In Switzerland, Katie Russo helps students step outside their comfort zones

Nestled in the mountains of Ticino, the Italian-speaking canton of Switzerland, is the Steger Center for International Scholarship, the satellite campus in Riva San Vitale owned and maintained by the Virginia Tech Foundation.

Katie Russo calls this place home. Russo, who earned a master’s degree in educational leadership and policy studies in 2013, serves as a student life coordinator, helping bring the spirit of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) to an international audience.

“I spend a lot of time focusing on how to help students navigate an environment where they may be unaccustomed to the language and various cultural differences between countries or be unfamiliar with mass public transportation,” she said. “Most importantly, I focus on helping students make meaning of their educational experience abroad.”


Student Life Coordinator Katie Russo, at far right, takes students on a tour of Virginia Tech’s Riva San Vitale campus. Student Life Coordinator Katie Russo, at far right, takes students on a tour of Virginia Tech’s Riva San Vitale campus.

Home away from home

Throughout a regular work day, Russo might sit in on classes, visit the architecture studio, eat and interact with students, lead seminars, design weekend activities to build community, and host open office hours. She works closely with partners on Virginia Tech’s main campus to make sure her students are getting assistance as efficiently as possible.

In Blacksburg, Virginia, student life coordinators fill an essential role to develop students and foster a positive environment centered on interaction and learning. They are expected to serve as role models, exhibit the ability to be effective listeners and excellent resources, and to show ethical behavior at all times.

Russo’s job is similar in that they are all helping students through various transitions into college life. In Riva, she deals with the added component of transitioning students into a new culture.

“My position as the student life coordinator in Riva differs from my colleagues in that things operate very differently in the Villa Maderni,” Russo said. “I have a very small group of undergraduate students that I serve directly. I also do not have a student staff, so I am in direct contact with all my students on a daily basis. In addition, the wonderful resources that we have available on campus look different in Riva. While we have access to the resources, the method of delivery oftentimes takes a different form.”

Russo works with visiting faculty from the School of Architecture + Design, the Pamplin College of Business, and the Presidential Global Scholars program. This allows her to be visible both inside and outside the classroom and to help integrate what students are discussing in the classroom with their experiences abroad.

Sometimes this takes shape in daily conversations with students. Other times it can be an interactive seminar that students can attend in the Villa Maderni, ranging in topics from budgeting money to transitioning back to American society.

“In helping students reflect on and process their own experience and transition, I encourage students to think about how they can apply the life skills they learn abroad in their everyday lives,” Russo said. “We hope students think of their time abroad as more than just a four-month experience, but one that has helped each student to think of themselves as an active global citizen.”


Virginia Tech students pose for a picture at the Waterfall of Foroglio in Ticino, Switzerland. Virginia Tech students pose for a picture at the Waterfall of Foroglio in Ticino, Switzerland.

A global education

According to a study by Institute for the International Education of Students, “Key jobs skills such as adaptability, global understanding and tolerance, leadership, and independence are directly fostered by learning and living abroad.”

Russo said her experiences advising students are in line with this sentiment. “I think study abroad programs are a great way for students to have an experiential learning opportunity,” she said. “I feel that we grow and develop the most as people when we are challenged to step outside of what is familiar to us. Living and studying abroad asks students to do just that, step outside their comfort zone.”

Virginia Tech stands as a leader in international study, offering global experiences spanning every continent. The Education Abroad office helps 1,200 students study abroad annually, administers more than $120,000 in scholarships, and assists in coordinating release of financial aid for overseas study. The office also supports more than 50 faculty-led programs, maintains academic exchange partnerships with 80 universities in 32 countries, and advises students on academic, service learning, and internship opportunities.

Russo said the Riva experience “gives students the foundational elements needed to be successful, helps students feel connected to one another and the Hokie Community, while also affording them the quintessential experience of living in Europe.”

  • For more information on this topic, contact William Foy at 540-231-5258.

Students head abroad

During Summer 2014, 460 Hokies studied in more than 30 countries, The top seven destinations were the following: 

  • Germany
  • Spain
  • United Kingdom
  • France
  • Switzerland
  • Italy
  • Dominican Republic

Learn about Switzerland

    A student takes a picture in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland.

The Steger Center for International Scholarship promotes environmental stewardship among students in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland.

Education Abroad becomes the Global Education Office

    Students learn more about study abroad programs during an event on the Drillfield.

Education Abroad, a unit within Outreach and International Affairs, has been renamed the Global Education Office.

The new name becomes official in fall 2014. 

“Global education better describes the variety of international opportunities we offer,” Director Jennifer Quijano Sax said. “From faculty-led study abroad programs to exchange opportunities, internships and service projects, students have several options to gain an experience abroad.”

University expands its presence in Latin America

Virginia Tech’s growing presence in Latin America provides students, faculty, and staff access to distinct natural laboratories including Patagonia, the Amazon rainforest, and the Galapagos Islands. Having identified Latin America as a focus in its international strategy, the university is strengthening and developing relationships within the region. In addition to the sciences, humanities are being stressed to take advantage of cultural assets and historical locations.

As of summer 2014, Virginia Tech has two key partners in Latin America: Universidad de San Francisco de Quito in Quito, Ecuador, and Universidad Austral de Chile in Valdivia, Chile.

“We are analyzing other areas in Latin America which would present unique opportunities for the university, not only for student exchange, but also for research,” said Gerhardt Schurig, Outreach and International Affairs international strategist.

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