The long-awaited semester abroad program for civil and environmental engineering students at the Steger Center for International Scholarship in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, is finally under way. Initially planned for the spring of 2020, the program had to be canceled because of the pandemic.

“It's wonderful to have this program in place after so much planning. The students are very excited to get to live and explore European engineering firsthand,” said Lindy Cranwell, the department’s director of international education and a Global Engagement Faculty Fellow in Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering.

While the primary objective is for course credit in civil engineering, the study abroad experience allows students to experience new places and cultures and gain a global perspective. Intercultural communication, adaptability to new workplace environments, and problem-solving are all skills that will serve them for a lifetime in their careers and beyond.

Roberto Leon, the Charles E. Via Jr. Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, leads the program and is co-teaching with retired professor Vickie Mouras in the picturesque location. Marta Perez, a Ph.D. student in civil and environmental engineering, is working at the Steger Center this fall and plays a pivotal role in assisting faculty and students with excursions and field trips. Her support extends to various aspects of the students' experience, ensuring they have a smooth and enriching time abroad. Perez is also a valuable member of the student care team, contributing to the well-being and comfort of all students at the Steger Center.

The Steger Center is hosting students from five departments this fall, making it a hub for diverse cultural exchanges and academic interactions. Students majoring in political science, architecture, geosciences, food science and technology, and human nutrition, foods, and exercise also are studying at the same location. Exposure to a variety of perspectives and experiences is a valuable part of the students' educational journey.


Civil and environmental engineering students at the Steger Center attend a presentation by geosciences students on how local soil and rock conditions influence the flavor of wine. Photo courtesy of Roberto Leon.

The Charles E. Via, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering sent eight undergraduate students, who are enrolled in three of the department's required courses on materials, structural engineering, and bridges. Additionally, students can choose a fourth course, either from those taught at the Steger Center or any online courses from Virginia Tech. These courses provide an opportunity to learn about civil engineering topics in the backdrop of an international setting.

“It's exciting to see the students add a picture of a bridge, or other structure, to the WhatsApp feed and ask the faculty member a specific question about it as they travel around in their free time. I can see the impact this program is having on their thinking as engineers,” said Cranwell.

“In an era when repair and maintenance of civil infrastructure are critical topics of civil and environmental engineers, it's important for our students to see how other countries do it,” said Leon. “In our case, students have the ability to travel broadly to many countries near the Steger Center and share stories of what they have seen and experienced throughout Europe and beyond.”

One notable aspect of the program is the inclusion of a laboratory-based course, Construction Materials. To facilitate this, the department is using lab space at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland. This hands-on experience enables students to apply their theoretical knowledge to practical experiments and gain a deeper understanding of the course content. The class recently did a concrete mix lab experiment and used a mix made from ash from Swiss power plants and recycled pavement aggregates. The lab aimed to reduce the use of cement, and reuse materials from older pavements.

“Students are getting to visit world-class research facilities at other universities to see how different the European university system is,” said Leon. “I believe the students’ eyes have been opened to the importance of basic research and development to the competitive world construction market.”

Some of the facilities are world-renowned including the largest centrifuge in Europe, used to test soil models at ETH Zurich, a federal institution of the Swiss government. Students also got to use the largest shake table for seismic testing in Europe at EUCentre at Pavia, where the largest bridge bearings in Europe are qualified.

All of these academic activities are complemented by cultural experiences, such as trips to medieval castles in Bellinzona, a fossil museum at Melide, and the abbey at Pavia (Certosa di Pavia).

“Studying abroad has been a life-changing opportunity,” said senior civil and environmental engineering student Mollie Dickler. “One of my favorite parts is getting to visit bridges and structures that we learn about in the classroom. This hands-on experience has enriched my education in ways a traditional classroom setting could not.”  

The first semester-abroad program at the Steger Center for civil and environmental engineering students is proving to be a transformative experience. With a blend of rigorous academics, practical experiences, and cultural exposure, it represents a significant milestone in students' educational journeys.

Find more information online about how to apply for the fall 2024 study abroad program. 

Share this story