DEIB Around the World’s first cohort in Milan, Italy. Photo by A’me Dalton for Virginia Tech.

The Pamplin College of Business Office for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) recently held its first-ever international experiential learning program, DEIB Around the World. In partnership with the Global Education Office and the Steger Center for International Scholarship located in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, 26 undergraduate students from diverse backgrounds set off for a 10-day journey through Europe.

Over those 10 days, students gained hands-on knowledge about the opportunities and challenges international firms and managers face when engaging in cross-border business, learned practical skills to create organizational value through international market expansions, applied learned concepts from Pamplin’s international business course, and were exposed to the inner workings of gaining a job or internship abroad while enhancing cross-cultural communication skills through engagement with community members. Student activities included daily journaling, documenting observations, evening reflection discussions, as well as a final group project. 

Welcome reception held in the gardens of the Steger Center located in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland. Photo by A’me Dalton for Virginia Tech.

The international experiential learning program kicked off on the evening of May 15 with an orientation, a visit with the Steger Center staff, and a welcome reception. The next morning, students took a train to the summit of Monte Generoso, located on the border between Switzerland and Italy, via a cogwheel railroad. Arriving at the visitors center, nestled 5,260 feet high with the Swiss Alps in view, students were given a guest lecture by Sara Steinert Borella, executive director of the Steger Center, on Swiss culture, particularly related to the mountain tourism industry. Students learned about the importance of “place” within tourism and how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the industry. Students had the opportunity to tour the Monte Generoso building, created by architect Mario Botta in 2017, and hike down the mountain to Bellavista.

“One of the things that we want to share with students studying at the Steger Center is how a sense of place permeates the local culture. In this context, mountains matter,” said Steinert Borella. “Traveling to the top of Monte Generoso with the students from DEIB Around the World let us experience the geographical border between Switzerland and Italy and see what it means for a peak to provide a physical barrier and separation. During the Second World War, this meant that Swiss supporters of the Allied cause joined the Italian partisans in their fight against fascism by crossing an unpoliced border and moving supplies, arms, food, and fighters. This historical reality is something we sometimes overlook when thinking of how Ticino is tied to Italy, culturally and geographically.”

Students at the summit of Monte Generoso, featuring the Swiss Alps in the background. Photo by A’me Dalton for Virginia Tech.

The group then headed to Bellinzona, the capital of the Ticino Canton in southern Switzerland. Students were given a presentation from the Cantonal tourist office about the history of the three castles in Bellinzona, which was named a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) heritage site in 2000. Students had the opportunity to visit the castles and experience the fortifications and examples of medieval defensive architecture first-hand. The three castles hold magnificent views of the city, the mountains surrounding the area, and even a view of Lake Maggiore, the second largest lake in Italy and the largest in southern Switzerland.

Inside the walls of Castlegrande, one of three castles in Bellinzona. Photo by Ryan Hopkins for Virginia Tech.

“Our fascination with history has led to major opportunities for destinations to capitalize on the financial benefits of culture and heritage through tourism,” said Charis Tucker, a hospitality and tourism management doctoral candidate.

On May 18, the group departed for Lugano, Switzerland, where students were immersed in culture and finance, starting with the LAC Lugano Arte e Cultura, a cultural institution that is dedicated to the visual arts, music, and performing arts. Designed by Ivano Gianola, the LAC works to bridge the cultural gap between northern and southern Europe by bringing together both public and private institutions from all over the world.

“The opportunity for students to experience central Europe through Virginia Tech's Steger Center is a unique one, and the DEIB Around the World program has made it possible for many students who would normally not have the chance to study abroad,” said Ryan Hopkins, student life coordinator for the Steger Center.

“The importance of these learning experiences extends beyond their time in Switzerland and continues into the months ahead as they reflect on their time immersed in a different culture. As these students progress through their studies, they have a new vantage point to see their learning because of the impact of being abroad.”

Students gather to hear Ryan Hopkins, student life coordinator for the Steger Center share more about the LAC Lugano Arte e Cultura. Photo by A’me Dalton for Virginia Tech.

From the LAC Lugano Arte e Cultura, the group hopped on a ferry to visit the Swiss Customs Museum, tucked away in a charming corner of Lake Lugano, just a few steps from the Italian border. The Swiss Customs Museum gave students a glimpse into the past with illustrations of border management, surveillance, and special exhibits covering topics such as illegal trade, counterfeiting, smuggling tobacco, sugar, salt, rice, meat, alcohol, and more.

At the Swiss Customs Museum, students learn more about the history and cultural heritage of the border area. Photo by A’me Dalton for Virginia Tech.

Students then headed to Milan, Italy, to meet, have lunch with, learn from, and interview entrepreneur, Edward Buchanan. Buchanan, an Ohio native, was formerly the design director and artistic director for Italian luxury fashion house Bottega Veneta. Buchanan is now working in multiple roles in the fashion industry, including serving as the founder and artistic director for fashion brand Sansovino 6, the fashion director for Milano, the founder of KSAT Srl, and the co-founder of WAMNI, the first Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) movement in Italian fashion, which is working to create routes to DEI activation.

“Equity for Black fashion professionals, for me, means ownership—having your name on the door without having to ask for a seat at anyone else’s table,” said Buchanan. “I have worked long and hard in an industry that has never been equally balanced. The one thing that I have always promised myself is to stay focused on the goal of building a business that I could call my own which in return would allow me to assist and help others like me.”

Edward Buchanan speaks to DEIB Around the World students about DEIB topics in the fashion industry. Photo by A’me Dalton for Virginia Tech.

