Virginia Tech’s global impact: Dropping in on Hokies studying and working around the world
It’s barely 3 a.m. in Blacksburg, but sophomore Alex Lilly is already heading out the door.
Every Tuesday morning, she volunteers with a nonprofit that helps vulnerable and marginalized populations in the city where she lives. Some days, the environmental science major is distributing food on the street. Other days, she’s assisting refugees.
On this particular Tuesday, Oct. 17, she starts her day at a public park, filling bags with sandwiches and salads, bananas and hard-boiled eggs. After about half an hour, she meets up with other volunteers to hand out the food.
She winds her way out of Parc Albert Schweitzer, past the Gare de Lyon, along the Seine, and across the 4th and 12th arrondissements of Paris — just as her watch tips to 9:30 a.m.
Lilly is taking part in a new study abroad program in the French capital. Led by Rebecca Hester, associate professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society, the program focuses on Europe’s role in addressing global population displacement.
Lilly says her volunteer work gives her the opportunity to listen deeply to the people she’s helping and to share stories with her fellow volunteers. “I am constantly gaining new perspectives,” she says. “It is very eye-opening.”
Each year, more than 4,500 Hokies travel abroad to work and study. On any given day, Hokies like Lilly — students and alumni, faculty and staff — are engaging with people in locales well beyond Virginia, working to improve the quality of life and the human condition in communities around the world.
On this particular day, there are at least 236 students, faculty, and staff working and studying abroad — not to mention uncountable alumni and university partners hoisting the maroon and orange around the world.
Today, we’re checking in with some of them.
3:30 a.m., Blacksburg
9:30 a.m., Mendrisio, Switzerland
For example, just as Lilly is heading off to class in Paris, students in a food science study abroad program at the Steger Center for International Scholarship in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, are getting their shoes dirty at a nearby farm.
They’re volunteering at the organic cooperative, getting to know other volunteers, and learning the rhythm of the local ecosystem.
“At the Steger Center,” Executive Director Sara Steinert Borella says, “we help students dig in and engage locally to make the most of their study abroad experience” — whether through project-based learning, directed research projects, or engagement with local schools and sports clubs.
For over 30 years, the Steger Center, part of Outreach and International Affairs, has served as Virginia Tech’s European hub, providing support for programs in the region. So far this year, 734 students have stayed and studied there.
4 a.m., Blacksburg
9 a.m., Lisbon, Portugal
Meanwhile, Madison Cook and her 21 architecture students are arriving after a short walk, a brief Metro ride, and a quick tram trip at Garagem Sul, a gallery next to the Tagus River in Belém.
The students, who are participating in the Architecture Travel Program, are there to see a new exhibition examining Lisbon’s ongoing housing crisis. Cook, visiting assistant professor of practice in the School of Architecture, hopes the experience will show the students that “the work they will do in practice has deep social and political implications.”
In the College of Architecture, Arts, and Design, international experiences are a part of daily life. The college has a long-standing tradition of encouraging students to become global citizens, with over 60 percent of the college’s undergrads studying abroad.
Next stop today, says Cook: the Museum of Art, Architecture, and Technology, itself an excellent architectural case study.
5 a.m., Blacksburg
8 p.m., Sydney
After a full day at the IEEE International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality, a Virginia Tech team of computer science students and faculty members as well as members of the Center for Human-Computer Interaction are celebrating with a dinner cruise in Sydney’s famous harbor.
They’d been worried that a flight delay might prevent visiting scholar Francielly Rodrigues, a Ph.D. student from Brazil, from presenting her work on precise object manipulation techniques in virtual reality. But she made it to Australia with 30 minutes to spare.
“She never missed a beat and gave a great presentation,” Professor Douglas Bowman says.
5:30 a.m., Blacksburg
11:30 a.m., Rome
Faculty members Tom Thompson and Jessica Agnew of CALS Global in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are well into the second day at a different conference, the World Food Forum. They’ve joined thousands of attendees at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s Rome headquarters to learn how agrifood systems transformation is accelerating climate action.
Today, they’re in the organization's massive Red Room to hear a presentation about investment opportunities that will help countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, and Vanuatu tackle climate impacts.
11:30 a.m., Umbria, Italy
The author, poet, and associate professor of English started the day with a late breakfast and an espresso. For the rest of the morning, she’ll tuck in to revise her previous day’s work.
