An Extraordinary Education
By Albert Raboteau
For an engineering student trying to learn Mandarin, interning in China for General Electric is one of the greatest learning opportunities imaginable. Want proof? Ask John Helveston, who got just such an opportunity thanks to a Virginia Tech University Honors scholarship.
"The work is pretty awesome and the experience is invaluable" the Chesapeake, Va., native recently wrote on the blog he was posting from China. "I cannot disclose what I am working on, but I can say that I am on GE's Wind Turbine Conceptual Design Advanced Technology Operations ... team and that I am working with some really smart people."
Helveston plans to graduate in 2010 with a major in engineering science and mechanics and minors in violin performance and Asian-area studies. His international learning experience, which dovetails with his studies, was funded by the Wayne and Claire Horton scholarship, one of several donor-created opportunities for which Virginia Tech’s honors students can apply.
These scholarships allow young people to do extensive research or service projects, often abroad. And honors officials are raising money for additional scholarships through The Campaign for Virginia Tech: Invent the Future.
Caitlin Cossaboom started working for a veterinarian in exchange for treatment of the crippled horse she had fallen in love with and adopted. She fell in love with veterinary medicine, too. This summer, scholarship money from Virginia Tech’s University Honors program will allow Cossaboom to assist veterinarians in Iceland and Ireland.
"It's such a good opportunity," said the junior from Salisbury, Md., who spent last summer working at the university’s Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center in Leesburg, Va. She plans to attend veterinary school after completing a dual-degree in animal poultry sciences and dairy science.
Elizabeth Traut, a native of Vienna, Va., won a Horton Scholarship and studied at the University of Zaragoza, Spain, where she helped design a solar-powered air-conditioning system. "It definitely helped me internationalize my education -- broaden my education," said the May 2008 graduate. "And the project I chose gave me research experience. Those things have been useful already." Traut is in her first year of Carnegie Mellon's graduate program for mechanical engineering.
James Tyler Mills, a Roanoke, Va., native, who will graduate this May, used a Jerry and Leslie Gough Scholarship to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border and observe the type of medical care available to illegal immigrants. He made the trip the summer after his sophomore year, and discussed it during his successful entrance interview for the University of Virginia’s medical school.
Because of the scholarship, Mills said, "I was able to demonstrate that I had taken initiative to step out of my comfort zone and think about medicine in a different way. It came up in my interview, and I got into my top-choice medical school because of it."
Brian McDonald's Horton Scholarship allowed him to spend six months last year at Tsinghua University, in Beijing, China, studying the effects of urbanization on water quality. The Fairfax, Va., native said international experience is especially important, given today's global business environment, because "studying in another country is one gateway to finding future opportunities there." He is now a doctoral candidate in environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and has been awarded an Achievement Rewards for College Scientists Fellowship.
Allowing students to discover such opportunities was the rationale that Wayne Horton (mechanical engineering ’50) cited when asked why he and his wife created their scholarship. The couple, who spent much of their careers abroad, said that cultural exchange not only is good for students, it helps the United States' image by showcasing the nation’s brightest students. "I'm really anxious to have Americans who can represent the United States," Wayne Horton said, "just as the Chinese and French, and so forth, have their people here speaking the language and handling themselves well."
Professor of Classics Terry Papillon, the honors program director, says endowed scholarships and other private support is crucial for a program like his. Honors programs compete for students whose grades, test scores, and accomplishments could get them into any school. Those students are more likely to choose a program with the resources, such as scholarships or excellence funds, that make extraordinary educational experiences possible.