A group of 28 University Honors Program students at Virginia Tech is closing out the fall semester in great anticipation of the spring semester when they will travel almost 4,500 miles to Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, for the Presidential Global Scholars program.

Some of the participants, like Emily Blair of Fort Chiswell, Va., a sophomore majoring in English and history in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, have never been out of the country.

“I had never even been out of the time zone until just recently,” Blair said. “I don’t know what to expect, except to be excited. I can’t wait to see Europe and experience different cultures.”

Blair is part of the second cohort of students to participate in the program, which utilizes interdisciplinary, hands-on learning experiences, enabling students to discover new cultures and become a global citizen. This year’s theme is, “Collaboration, Cultivation, and Communities.” The program is designed to get students to think big, expand their comfort zones, and figure out how they can make a difference.

“I have already flip-flopped my academic focus a few times. I can see the program altering the compass of what I want to do,” Tim Duffy of Andover, Mass., a junior majoring in finance and accounting in the Pamplin College of Business, said. “I think I’ll come back with a better appreciation of what kind of impact I can make on the world and how big the world is.”

“The program is designed to be a collaborative learning community where students broaden their global view,” Terry Papillon, director of the University Honors Program and Presidential Global Scholars program, explained. “Through that lens, students can find their own niche to make a positive contribution to the world.”

Participants have been preparing for the semester abroad through the fall semester by taking Italian courses and attending meetings. Some meetings focused on the logistics of the program, such as travel arrangements. Others highlighted ways to prepare to adapt to the culture. Students also split into small groups to pick topics for a project that will be completed during the experience.

The groups feature students in different disciplines. Blair’s group has chosen the broad topic of art and politics and will narrow their focus when the experience begins. “Through my friends, I’m around people that think in a different way, but I haven’t worked academically with them. I am excited to sit down with a group that includes a construction engineering major and say, ‘let’s look at art.’”

For now, Blair and Duffy are making sure they are ready for the temporary move, buying suitcases and researching travel destinations. But they are also trying to prepare mentally.

“Right now, I really have a narrow perspective on the world, and I expect to return with a broader view,” Duffy said. “My biggest goal is to see a lot while I am there.”

“My preparation is more about easing my dad into the idea that he’s not going to see me for four months,” Blair said. “I haven’t been preparing for travel over there as much as preparing myself for the experiences I want to have. I think I will fit where I want to go based on how to fulfill those experiences.”

Award-winning professors from across the Virginia Tech campus will spend one to three weeks with the students over the semester abroad. The 2013 faculty includes: Bob Bodnar, University Distinguished Professor and C. C. Garvin Professor of Geochemistry; Kim Carlson, assistant director of University Honors; Lay Nam Chang, dean of the College of Science; Virginia Fowler, professor and director of literature, language and culture for the Department of English; Nikki Giovanni, University Distinguished Professor in the Department of English; Paul Heilker, associate professor and director of the doctorate program in rhetoric and writing in the Department of English; Paul Knox, University Distinguished Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs; Terry Papillon, director of University Honors; and Daniel Wubah, vice president for undergraduate education and deputy provost.

Virginia Tech News will feature a series of stories highlighting the experiences of Blair and Duffy, while they are abroad and when they return, to get a personal view of the impact of the program on students academically and personally.

In addition, all participants are maintaining blogs on the experience, with entries already live as the students prepare for the program.

The Office of the University President and the University Honors Program, within the Division of Undergraduate Education, jointly sponsor the program.

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