The center also serves as the European base for the Center for European Union, Transatlantic, and Trans-European Space Studies, a Jean Monnet Center for Excellence, and supports its research and pedagogical aims. The Steger Center collaborates to host international workshops and conferences on behalf of Virginia Tech and interested faculty members.

During the sesquicentennial celebration, Steinert Borella and her staff showed off recent renovations to the villa, including new furniture in student bedrooms, new lighting, the creation of a “living room” space on the second floor, and quiet study room on the third.

“So much of the work we did was to foster community within the center while also providing quiet spaces where students can retreat when they need to unplug,” said Liza Morris, assistant vice president for planning and university architect.

She said the renovations are an appropriate balance of very high-quality preservation techniques to maintain the villa’s historic character and new construction techniques to address lighting, electrical, plumbing, and ventilation concerns. “We worked hard to ensure the work we did was compatible with the existing architecture, remained true to its cultural heritage, and concurrently supported the center’s goals.”

Before the gala dinner, a feast prepared by the center’s own chefs, Executive Vice Provost G. Don Taylor offered a snapshot of Virginia Tech’s history, and Rosemary Blieszner, interim dean of the College of Architecture, Arts, and Design, delivered a sesquicentennial toast.

Guru Ghosh, vice president for Outreach and International Affairs, talked about the importance of ensuring that all students, regardless of financial circumstances, are able to study abroad. “The incredible experiences Hokies have at places such as the Steger Center truly are life-changing. Virginia Tech programs abroad are among the most affordable you can find, but there is still work to be done to remove the barriers to these opportunities.”

Two women standing and talking to each other
Rosemary Blieszner (right), interim dean of the College of Architecture, Arts, and Design, talks with Farida Jalalzai, associate dean for global initiatives and engagement in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, inside the Steger Center. Photo by Jacopo Martinoni for Virginia Tech.

Czajkowski, who participated in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences’ European Affairs in a Global Context program during the fall 2021 semester, was on the committee that helped plan the sesquicentennial celebration. He said he wants to help spread the word about what a special place the center is.

“The Steger Center and Riva San Vitale are wonderfully quaint places that I will forever cherish,” he said. “I wish more people knew how tightknit the residents of the Steger Center become. The programs based at the Steger Center pride themselves on their sense of community, so everyone involved becomes well acquainted with one another.”

Ally Shaffer, who is set to graduate in May with degrees in communication science and social inquiry as well as national security and foreign affairs, returned for the sesquicentennial after studying there last year with Czajkowski. “I think more Hokies should study abroad simply because of the knowledge you gain,” she said. “You learn so much in your program just being able to do different things than you would be able to do back in Blacksburg, and you also grow independently and expand your travel knowledge, which is a great lifelong skill set.”

Kay Winzenried, who earned a bachelor’s degree in clothing and textiles in 1972 and has been a longtime supporter of the center, said it is a place of personal and professional growth and learning like no other in the university. “All you have to do is listen to students talk about how a semester here changed their lives and perspectives,” she said. “It prepares them to be accomplished citizens of the world.”

Study abroad fair set for Sept. 21

The Global Education Fall Fair will return to the Drillfield this fall. The fair, an annual tradition that helps students learn about the global experiences available at the Steger Center and around the world, will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 21.

The fair will include more than 70 information tables on faculty-led and third-party opportunities for students to travel or study abroad. Past and current exchange students will be on hand to share and answer questions about their respective programs.

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