Thanassis Rikakis, founding director of the Calhoun Discovery Program, takes a hands-on approach with the program's students. Lee Friesland for Virginia Tech

This fall, 40 first-year students stepped onto the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg as the inaugural cohort for the Calhoun Discovery Program.

Made possible by a generous gift from alumnus David Calhoun and led by founding director Thanassis Rikakis and Honors College Dean Paul Knox, the program establishes a unique learning experience. From day one, Calhoun Discovery Program students break down traditional academic barriers by collaborating with students from other disciplines to tackle real-world problems alongside multiple industry leaders.

Just more than two months after they began, a handful of students shared how the Calhoun Discovery Program is already positively affecting their lives.

What’s been your biggest takeaway from collaborating with students from other disciplines?

“It's a great to get a bunch of different perspectives from a bunch of different backgrounds. Most everyone is from a different background, and so there’s always enough of a mix of different perspectives. It makes you go outside your comfort zone and helps you see things you normally wouldn’t.” – Ariel Carter, computational modeling and data analytics, College of Science

“It’s really showed me a lot about myself. Everyone knows they have their own biases, but mine really showed when I began to work with other people who I never thought I would work with. People from different backgrounds and with different ways of solving problems, and I was working with them and seeing how my prejudgments might have been wrong about some of them.” – D’Arrin Calloway, business information technology, Pamplin College of Business

“It really is amazing to see how much stronger a group is with varied perspectives. When every member is contributing and engaged, so many better ideas come out of group discussion. I’ve begun to rely on my group so much, and it’s making a big difference.” – Will Poland, general engineering, College of Engineering

What’s been your biggest takeaway so far from your time spent working alongside industry partners?

“One of my favorite aspects of Calhoun is interacting with the industry partners. I have learned a lot about problem-solving and collaboration through what they have shared about their experiences. It was so helpful to learn the specific skills, such as catering presentations to specific audiences to make a more meaningful message and how to have successful team interactions in order to maximize results.” – Sumaiya Haque, creative technologies, College of Architecture and Urban Studies

“Working with our industry partners is making me more confident about enter the work force. It is also giving me more context and purpose to the projects we’re working on right now.” – Grace Ryan, industrial design, College of Architecture and Urban Studies

“When people like Dave Calhoun and people from Boeing talk to us, it just really shows that they care about us, and they’re not just doing it to show they're giving back. You can really tell that they care, and they want us to be successful.” – Calloway

Students in the Calhoun Discovery Program routinely work alongside industry leaders in attempting to solved our world's most complex problems. Lee Friesland/Virginia Tech

Have you had any “ah-ha” moments?

“Growing up, I didn't depend on people at all. I'm a 'I'll just do it myself' type person. But being in this program, you meet other people who are also independent and used to doing everything themselves. So when you're like working with team, it's different. It was kind of like an ah-ha moment watching everyone pull their own weight and do what we all assigned each other to do.” – Calloway

“It's just been this realization that we have to think about so many things with each problem. I think it's good we’re starting doing that early because I know a lot of college students don't start projects like this until their junior or senior years. They don't regularly think about stuff like sustainability or whether it's a good business model, and right now, we have to think about all that." – Carter

“There’s been some really amazing moments where I’ve finally connected and understood the important concepts that we are getting at. Systems thinking, being a change agent in the world, and being a lifelong learner, these ideas made no sense to me when they first mentioned them, but now they really resonate with me.” – Poland

“The ah-ha moment was realizing that to be successful in solving a problem, we must be focused on our users and stakeholders. Everyone involved in the process must be considered. We have to constantly think about their needs and the specific limitations our technology.” – Ryan

How has your experience so far in the Calhoun Discovery Program impacted the way you think about and approach problem-solving?

“I cannot express how much I have grown throughout the semester through CDP and the impact the curriculum has had on the way I approach problem-solving. The skills I’ve learned in the Calhoun program allow me to view problems from different angles and focus more on understanding the problem rather than jumping to a solution too early.”  – Haque

“One of the biggest things is the whole system thinking ... just understanding how things don't work independently, they're all part of a system so there's always a lot of interconnected parts. The things we've been doing are making me able to see that big picture.” – Poland

“I'm starting to look at problems in a broad sense. Before, if I was looking at a problem, I would go straight into one solution, and if that solution didn't work, I would struggle to try and do iterations.” – Carter

“I definitely think more about all the different aspects of a problem. What are the root causes? Who is being impacted and for how long? In finding a solution, I think not only whether or not I want it, but also, will it work for the users and how will it impact others. It’s been incredibly helpful to have that different perspective.” – Ryan

“I’ve learned to always look at things holistically, never just look into one part of something and to make sure you're not setting boundaries for yourself when you're thinking about problems. I've even just noticed now in everyday life, when approaching any problem, just on campus or anything like that, I always think about now how it affects other people and how it’s actually going to work." –  Calloway

— Written by Travis Williams