Communication can be challenging in the best of circumstances. For students communicating outside of their disciplines, in a foreign language, and in an unfamiliar culture, the challenges are compounded.

Twenty undergraduate students from Germany came to Virginia Tech this summer to learn to connect and communicate across disciplines and other kinds of differences.

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These visiting students were participants in Virginia Tech’s German Fulbright Student Summer Institute. In this three-week program, they learned communication skills, visited research facilities around campus, improved their English language fluency, and ventured out to explore the surrounding region. Cranwell International Center organizes the program with the help of partners across campus.

“This summer’s group is the third annual cohort of students to visit Virginia Tech from Germany. Each year our campus partners help us to make the institute a more enriching and educational experience,” said Cranwell International Center director David Clubb. 

The cornerstone of the students’ experience is the course Communicating Across Disciplines: New Approaches for Applied Sciences, taught by faculty in the Center for Communicating Science. Through a series of theater exercises, the students learn to become more aware of themselves and their environments and to use both body language and their voices to better convey a message. They also develop their written communication skills, storytelling abilities, and capacity for listening. The culmination of these classes is a Ted Talk-style presentation on a topic the students find engaging. 

“The course has helped me to feel more confident when speaking and sharing my ideas,” said Mel Sabalioti, a native of Berlin who is an avid graphic designer.  

Visiting the 2019 Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium was a valuable opportunity for the German students to have peer-to-peer interaction. They took advantage of their time at the symposium to practice the skills they’d been developing in class while learning about the research projects being carried out by Virginia Tech undergraduate students. 

“Communicating across disciplines and differences of all kinds is increasingly important in our world,” said Center for Communicating Science Associate Director Carrie Kroehler. “The German Fulbright students are from a variety of disciplines, and we’ve been able to connect them with Virginia Tech students from a variety of disciplines. They’re improving their communication skills both inside and outside of the classroom.”

Student looking at dairy cows

By visiting facilities around campus and learning about the projects underway, the German Fulbright students were able to expand their English vocabulary and learn about U.S. higher education.  This year they visited the Moss Arts Center, Dairy Science Complex at Kentland Farm, the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, Virginia Tech’s Cultural and Community Centers, Smithfield Plantation, and the Apex Center for Entrepreneurs.

The students started their American experience with a long weekend in Washington, D.C., with Virginia Tech program faculty and staff. They visited the Capitol, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture; toured monuments; and explored on their own.

German students sitting on rock ledge at McAfee Knob

The German Fulbright Student Summer Institute is about more than just an academic experience. Gaining an appreciation for the local culture is also a critical component. The group spent time in the Blue Ridge Mountains, exploring various regional points of interest.  From McAfee Knob to the Cascades, they saw the natural beauty that is a hallmark of living here. 

For three weeks, the participants in the German Fulbright Student Summer Institute learned, explored, and, perhaps most importantly, bonded as a group. Agriculture student Felix Müller said it best: “In a group project, the more energy you give, the better your chances for understanding each other and achieving your goals.”