"Thirty students. Eight faculty members. Four-plus countries. Three-and-a-half months. One villa. A once-in-a-lifetime experience with no measure."

That became the slogan for the first Presidential Global Scholars program experience, a unique study abroad opportunity for University Honors students.

The students traveled to the Center for European Studies and Architecture located in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, for the spring 2012 semester. Instead of taking classes at a foreign university, the program was uniquely structured so that a group of distinguished and award-winning faculty members from Virginia Tech would take turns traveling to Europe to instruct the students.

The students came from a variety of programs across campus, with participants from all seven of the undergraduate colleges.

“Every day was a learning experience,” said Cassidy Grubbs of Powhatan, Va., a junior majoring in English in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “Although our home base was the Villa Maderni in Switzerland, our ‘classroom’ varied on a weekly basis — whether it was on top of Mount Vesuvius, an active volcano in Naples, Italy; at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, where scientists investigate mysteries of the universe on a daily basis; or in the U.S. Embassy, meeting and eating chili with the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland.“

Stephen Perkins of Altavista, Va., a senior majoring in wildlife conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, said the experience changed his life. “One instance later on in the semester I woke up, and I realized that I could do anything I want to do in the world in an academic sense. It’s a simple realization and something we hear as little kids, but it didn’t really mean anything to me until I woke up that morning after having just studied for two weeks in Greece and traveled with friends to Spain and Romania. It was powerful; it was emotional; yet it was also humbling because you realize that the world is a big place.”

Through relationships formed during the experience — one with a faculty member and one with another student — Perkins has two new opportunities. After expressing interest in primatology, a faculty member called a colleague and learned about Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University. Perkins followed up and received an invitation to an open house to the center and a dinner with renowned primatologists. A fellow student told Perkins about COMACO, a conservation organization based in Zambia. Perkins applied to work with the group this summer and is now traveling across Zambia documenting the personal stories of poachers who have been converted into farmers via the efforts of the organization.

Through group projects the program required of each of the students, Grubbs was able to pursue a personal area of interest. Her group members shared a passion for education and focused their project on researching the structure and culture influences of Switzerland’s higher education system. “Throughout the semester, we met with some really interesting people — from an executive member of the Swiss Federal Student Union to the Swiss State Secretary of Education and Research,” said Grubbs. “We simply wouldn’t have had these opportunities in Blacksburg.” Her group is furthering their interest even after completing the program with an education initiative blog.

The Presidential Global Scholars program also fulfilled its mission to provide students with a full cultural immersion. “Different cultures are no longer just features on the cover of National Geographic — when I hear about a place, I think, ‘I could go there,’” said Grubbs. “We flew into Athens the day after international news networks were covering the riots. Our view of Greece is surely different than those who only saw what was on television.”

“I realized that people are people wherever you go,” said Perkins. “We may not speak the same language or practice the same faith but we all have basic needs, lofty ambitions, and human empathy.”

Both Grubbs and Perkins recommend the experience to students already in the University Honors program or for those who may qualify for and be interested in enrolling. “Presidential Global Scholars is for students who are willing to lose focus,” said Grubbs. “At first things might seem blurry and uncomfortable, but your perspective will change. You’ll see things, literally and figuratively, for the first time.”

University Honors is still accepting applications for the 2013 Presidential Global Scholars program. For more information or to apply, visit the University Honors website.

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.

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