11:30 a.m., Paris
Back in Paris, Alex Lilly and her fellow students are arriving for Rebecca Hester’s class at the Accent Global Study Center, just down the street from the Bastille. They gather in the “Jean d’Arc” classroom to discuss their semester-long research projects.
“Classroom discussions are much different in Paris than Blacksburg because we are able to have a more interactive experience,” says Tess Klinker, a student in the Pamplin College of Business. “Our volunteering and other excursions are an important part in helping us form our ideas.”
6 a.m., Blacksburg
Noon, Riva San Vitale, Switzerland
It’s breakfast time in Blacksburg, but in Switzerland, it’s time for lunch.
Students from five academic programs are sharing a meal in the Steger Center’s dining hall, and there’s a line at the espresso and cappuccino machine. Today, the chefs have prepared a delicious pumpkin risotto.
Later today, the students will come together again for a yoga class in the tree-lined garden, a volleyball game with community members at a nearby school, and then an Italian movie night back at the historic villa.
6 p.m., Mongolia’s Orkhon Valley
After two busy days of meetings with university and nongovernmental organziation leaders in Ulaanbaatar, David Moore is taking time to visit the Orkhon Valley, a vast expanse of central Mongolia. This is the ancient cultural crossroads where Genghis Khan chose to locate Karakorum, the capital of his empire, back in 1220.
Moore, associate director of strategic partnerships at the Institute for Policy and Governance, is pursuing partnership opportunities with the U.N. Association of Mongolia, whose founder, Khishigjargal Enkhbayar, visited Blacksburg in May.
6:30 a.m., Blacksburg
4:30 p.m., Chennai, India
M.K. Padmanabhan, who directs Virginia Tech’s presence in India, is celebrating the graduation of the inaugural cohort of the analytics bootcamp created in partnership with LatentView Analytics, one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing digital analytics firms.
“Our innovative program pairs Virginia Tech’s expertise with that of leading companies in India to equip participants with the skills and knowledge to make a significant impact in the field,” he says.
9:30 p.m., Melbourne
At about the same time, Christian Crawley, a landscape architecture major in the School of Design, has just logged off a Zoom meeting with a classmate to put the finishing touches on a class presentation about their ethnographic research in Melbourne’s suburbs.
The class is at the University of Melbourne, where Crawley has been studying since mid-July. “It’s a hands-on urban ethnography class where we take on a research topic in urban nature or student life and put it into practice,” he says.
He’s been working in the university’s New Student Precinct — “a sort of UniMelb version of Squires,” he says. “With its ground-floor restaurants, a social library on the second and third floors, and a student kitchen with a green roof terrace on the top floor, it is possibly one of my favorite study areas on campus.”
7 a.m., Blacksburg
1 p.m., Copenhagen
Brian Holcombe, the Moss Arts Center’s exhibitions curator, meanwhile, is paying a visit to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, the most visited art museum in Denmark.
Holcombe says he travels extensively and is always looking at art and meeting with artists wherever he goes. This helps him bring a global perspective to the exhibitions in the center’s galleries, which have recently featured artists from Ireland, Malaysia, and South Korea.
8 a.m., Blacksburg
7 p.m., Bangkok
Just as Hokies in Blacksburg are heading to their first classes of the day, Rich Wokutch, professor emeritus in management, is finishing his day in Thailand.
He’s already given two guest lectures today as well as meeting with faculty at Chulalongkorn Business School to discuss incorporating concepts of ethics and sustainability into their courses.
9 p.m., Seoul, South Korea
Senior architecture students Malachi Mercado and Tenny Ros are wrapping up their day, too. Their classes at Hanyang University ended early today, and a classmate has recommended a new spot for Korean barbecue.
“With almost every meal, banchan is served,” Mercado says. “These are typically side dishes included with every meal. Sometimes, it’s just kimchi and pickled radish, but it can be a variety of things.” The spread this evening has some greens, fresh garlic, salt, wasabi, kimchi, and a spicy red paste called ssamjang.
8:30 a.m., Blacksburg
8:30 a.m., Cancun, Mexico
T. David Reed, an Extension specialist with the Southern Piedmont Agricultural Research and Extension Center, is in this city on the Yucatán Peninsula to attend a joint study group conference for tobacco agronomists and pest management specialists.
