Mohammed Seyam is fascinated with how people learn and teach in higher education.
A Ph.D. student in computer science who recently completed a term as graduate student representative to the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors, Seyam is familiar with how higher education works in his home country, Egypt, and in the United States. But he wanted to explore more.
“The third step for me was to study other systems,” he said.
Emily Garner, of Swanton, Maryland, a doctoral student focusing on environmental and water resources engineering, was interested in exploring international problems and honing collaboration skills.
Chelsea Corkins, a biological systems engineering Ph.D. student from Hutchinson, Kansas, is interested in pursuing research abroad after she graduates.
Natalie Cook, a doctoral student in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education, from Brooklyn, New York, wants to engage her future students in study abroad and do so from personal experience.
The four were among the latest group of Virginia Tech Global Perspectives Program scholars who visited and studied programs at universities in Switzerland, Italy, and France for 13 days earlier this summer. They and their fellow scholars researched trends and issues in higher education, teaming up with peers at the universities of Basel and Zurich in Switzerland.
After returning to the United States, the Global Perspective scholars presented their findings at the Swiss Embassy in Washington, D.C., continuing a tradition established in 2010.
Vice President and Dean for Graduate Education Karen P. DePauw developed the program in 2005, and has taken groups of students to Switzerland, Italy, and France since 2006. Over the course of their European tour, the graduate students visit universities and institutions and participate in workshops with students, faculty, and administrators at each. The first Global Perspectives class comprised 10 students. Since then, more than 130 graduate students have participated, representing all eight of the university’s colleges. The reports they present each year on their research are archived at the Basel Institution and are available online.
Virginia Tech’s Steger Center for International Scholarship in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, serves as a base camp for the program's students. In addition to the visits to universities, the students explore cities and towns, museums and castles, and learn about the regions’ culture, history and politics.
GPP scholars remarked on the diversity of the 2016 group and how that challenged their assumptions.
“The experience exposed me to disciplines I rarely encounter,” Corkins said. “The perspectives of performing arts and cultural theory are things I might not have experienced otherwise.”
“We were diverse in multiple ways, not just disciplines, personality traits, or appearance,” Seyam noted.
Garner said the experience made her rethink her views. “I had a very narrow perspective of research. For example, I thought of it from the perspective of someone in the lab in a white coat or working in the field.”
She said colleagues from other disciplines constantly challenged each other to step back and view problems and issues from different perspectives.
“It make me think a lot about outreach and sharing what we do with the public,” Garner added.
“There were so many layers to this trip,” Cook said.
There was little downtime, they reported, mostly because the scholars found themselves debriefing and discussing their work on trains, over coffee, first thing in the morning, and well into the evenings.
“You spend 13 days with 15 people,” Seyam said. “You’re doing everything together. We had these deep intellectual conversations everywhere. We always shared our opinions.”
“We were all invested in global higher education,” Corkins said. “We talked about it from morning until night.”
The 15 scholars had a few things in common beyond their nonstop conversations: all had taken two graduate school courses ─ Preparing the Future Professoriate and Pedagogical Practices in Contemporary Contexts ─ and all are interested in teaching college students. The two graduate school courses are among the requirements for the GPP program, along with an application and essay.
Cook said she thought constantly about her future students during the trip. She studies assessment and evaluation, and said her research emphasized the need to always question assumptions. “It also helped me see how important and transformative the ‘aha’ moments are and the importance of reflection.”
Corkins said she is thinking more about integrating problem solving into learning. She also is paying more attention to the way people talk about their work. “How we define and use words, such as research and science, is based on our backgrounds. Interdisciplinarity gives us a bigger picture.”
Garner, a member of the Flint, Michigan, Water Study research team, said she believes she is being more intentional in her work at Virginia Tech, and she is reminded of the challenges scholars face regarding ideals of higher education, such as being a good teacher and ensuring open access to research and information. “I felt very empowered to reach for those ideals,” she said.
Seyam said the trip provided him with a model for how diversity can work in higher education. He shared his observations with the Board of Visitors in June. “The diverse group of participants in this program is an example of how Virginia Tech should see and treat its students,” he said.
DePauw said the program has attracted the attention of universities across the United States. In 2012, she led a GPP trip for graduate school deans, and several universities have modeled their own programs on the GPP. Also in 2012, DePauw led a group of students to Chile for a week-long program visiting three universities, and GPP scholars in recent years have visited Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador and will do so again this fall.
Graduate students interested in being among the 2017 cohort can apply in the fall. The Graduate School covers the majority of the expenses so cost does not prohibit a student from participating in the experience.
Once selected, students attend tri-weekly meetings with DePauw throughout the spring semester. The trips generally take place during the last week of May and the first week of June. Scholars keep journals during the trip and are encouraged to post on the GPP blog and to share their adventures and insights on social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
To learn more about the program and the work of the current cohort and GPP alumni, visit the Global Perspectives GPP Blog. For a look at the most recent trip through the eyes of social media, visit the Storify collection.