Presidential Global Scholars program sends students abroad

The Presidential Global Scholars program aims to give students a “life-changing” study abroad experience.

The program, offered during the spring semester, is based in the university’s villa in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland. From there, the group travels to destinations such as Italy, Greece, Ghana, and Turkey.


Students visit the Castelgrande in Bellinzona, Switzerland on Feb. 8, 2014. Half of the Presidential Global Scholars group traveled with College of Architecture and Urban Studies students, who are also studying for the semester in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, to the Castelgrande in Bellinzona, Switzerland, on Feb. 8, 2014.

The goal is to encourage students to think globally. “No matter what discipline a student is in, we want them to start thinking on a global level, interacting with people at that level from different cultures,” said Kim Carlson, assistant director in University Honors for the Presidential Global Scholars program (PGS).

“These students are the ones who are going to be, decades from now, the CEOs of major corporations or Pulitzer prize-winning poets or novelists who are going to have something to say about how America sees itself, and we need to see ourselves as part of a larger whole,” said Terry Papillon, director of University Honors.

A new perspective

In 2014, the cohort travels as a group to Italy, Turkey, and northern Switzerland. Students can add their own excursions throughout Europe.

“The blessing and curse of this program is that the same 25 people are constantly together.This has been the most different aspect of the trip for me, and I’m glad I have the chance to get to know so many interesting people,” said Lindsey Bass of Pasadena, Md., a sophomore double majoring in mechanical engineering and music performance. “Our group is very diverse, but by being unified by the program, we are invited to learn more about each other and the influences that have shaped us into who we are.”

Some students specifically sought out the program to expand their perspective. “As an engineer, everything I do is very focused,” said Alex Ochs of Virginia Beach, Va., a sophomore majoring in engineering science and mechanics. “When I heard about [the program], it seemed like the coolest thing ever to be able to take everything I know, go abroad, and shatter everything. Then be able to come back into engineering with a new perspective.”


Student Alex Ochs at the waterfront in Lugano, Switzerland. Student Alex Ochs at the waterfront in Lugano, Switzerland.

Students said they appreciate the opportunity to expand their educational horizons. “The program is definitely based around allowing the students to design their own learning experience,” said Cole Smith of Charlottesville, Va., a sophomore majoring in industrial design. “I see many parallels between the design school and this program. Both are pushing education away from testing and more toward critical thinking and collaboration.”

Change on many levels

“I realized I was going to be leaving Virginia Tech the exact same person I had come in as, and I didn’t like that. I knew something had to change,” said Ed Coe of Middlebury, Conn., a senior majoring in industrial design, who traveled in 2013. “I knew the program would challenge me on more than just an intellectual level — it would challenge my morals and how I view the world. That’s really what I wanted.”

Nikki Giovanni, University Distinguished Professor of English, is one of a handful of faculty who take turns teaching during the semester-long experience. She said she’s seen change on different levels. “We know that soldiers change when they go to the battlefield or sit in a camp in Germany. We are not soldiers, but metaphorically, we are social soldiers. Just the idea of going is a change. The idea of exploring is a change. We would be wrong to think [students] are not changing just because we don’t see it all. You don’t see all of the wounds on a soldier and you don’t see all of the sunshine on our students.”

Some participants have continued the research projects they began during the program to help fight human trafficking or to push for educational reform. Others have discovered new research projects, scholarships, and graduate schools through the program, or they return and build on the relationships formed with the faculty members involved in the program.

“For the faculty member, it’s an experience you don’t usually get,” said Virginia Fowler, professor of English. “There is a kind of immersion. You get to know these students on a very different level.”

The close relationships are one goal of the program. “The students who have gone through PGS are not my students anymore — they are my colleagues,” said Paul Heilker, associate professor of English.

While some change in the students is evident now, the program organizers say the true impact will come as participants move forward into their careers. “It’s had a huge effect on a lot of these students,” Papillon said. “I can’t wait to see what we can say about this program 10, 20, 30 years from now.”

About the 2014 Presidential Global Scholars program

Students participating in the 2014 cohort are abroad from Jan. 25-May 11.

  • Theme: “Transitions and Transformations”
  • Students are based in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, and program trips are planned to Italy, Turkey, and northern Switzerland. Students have the opportunity to plan trips to additional locations over the weekends and on breaks.
  • Students are maintaining blogs throughout the experience, and Alex Ochs is posting videos.
    Students Dasha Nesterova, at left, and Somer Hand at the waterfront in Lugano, Switzerland.

This cohort has 25 participants.

  • 12 men, 13 women
  • Represent all seven undergraduate colleges
  • All students are U.S. citizens with two claiming a dual citizenship (Great Britain and Germany)
  • A little more than half are from Virginia (56 percent). The rest represent Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

Want to join the program?

Recruiting is underway for the 2015 Presidential Global Scholars cohort. The group will travel to Turkey again, but with a new theme, “Being Local in a Global World.”

Previous participants encourage curious students to jump at the opportunity. “This could be your education. The opportunity that you have here is like none other. Your education and your life are one in the same. Why not experience it?” said Cassidy Grubbs of Powhatan, Va., a senior majoring in English, who traveled in 2012.

Take a look back

The following are snapshots of the 2012 and 2013 Presidential Global Scholars programs:



    PGS students at Areopagus, Greece


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