“This is the first in-person meeting since the COVID pandemic,” he says, “and everyone is glad to once again meet following two years of online meetings.”
9:30 p.m., Tokyo
Meanwhile, Carla Finkielstein is just finishing dinner after a long day of conversations with colleagues gathered in Tokyo for an international conference on MDM2, a gene that plays a deadly role in many cancers.
“The conference was helpful in many ways,” says Finkielstein, a professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC. “A lot of the discussion was novel and unexpected, and it was good to get feedback on our research.”
But it hasn’t been all business. After brainstorming and sharing ideas, she’s taking the long way back to her hotel and soon finds herself at the base of the 2,080-foot Tokyo Skytree, the world’s tallest tower and third tallest structure.
Earlier in the trip, Finkielstein gave an invited talk at Japan’s national Research Center for Cancer Prevention and Screening, took a side trip to Hiroshima, visited a fish market, and enjoyed a meal with Tetsuya Gotoh, her former College of Science postdoctoral researcher. “The sashimi was fantastic,” she says.
9 a.m., Blacksburg
3 p.m., Paris
After grabbing a quick lunch, Hester and her class are meeting up at Le Petit Mitron, where student Tess Klinker is eating “the best croissant I have ever tasted, with exactly 32 layers!”
They’re at the boulangerie to learn from Didier the baker how to make their own chocolate croissants and baguettes. In between explaining how the flour is made and the baguettes are formed, he shares information about the history of food in France.
“How many ingredients,” he asks, “are allowed in a baguette?” (Quatre.)
Criminology student Alyssa Cudanin says she likes being able to go from learning in a classroom to learning in a bakery. “Normally school is all about grades and graduating. Here, it is about that, but it goes about it in such a way that you are less stressed because you are taking time to do things that either get you out of your comfort zone or just bring pure excitement and joy.”
Lilly agrees. “Studying abroad seems scary, and a big jump — which it is — but it is so rewarding.”
10 a.m., Blacksburg
8 p.m., Bogra, Bangladesh
After four days of travel — including a five-hour drive from Dhaka — Maria Elisa Christie has finally arrived at the Uttara Training Institute.
The director of Women and Gender in International Development is in Bangladesh to check in on a project that the Center for International Research, Education, and Development (CIRED) has managed for more than three decades. Its goal is to use integrated pest management measures to prevent the spread of current and emerging threats to crops.
Christie, whose focus is on gender sensitivity in every CIRED project and ensuring that women benefit, will interview women farmers to better understand the long-term gender impacts of the project.
10:50 a.m., Blacksburg
Theresa Johansson, director of the Global Education Office, is early for a meeting with Guru Ghosh, vice president for outreach and international affairs. She’s at his office in Blacksburg to talk about what can be done to persuade more students to study abroad.
She knows one of the biggest hurdles is cost. But, she says, there are study abroad programs for every budget. One of the goals of her office, in fact, is to provide greater transparency about costs so students can plan financially.
Last year alone, Johansson’s office awarded nearly $500,000 in study abroad scholarships, and she hopes to raise funds to increase that number.
And one of the aims of the universitywide Virginia Tech Advantage initiative is to increase resources for transformational learning experiences such as study abroad.
11:10 a.m., Blacksburg
5:10 p.m., Rome
Chloe Gilfoil is visiting Rome’s city center to run some errands and meet a friend for dinner. Since graduating in 2019, she has been putting her public relations degree from the School of Communication to use at the U.N. World Food Program, the world’s largest humanitarian organization.
“I get to live in Rome, all while embracing the chance to travel across the globe for the events I organize and facilitate,” she says. “My love for Rome began during my participation in the Business and Culture in Europe study abroad program, and now, incredibly, I’ve been fortunate enough to call it home for the past four years.”
The program, which visits many of the most popular cities in Europe, examines and compares business practices and approaches, differences in pricing and products, and cultural differences.
5 p.m., Dublin
Another young alum, Justin Laiti, a 2022 biomedical engineering and mechanics graduate in the College of Engineering, is wrapping up his day as a Ph.D. student at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.
He’s working with high school students there to design a wearable device and connected mobile app to help the students manage their stress and general well-being.
