Three Club Men Spend a Semester in Switzerland

In the Spring 2019 semester, three German Club members took a break from active membership to spend a semester studying abroad in southern Switzerland. Our names are Jimmy Burke, Andrew McCaffrey, and Stephen Olsen.  We participated in the Honors College’s Presidential Global Scholar Study Abroad, which takes place at the Virginia Tech Steger Center for International Study in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland. Riva is a gorgeous small town of about 2,000 people just south of Lugano in Ticino, Switzerland.  The town is located in a valley at the base of the Swiss Alps and situated on Lake Lugano.

To understand how close we became on this trip, look no further than our living arrangements.  We thought we knew each other well going in, but sharing a single dorm-style room with two other individuals has a way of eliminating all pre-existing boundaries between people. The building we stayed in was an 18th century villa where 40 students lived, worked, and ate under one roof.  The three of us made sure to get the only triple room offered on the top left corner of the Villa, ensuring maximum contact and minimum privacy.  Upon arrival, up the center staircase and past the creaky wood floor, we would find our space and begin to discover the quirks that would define our living experience for the next six months. With a front door that failed to close, and a back door that was not a door at all, but rather a curtain into the next room, we learned quickly that there was little privacy or opportunity to be alone.  Luckily, we enjoyed having our space together and found we could get along well.  We slept in 3 cot-style twin beds, all very close together with one desk to share between us.  Though compact, the room would become our “home base,” and an ideal area to recover from the excitement surrounding the rest of the trip.

One of the best examples of such excitement came before we even arrived in Switzerland.  Prior to the start of the semester, the three of us spent a week at Andrew’s house on a U.S. Military base in Germany.  While there, we took a skiing trip to a resort in Garmisch, a nearby German Town. Avid skiers Jimmy and Andrew were fulfilling a lifelong dream by skiing the Alps, but the trip was Stephen’s first foray into the activity. This resulted in a number of realizations: first, that Jimmy was a terrible ski instructor. Luckily, one of Andrew’s local friends was also learning how to ski, so he and Stephen were able to learn together on the slow slopes. The second realization was that Stephen is a superb athlete, transforming himself into a proficient skier in a matter of days. In an impressively short amount of time, Stephen could traverse nearly every slope with ease and Jimmy and Andrew were able to live out a skier’s dream on the tough trails. With new snow accumulating over three feet while we were there, the trip was idyllic and the conditions were perfect. The only hint of a mishap occurred when Jimmy unknowingly ordered a non-alcoholic German beer not once, but twice in the same day (this turned out to be a repeating occurrence for Jimmy, much to his dismay). 

        As we progressed through our trip we became great friends with other students in the program. As German Club men, we couldn’t help but share our love for the Club with our peers, and even taught them a few of our line dances. Our infectious passion for the Club’s traditions were on full display during one trip to Naples, Italy, when the group visited an ancient Roman Temple. Having found an old amphitheater, our instructor encouraged an impromptu “talent show,” during which our peers sang, read poetry, or displayed otherwise impressive talents. The three of us, however, could not resist the opportunity to showcase our Club’s line dances once again, and completed a full rendition of the famed “September,” in front of students and tourists alike. By the end of the song, nearly everyone in attendance joined us on stage and danced their hearts out. The three of us cherish this memory as a reminder of how much the German Club means to our college experience, and the Club’s ability to have a positive impact on the world in so many ways.

While travelling was a major part of our experience, the trip wouldn't have been a study abroad without the study, so it made sense that the most defining part of our program was our ability to perform an honors undergraduate research project on topics we were passionate about.  Each of us wrote a paper to be published in a journal with works from our fellow students from the program.  Jimmy completed an analysis of different nuclear fuel practices between the United States and France, and wrote a paper titled “Spent Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing.” Andrew’s research was focused on “Accessibility Standards and Disability Rights in the United States versus the European Union.”  Lastly, Stephens' paper, “A Plan to End Homelessness,” compared the conditions of the homeless in American and Finnish societies to arrive at solutions to the problem.  We each picked these topics due to personal connections and interests, and spent 6 months becoming experts on the issues before completing our papers.

            After reflecting for the past several months on our time abroad, we can easily say it was one of the most transformative periods in our lives.  Together, we have developed an alternate perspective on how to live our lives.  Studying abroad has allowed us to develop more confidence as individuals and has given a new meaning to the bonds of brotherly love German Club develops between people.  The memories from this trip will stay with us forever, and it is fair to say sharing this experience with fellow German Club members made those few months the best of our lives.  While we certainly miss the place we called home for a short time, we are happy to be back and active again in the German Club.  We love sharing our perspective, funny stories, and quotes with our fellow brothers. We try not to annoy them too much while constantly saying, ”remember that time abroad when….”