Finding love and purpose: Alumni attest to Steger Center's impact
To say that spending a semester at Virginia Tech’s center in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, can be life-changing is not a platitude. Alumni who have lived and studied at the Steger Center for International Scholarship continue to see the impact of the experience years — and even decades — later.
The Steger Center, part of Outreach and International Affairs, has served as Virginia Tech’s European hub since 1991, hosting numerous study abroad programs for both undergraduate and graduate students every semester. Thanks to its strategic location in the heart of Europe, many students also have the opportunity to take class outings or personal weekend trips to nearby countries.
“As our alumni can attest, the Steger Center is a special place," Executive Director Sara Steinert Borella said. “Experiential learning comes alive here for many people. Students undergo unexpected transformations during their semester here. I witness it every semester: Students at the Steger Center grow, mature, and learn in a multitude of ways — ways that often have a profound impact on their future professional and personal lives.”
The impact: Their marriage
In February, Taylor Warburton, who graduated in 2020 with a degree in geosciences, and Megan Skarkas, who graduated in 2021 with a degree in architecture, will return to Switzerland to exchange their wedding vows.
The two met at the Steger Center in 2019. Pursuing different majors in different colleges, they likely would never have met if they hadn’t studied abroad. Both said their time in Switzerland was so pivotal for their lives that they couldn’t envision getting married anywhere else.
“We got matching tattoos of the coordinates to Lake Como, near the Steger Center. Of course we are going to get married there,” Skarkas said.
Both Skarkas and Warburton attribute the personal growth they achieved while studying abroad to helping them face challenges with confidence.
“Graduating in a pandemic while no one was hiring was hard, but I was able to be adaptable and expect the unexpected because of my study abroad experience,” Warburton said.
Moreover, studying abroad didn’t just boost her confidence, it also helped her secure a job. “In interviews, I would always speak about my study abroad experience because it showed my ability to navigate in an unfamiliar environment,” she said. “If I can do navigate Europe as a college student, I can navigate this workplace.”
Skarkas said it does not surprise her that personal growth led to love.
“Finding yourself and finding love go hand in hand,” she said. “Finding yourself is the foundation for how you relate to other people.”
The impact: His career
Six years after Drew Vipperman’s time at the Steger Center, he is well on his way to completing a geriatric medicine fellowship — a path his life may never have taken if it weren’t for his transformative experience abroad.
When Vipperman first arrived in Riva San Vitale, he was a chemical engineering student. However, he sensed that something was missing something. “I enjoyed the material, but I didn’t love it. As such, I found myself searching for something but was unsure of what that was.”
As part of his study abroad experience, Vipperman was challenged to undertake a project focused on a social issue about which he was passionate. Discovering his passion and identifying a project, he said, marked the beginning of a “life-changing journey.”
Inspired by his grandmother’s battle with dementia, Vipperman decided to compare dementia care models in the U.S. and the Netherlands. While studying at the Steger Center, he was able to visit a dementia care community in the Netherlands. After that visit, he knew he would devote his career to enhancing the quality of life for dementia patients.
Guided by mentors Paul Heilker, associate dean for academic affairs in the Honors College, and Karen Roberto, University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science, whom he met through the program, Vipperman pivoted his studies to prepare for a career in geriatric medicine.
Vipperman, who graduated with a degree in neuroscience in 2019, believes his study abroad experience “enhanced my competitiveness for both medical school applications and residency applications. In both my medical school and residency personal statements, this project is a focal point for explaining my passion for the care of older adults.”
Recently, Vipperman co-authored a paper with Roberto based on research initiated during his study abroad project.
"Drew’s experience underscores how the Steger Center’s location is such an asset,” Steinert Borella said. “Here, he discovered a learning opportunity in the Netherlands and was able to follow up in person during the course of the semester. Living in Switzerland and Europe opens you to community and cultural connections that change how you see the world.”
The impact: Her service
Every day, Army veterinarian and Virginia Tech alumna Maddie Nardi uses skills she gained in Switzerland.