Moving to Dublin after graduation was a big adjustment, he says, but “it’s been a wonderful experience and has allowed me to further develop my research interests that arose during my time in Blacksburg.”
Noon, Washington, D.C.
Back in the U.S., Ariel Ahram, an Arlington-based professor in the School of Public and International Affairs, is passing the White House on his way to the National Press Club to attend a talk by his friend Ugur Umit Üngör, a professor at the University of Amsterdam and the author of a book about Syria’s prison system.
During the event, Üngör speaks about his interviews with former prisoners, his contacts with security service members implicated in mass killings, and the ways that the prison system has shaped political life for Syrians.
12:23 p.m. Blacksburg
7:23 p.m., Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
The sun is setting over Ethiopia, and Menah Pratt, vice president for strategic affairs and diversity, turns to verse to describe the flurry of activity surrounding her:
The only country on the continent that was not colonized
A place of fields,
Plains of grains,
Expansive yellows blending into sunrises and sunsets.
Teeming with Black bodies, masses moving through streets
Carts and cars,
Smells of spices and sweat.
Her visit to Africa is part of the American Council on Education Fellows Program, a customized learning experience that enables participants to immerse themselves in the study and practice of leadership.
In addition to working on a book project on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, she is also engaging in sociological research related to cultural resilience, education, empowerment, and spirituality in the African diaspora, and connections between African identity and African American identity.
Pratt also spoke at the U.S. Embassy and at Addis Ababa University.
1:30 p.m., Blacksburg
7:30 p.m., Umbria, Italy
It’s dinner time at Ranieri Castle, and Queen and the other fellows are gathering after a day of work.
The meals are beautifully presented, delicious, and filling. And the company, Queen says, is stellar — composers, writers, musicians, and visual artists from all over the world.
“Our group has become quite close,” she says.
6:30 p.m., Blacksburg
4:30 p.m., Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Anita Walz, Heather Blicher, and Kindred Grey of University Libraries are about to start their presentation at the Open Education Global Conference in Edmonton.
They’re talking about the university’s Open Education Resources (OER) with scholars from around the world. Open education practitioners, policy builders, advocates, researchers, students, and decision-makers from more than 30 countries are here sharing practices, networking, and initiating collaborations. The theme this year focuses on indigenous communities and how to center minority voices in open textbooks.
Open educational resources, Walz says, include freely available and adaptable online textbooks, test banks, educational programs, and other learning tools.
“It’s nice to hear from librarians who have been in the industry for many years — and a lot of them have high praise for Virginia Tech’s program and how Anita has been a global OER pioneer,” Grey says.
6:30 p.m., Washington, D.C.
Jaclyn Marmol, a 2020 political science graduate, is fighting rush-hour traffic and the loud sounds of vehicles honking as she makes her way to McPherson Square.
Marmol works as outreach representative for U.S. Sen. Mark Warner and often attends events with him. This evening, she’s heading to the grand opening of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies, a nonprofit that promotes Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander participation and representation in politics.
7 p.m., Blacksburg
As this day draws to a close in Blacksburg, the stories of Hokies abroad weave together a narrative of diverse pursuits and shared purpose. From Lilly’s early morning volunteer work in the heart of Paris to Finkielstein’s late-night discussions with colleagues in Tokyo to the Virginia Tech computer science team celebrating success in Sydney’s harbor, the reach of the Virginia Tech community spans continents and cultures.
The day’s journey exposes the interconnectedness of the Virginia Tech community, a network of individuals committed to tackling global challenges, broadening perspectives, and creating a world where the spirit of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) knows no bounds.
Tomorrow, of course, is a new day filled with new journeys. Faculty members who spent the summer in East Africa will reflect on what they learned during a public panel discussion in Newman Library. A staff member will bound through the airport to board a flight for a conference in Brazil, just as a researcher in Alexandria is ringing a colleague in Mumbai to talk about a potential collaboration. And a student will realize that maybe she’d like to study next year in Chile, so she’s heading to the Global Education Office to start planning her own adventure.
Victoria Boatwright, Jenny Kincaid Boone, Amanda Broome, Ann Brown, Michelle Darby, Katie Gehrt, Priya Goutham, Leigh Anne Kelley, Rich Mathieson, Allie Oberoi, Renée Stewart, and Cory Van Dyke contributed