The first group of Virginia Tech students to earn a minor in 21st century studies will graduate in May 2013, and the program with its nomadic study abroad component has been an eye-opener, those in the inaugural cohort say.
The signature program in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences includes a five-week period of research, service-learning, and hands-on cultural experiences in Morocco, Turkey, and Sri Lanka. It is supported with an extensive scholarship program that makes the trip affordable to all.
Robert Siegle, professor of English and the program’s director, describes 21st century studies as “a reimagining of the university-level education, one that moves out of the disciplines, that moves out of the classic contact-hour-in-the-classroom model of education.”
Students start with a spring course that helps them develop a deeper understanding of each country and the historical, social, political, and economic issues that affect it.
“The coursework gave me insight on the different countries through poetry, novels, research, and other literary articles,” said Tempest West of Richmond, Va., a senior majoring in communication. “Some of the readings were tough to swallow, but they taught me to think critically, which greatly framed what I wrote about in my daily log while abroad.”
Each country, Siegle said, “is positioned in a different set of intersections. Their problems and our problems aren’t the same, and obviously the details matter hugely.”
“Issues are so complicated and touch so many people,” said sophomore James Flanagan of Vienna, Va., an international studies major who was most intrigued by Sri Lanka.
“It was amazing to meet people who had lived through violence I had only ever read about,” said Flanagan, a ROTC student who wants to be an intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force. “Meeting people that were once hunted and openly attacked in Sri Lanka because of their ethnicity was surreal. Just seeing houses that had been burned down and people now walking by them was haunting in itself.”
When students return home, they synthesize their experiences in a fall semester course and a final research project.
West focused her capstone project on marketing techniques unique to Sri Lanka in response to the demographic and culture. “The entire time I was snapping photos of billboards and collecting magazine pages and newspaper ads,” she said. Her research “found that western and eastern methods for marketing were different and sometimes clashed. For example, British candy ads utilized children, but Buddhist consumers viewed the ads as distasteful because they promoted greed and gluttony.”
As one of the college's flagship initiatives, the Center for 21st Century Studies is a major focus for fundraising.
"It's important that we subsidize the cost of the travel through private funding because we don't want that [expense] to be prohibitive to any student," said Sue Ott Rowlands, the college's dean.
While the ultimate goal is to create a permanent endowment for the program, donors have already contributed significantly to help with travel costs.
James Asselstine, a 1970 graduate with a degree in political science, a managing director at Barclay's Capital in New York, is one of several alumni to donate to the program so far.
"I think university graduates who have an understanding and appreciation of different political and economic systems and cultures are going to be increasingly valued by potential employers, and I think international experience has become an increasingly important part of a well-rounded education," he said.
West said the program changed the way she looks at the world.
“I think analytically about everything from the news to Facebook posts,” she said. “American policies on development, the war, the environment, the Middle East, our politicians, and even the products and clothes we use all have international affects. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ because the world is so interconnected and it is our duty to consider how our choices affect those oceans away. We must recognize the extent of our own paradigms and how it affects our decision-making and those around us on a global scale.”
Students spent time immersed in the culture of Morocco, Turkey, and Sri Lanka.
The College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences features education abroad opportunities all over the world as faculty members lead semester-long, winter, and summer programs across four continents. Many trips also include internship or service-learning components.
Undergraduate students put their Spanish to the test in a one-month education abroad opportunity in Spain that includes a 15-day, 200-mile hike on the El Camino Santiago de Compostela. Annie Hesp, who gave the keynote address at the December 2012 commencement, leads the annual pilgrimage.
Virginia Tech students Lani Fu, at left, a junior majoring in theatre arts and humanities, science, and environment, and Jessica Smyth, a junior majoring in geography, pose with volunteers from a Muslim organization. Their gift of labor, called Shramadana, is the foundation for Sarvodaya, the largest people's organization in Sri Lanka that networks across 15,000 villages in the war-torn north. Photo by Bob Siegle.
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