“Two years ago, Antarctica was nothing more than mere imagination, an untouchable destination that I could only dream of setting foot on,” said Virginia Tech student Veronica Mulligan as she recalled a moment from her December 2008 journey to the frozen continent.
“Everything that I saw, heard, and felt was new and exhilarating, but I’ll never forget Christmas Eve,” she continued. “I stepped out on the deck of our ship to see the most incredible summer sunset that would soon turn to a sunrise. As I stood alone against the rail, watching the never-ending sunset, nothing else seemed more real. The little worries and stresses that I had in my life were no longer relevant. As long as I knew beauty such as this -- which was so natural and easy – existed, everything would turn out all right.”
Mulligan, who is a senior double majoring in international relations and French with a minor in geography, had traveled with a group of 14 other students from across the United States to study the impact humans have had on Antarctica. As part of the program, Mulligan also conducted research on the Antarctic Treaty.
Mulligan found out about this opportunity through the Virginia Tech Education Abroad office in the Office of International Research, Education, and Development (OIRED), part of Outreach and International Affairs.
“The university currently sends more than 1,100 students on credit-bearing education abroad programs,” said Jeremy Billetdeaux, Education Abroad’s assistant program director. “Virginia Tech students have access to education abroad programs in more than 40 countries and on all seven continents. As long as a country is stable and safe, we can send students there.”
Most Virginia Tech colleges, many departments, and more than 40 individual faculty members offer their own study abroad programs.
“Education Abroad provides an administrative umbrella, offering assistance with administration, marketing, and program and budget planning,” Billetdeaux said. “We make sure all the students are tracked and coded appropriately and that they submit the required forms. If a professor wants to start a program, our office can help get it up and running. We also manage the StudioAbroad database that facilitates the application process and data keeping for all the university’s programs.”
With assistance from Education Abroad, Matt Silton, who graduated from Virginia Tech in May 2009 with degrees in both communication and Spanish, spent a semester of his junior year studying at the University of Barcelona in Spain.
“My experience way exceeded my expectations,” said Silton, who took classes in modern and ancient history, cinema, language, and literature. “I learned so much about myself and about the world. I cannot imagine who I would be if I hadn’t gone.”
Since 2004, when Virginia Tech’s International Strategic Plan called for a significant increase in study abroad participation at the university, the number of programs and students has increased every year. Matthew McMullen, who became program director of Education Abroad in October 2008, said there is a plan for further expansion.
“We are continuing to try and build programs in non-traditional sites, encouraging students to broaden their horizons and increase their knowledge of the world and our shared challenges,” McMullen said. “In addition to developing programs in Asia, Central Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America we are also promoting service learning and internships, as these experiential opportunities are invaluable to a student's education.”
One new Virginia Tech program is the Center for Leadership Studies in Austral, Chile. “We will have our first student there this coming spring semester,” McMullen said.
For students who make the effort to study abroad, the rewards seem unique.
“One of the most important things I learned was to be more independent,” Silton said. “Going alone made me more confident in my abilities, which is important to me now that I’ve graduated and will probably be moving to a new city by myself. After studying abroad, I know that I’m up for that challenge.”
“I don’t think that there are many aspects my life that have not been influenced by my experiences abroad,” said Mulligan, who has also been an exchange student in France and an intern with the U.S. Department of State. “I plan to incorporate what I learned in my future career in international relations, and I believe that my study abroad will set me apart from other prospective job candidates.”
After spending two semesters studying at Chinese universities, Robert Fried, a 2009 Virginia Tech graduate, has turned his study abroad experiences into an educational enterprise.
Collaborating with an older brother who lives in Guilin, China, Fried has established the Chinese Language Institute, where students from other countries can learn Mandarin through language and cultural immersion techniques. Fried expects to enroll the first group of students at the institute in 2010.
“Experiences at Virginia Tech helped me realize the rising importance of China’s return as a global leader,” he said.
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