More than 40 students from around the world convened on Zoom to celebrate their graduation from the Virginia Tech Language and Culture Institute. Most will continue their education as full-time undergraduates at the university this fall.

Zichong “Zach” Guo, a graduate from China who spoke during the virtual ceremony, said his classmates hailed from around the world — Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Turkey, Uruguay, and Kuwait, to name just a few — but pulled together under unusual circumstances this semester. “I greatly respect everyone’s respect for so many cultures,” he said. “I felt really cared for by the teachers here who treated us more like friends than students.”

Guo is looking forward to seeing his classmates and professors again in person, but he said the online ceremony was much more fun than he had expected. Afterward, students and professors chatted with each other during a "Zoom mingle." 

The ceremony on May 8 honored the achievements of students in the Intensive English Program and AdvantageVT pathway program, which help international students improve their English and prepare them to further their studies in the U.S. The institute, part of Outreach and International Affairs, pivoted with the rest of the university in March to online-only classes.

According to Director Donald Back, that meant faculty had to shift all their courses — more than 200 hours of classes — online in just a couple weeks. For students, the shift was even more abrupt.

“Our students, many of whom come to us with very limited English skills, found themselves suddenly facing a great obstacle in unfamiliar surroundings,” Back said. Some students returned to their home countries, he said, but most were unable to travel and have had to stay in and around Blacksburg. “I’m so proud of all these students, who persevered under incredibly unusual circumstances. They’re our heroes.”

Instructor Bonnie Sumner said many of her students, much more at ease with technology, helped her adjust after the switch to remote learning. “We’re recognizing some extraordinary students in an extraordinary class,” she said during the graduation.

Faculty member Mary Freday said that after the “pivot,” classes became about much more than just schoolwork. “They became lifelines — connecting each of us to one another and to the normalcy that we are all anxious to return to once it is safe to do so,” she said. All semester, she stressed to her students that “we are alone together and we are all in this together.”

Yuxuan “Ryan” Li, an AdvantageVT graduate, said, “I have learned not only math and physics, but also the importance of time management and to adapt to a new environment. What I have learned is not just knowledge, but how to gain more knowledge.”

Faculty member Caitlin Capone said she is eager to see her students in person when the time comes. “We have talked about having a class party once we get the OK to gather socially again. The whole reason I got into teaching was to not sit in front of a computer screen all day, as well as to make these personal connections with people from all over the world. The sooner we can see each other face to face again, the better.”