“Studying at the Steger Center changed my mindset, enabled me to better handle challenges and setbacks, reminded me to take breaks, and allowed me to have better mental and emotional health as I navigate a strenuous program,” she said.
Nardi, who received her bachelor’s degree in animal and poultry sciences and her doctorate in veterinary medicine, emphasized that these skills were crucial for successfully navigating veterinary school and military training. Her experiences didn’t just help her overcome challenges, they also paved the way for new opportunities.
“I have written about and spoken about my study abroad experience and how it taught me multicultural competency and inspired curiosity in countless applications and interviews since I participated in the program in 2018,” Nardi said. “I would strongly argue that these experiences made me a more competitive applicant for both veterinary school and the scholarships I’ve received.”
The impact: Her education
Some students see the life-changing impact of a semester at the Steger Center almost immediately. Cassandra Cogan, who returned from her study abroad experience in 2022, is now pursuing a master’s degree in Poland. She graduated in May 2023 with a degree in international studies.
“I do not think that I would be studying abroad for my master’s degree if I had not studied abroad in Riva San Vitale,” Cogan said. “I would not have been confident enough in myself to complete the entire degree outside of the U.S. and am also positive that my experience studying abroad made me a more competitive scholarship applicant.”
Cogan was awarded the Erasmus Mundus scholarship, which covers her tuition and living expenses while she completes the European Master in Global Studies program.
The impact: Their enduring friendship
Although Jesse Pappas ’98 and Virginia Maloney ’99 don’t often find their way back to Blacksburg, there is one thing that can entice both to make the drive: a reunion with the friends they made while staying at the Steger Center in spring 1998.
Back then, they flew to Switzerland as strangers and spent only a few short months with each other. Yet, 25 years later, members of the whole group are still good friends. Even though their lives and careers have scattered them across the U.S., they stay connected via a group chat.
Last fall, Pappas organized a 25-year reunion in Blacksburg.
“Getting together is exactly like being back — everyone flowed back into our 20-something selves. It felt like we haven’t missed a beat,” he said.
Maloney added that the impact of studying abroad wasn’t just about the lifelong friendships. The immersive education still resonates with her today.
“We would study the history or art and then to go see the material in person. Everything stood out so much more. … It was one of the best educations I’ve ever received because I remember more from it than anything else.”
The impact is for everyone
The university is committed to making such transformational learning experiences available to all students through Virginia Tech Advantage. The Global Education Office’s study abroad scholarships and Passport Project program, for example, offer students from all backgrounds a chance to experience life-changing learning abroad.
For more than 30 years, the Steger Center staff has worked to build a community where students’ learning and experiences spur enduring personal growth and act as a springboard for further opportunities. This work has included facility improvements, including large-scale renovations, continued relationship building with local universities and businesses, and the development of the first internationally based living-learning community, Casa Maderni.
This year, the Steger Center staff hope to start the final, major piece of its transformational renovation. With the center’s continued success and steady growth, more classrooms and living spaces are needed. Although the center currently has a structure in its garden that could help meet these needs, it is in disrepair. Renewing this building will provide students with a much-needed, dedicated area for study space, wellness and exercise, and experiential learning across disciplines.
“The experiences of our alumni tell us that no matter their generation, field of study, or life path, the skills and connections they made while at the Steger Center continue to benefit them throughout their lives,” Steinert Borella said. “Ensuring access and affordability for all Hokies interested in studying abroad remains a top priority for us. The garden pavilion project and Casa Maderni help us ensure that we continue to provide a transformational student experience at the Steger Center.”
Alumni and all those who believe in the transformational power of studying abroad are invited to support the Steger Center’s ongoing work during Virginia Tech’s Giving Day, Feb. 21-22, and any time. Funds from this year’s giving campaign will go to completing the final phase of the center’s renovations. Follow the Steger Center's Instagram account during that 24-hour period to find ways to help the center complete the final phase of its renovations