The summer break is giving the 28 University Honors students who participated in the Presidential Global Scholars program a chance to digest and reflect on their whirlwind learning adventure over the spring semester. The students lived in the university’s villa in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, and took trips through Europe as well as Ghana, Africa. Award-winning professors from across the Virginia Tech campus spent one to three weeks with the students over the semester abroad.

“I wasn’t expecting to find myself as much as I did,” Emily Blair of Fort Chiswell, Va., a sophomore majoring in English and history in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, said. Before the trip, Blair had just recently been out of the Eastern Time Zone for the first time. In December before she left on the study abroad experience, Blair shared her outlook. “I don’t know what to expect, except to be excited.”

Tim Duffy of Andover, Mass., a junior majoring in finance and accounting in the Pamplin College of Business, said before the trip he hoped to “come back with a better appreciation of the impact I can make on the world.” After being back in the United States for over a month, Duffy indicates his hope was achieved. “It seems that each day spent back home reveals another subtle way in which the [Presidential Global Scholars] experience has altered my lifestyle. These changes are often manifested through the more conscious awareness I now have of the world and my place in it,” Duffy said. “I now feel a strong desire to reframe my business-related goals and aspirations to fit a more global context.”

Blair and Duffy were part of the second cohort of students to participate in the program, which utilizes interdisciplinary, hands-on learning experiences, enabling students to discover new cultures and become a global citizen.

While an overall positive experience, the program was not without it’s challenges. “I think the toughest challenge of the program was establishing a balance,” Duffy said. “I think many participants can attest, however, that they are better for having navigated this set of obstacles.”

Blair had a similar take, noting the constant culture shock was exhausting and remarkable at the same time. “Life happened during our time in Europe, wondrous and horrible, amazing and frustrating, but I am so glad that I was able to have the experience, and I encourage anyone with the opportunity to do the same.”

Despite living together in the same villa, taking the same courses together, traveling together – basically everything together – the students had very personal takes on their most memorable moments.

“For me, our trip to Ghana as a group was the most stunning experience, but especially when we were in Kakum National Park on their canopy walk,” Blair shared. “At its highest point, we were 40 meters above the forest floor. I remember standing on a platform between the swinging rope bridges and looking out onto the hills, all ridiculously green, so saturated that I could not believe they were real, and taking a picture. I immediately realized that no picture would be able to convey the scale of this place, how tall the trees stood in the humidity, how bright the sun was, or how amazing it felt to walk between platforms, so high above the ground. I loved being in the woods again, but it was more than slight familiarity that made the day memorable: it was knowing, in that moment, that I could never adequately explain it to someone else in verse or photograph. It was realizing we will bring home our stories and pictures but unless someone goes to these places, they cannot really know what we experienced.”

For Duffy, it was not one moment, but a collection of them from his routine. “I developed a habit of running to stay fit while I was traveling. There was one particular trail that I ran most often while in Switzerland,” Duffy said. “When I recall my experience abroad, my mind returns to that trail, conjuring the image of snow-capped Alps, a glistening Lake Lugano meeting the quaint town of Riva San Vitale, and the feeling of undeniable bliss that so often surfaced during those morning runs.”

Students maintained blogs on their experience, including Blair and Duffy. The posts will remain live as a reflection on the 2013 program.

While one cohort reflects, the third cohort is being finalized and will prepare for their upcoming experience in spring 2014, themed “Transitions & Transformations.” Currently, organizers are looking into a trip to Turkey as one of the group's destinations. Participants will take part in meetings as well as language courses in fall 2013 to get ready for the semester abroad.

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.