Students at Virginia Tech’s Center for European Studies and Architecture (CESA) in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, often greet each other with a hug and walk arm-in-arm. The group dynamic is strong in the residential learning community that hosts semester-long and summer study abroad programs for undergraduate and graduate students.
“You cannot come to CESA and hide. If you have a problem, the whole group has to cope. It’s not like you are being scanned by everyone all the time, but there is a watchfulness of a community here,” said Daniela Doninelli, managing director of the academic learning community.
The Villa Maderni is the main building, where some 48 students take meals and attend class. Twenty-eight students live in the building in rooms of twos or fours. The rest occupy apartments in a nearby building.
“Living in a community like this, you learn to give rather than take – give in the sense that there are ways in which you don’t impose on others – for the well-being of the community. The students have to understand how to abandon being selfish. If they do an action they’re not supposed to do, it could pain someone else,” Doninelli said.
When students enter this academic learning community, they are housed with others from their discipline. They learn together, live together, eat together, and explore together.
“I remember when we really bonded was when we went to the Dachau concentration camp [in Germany] as a class,” said junior Jillian Harris of Middleburg, Va, who is majoring in biological sciences. “When we walked into the old gas chambers … it was real. We cried together. Since then we’ve been like a family.”
The Villa Maderni’s doors are always unlocked. The hope is that students will learn not only from their teachers but also from each other.
Melissa Lyden of Leesburg, Va.,a junior majoring in geography and the group fitness instructor, taught some of her classmates Zumba. Senior Maureen McGonagale, a humanities, science, and environment major from Arlington, Va., demonstrated yoga she learned from her semester in India. Alex Kosnett, a senior majoring in biochemistry from Washington, D.C., shared vegetarian recipes.
The students help each other with their coursework and explore together during downtimes.
“Because of this living and learning environment, I had to learn how to become part of a community. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned,” said Allie Still, a sophomore from Short Pump, Va., majoring in human development.
“It’s obviously radically different than the environment in Blacksburg, where you see each other in class and you may not see each other again. And you see different people in different classes. Here, being thrown in with the same people again and again, seeing so much of them, it’s going to change the dynamic,” said sustainability Professor Richard Rich of the Department of Political Science in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.
The CESA program has created lifelong friends. “It’s funny that we had to travel, like, a thousand miles away from home just to become friends,” said senior Marissa Shauger of Randolph, N.J., who is majoring in human development.
These lessons of cooperation, acceptance, and community linger for many students.
Andrew Mertens, a senior from Bethesda, Md., majoring in history, said after he returned from Riva San Vitale in 2010, “it was tough to wake up the next morning and not go down to breakfast and chat with everyone. There are times where I stop and think how much I miss the place.”
Virginia Tech purchased the 250-year-old "villa" in southern Switzerland during the 1991-92 academic year and renovated it for the Center for European Studies and Architecture. Today, the three-story building can house about 30 students, with an annex that can be renovated later.
In January 2000, the university began leasing a 1959 building called Villa Pabiano immediately up the hill. It serves as lodging space for about 15 more students.
There are two large classrooms: one is used as a traditional classroom, and the other is set up for artist and drawing tables.
More than 1,000 students go abroad around the globe during each school year at Virginia Tech. Learn about requirements and find a program here.
A longer version of this story appeared in Outreach magazine.
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