On May 21, the group traveled from Riva San Vitale to Winterthur, a city in northern Switzerland, where many students had the opportunity to experience Eritrean cuisine for the first time. Special guest, Swiss Parliamentarian Yvonne Apiyo Brändle-Amolo, hosted the students. Parliamentarian Brändle-Amolo is an expert on policymaking with fields of expertise in the areas of agriculture and rural development, culture, education, environmental policy, climate change, evidence for policy, and knowledge valorization. She shared insight into her efforts on equal access to opportunities and the fight against discrimination in both her work and art.

DEIB Around the World students listen as Yvonne Apiyo Brändle-Amolo speaks on topics of activism within different aspects of life. Photo by A’me Dalton for Virginia Tech.

The next day the students were given a tour of ZHAW Zürich University of Applied Science, led by Theo Whitwill, manager of exchange programs for ZHAW president's office within the international affairs office. Following the tour, students attended a workshop on what DEIB means in Switzerland, facilitated by Daniela Frau, ZHAW School of Management and Law diversity management delegate. During this workshop, students were tasked with reflection questions and asked to share feedback on ZHAW School of Management and Law’s approach to DEIB in Switzerland and to relate that approach to Pamplin’s own.

Daniela Frau, SML Diversity Management Delegate (left), and Michael Farley, Head of International Development & Projects (right), lead a workshop on what DEIB means in Switzerland. Photo by A’me Dalton for Virginia Tech.

Parliamentarian Brändle-Amolore joined the group on the afternoon of May 22 to lead a tour of Zürich Town Hall, which included an art exhibition titled “Blinde Flecken – Zürich und der Kolonialismus (Blind Spots - Zürich and Colonialism),” curated by Manda Beck, historian, and Andreas Zangger, historian, in collaboration with Anja Glover, anti-racism expert.

Parliamentarian Brändle-Amolo shared with students the purpose of the exhibition, aiming to create greater awareness of Zürich’s colonial ties and to show the impact that colonialism still has on the city to this day. Later joined by Manuela Leonhard assistant to Zürich’s mayor, Parliamentarian Brändle-Amolo introduced her art piece on display. 

“Before the Black Lives Matter Movement, after the death of George Floyd, we didn’t speak about racism openly in this country at all,” said Parliamentarian Brändle-Amolo when asked about the current state of racial and cultural affairs in Switzerland.

“Switzerland never acknowledged it had a racism problem and it has only just openly acknowledged that it had anything to do with the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Before that, it wasn't talked about at all. This exhibition is the first-ever exhibition in this country that is talking about the trans-Atlantic slave trade and what Switzerland, Zürich specifically, had to do with it. So, it is very special. It has never been done before.” 

Yvonne Apiyo Brändle-Amolo translates an exhibit from "Blind Spots - Zurich and Colonialism." Photo by A’me Dalton for Virginia Tech.

On the morning of May 23, the student groups presented their final projects. Students developed consulting firms for global businesses and organizations who want to establish a footprint in Switzerland, displaying their knowledge attained on topics such as international business challenges and opportunities, and how Swiss culture influences daily life and business practices. With a total of six groups, best practices, opportunities for prospective businesses, personal accounts and experiences, and issues of sustainability were brought together and shared with great success.

“I was initially intrigued by how a country like Switzerland can be a widespread experience for students to learn about DEIB,” said Priya Chinnareddyvari, a DEIB Around the World student. “However, I learned about the different cultures in the regions of this country and their versatility. Switzerland is an example of a successful country that coexists with multiple languages and cultures. This experience helped facilitate my understanding of how DEIB can be incorporated into various environments.”

Charis Tucker, a doctoral student in Hospitality and Tourism Management, leads a nightly group reflection. Photo by A’me Dalton for Virginia Tech.

“Studying abroad in Switzerland for international business and DEIB is an enriching opportunity,” said Keven Turner, a DEIB Around the World student. “Switzerland's renowned institutions, landscapes, and cultural diversity make it an ideal destination. I immersed myself in new cultures, deepened my appreciation for perspectives, and built intercultural skills. Overall, studying abroad in Switzerland offers a transformative experience, expanding knowledge, providing a global perspective, and building a diverse network for an inclusive world.”

DEIB Around the World expands international access for underrepresented and underserved populations while enhancing student cultural humility and practical skills broadly in a global business context, aligning with the third goal of Pamplin’s implementation plan for Strategic Initiative 5.6, Build a Model Inclusive Community: to advance the academic mission in Pamplin through DEIB.

DEIB Around the World is the first program of its kind to offer students the opportunity to travel abroad without the stressor of finances. All program fees including airfare, lodging, meals, and even passport expenses were covered for students. This program directly aligns with Virginia Tech’s President Tim Sands’ Beyond Boundaries vision, an initiative to dramatically improve the university’s access and affordability for students, which has been identified as a leading strategic priority for the university by Sands and the Board of Visitors.

“DEIB Around the World was created to offer diverse students the opportunity and access to experience learning abroad and all it has to offer,” said Janice Branch Hall, associate dean for DEIB. “Airfare, lodging, passport fees, and more were barriers that many of these students faced with a traditional study abroad program. We are actively working to create a more sustainable model for this experiential learning program in a way that articulates global and societal impact. We will continue to advocate for life-altering programs such as DEIB Around the World to foster greater impact. These students' lives will never be the same thanks to these unforgettable moments.

“This is just the beginning.”

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Written by A’me Dalton