Linsey Barker, a Ph.D. student in industrial and systems engineering at Virginia Tech, maintains a weekly lunch date with fellow grad students to talk about new topics in the field.
Not in engineering, that is, but higher education. And it all started in Switzerland, where in 2007 Barker researched how quality assurance and assessment mechanisms might change as Europe moves toward greater student mobility.
Virginia Tech’s graduate dean, Karen P. DePauw, has for three years offered a short study abroad course intended to expose future professors to "global perspectives” on issues in higher education and faculty roles and responsibilities. “The future faculty will interact with colleagues around the world, and I think it’s important that each of us understands that the university where we might have earned our degree, that’s not the model for the world,” she says.
Students in the program -- all of whom can apply to participate only after completing two prerequisites in the university’s “Future Professoriate” graduate certificate program  -- study a particular issue in higher education while traveling to six universities in Italy and Switzerland. Students, for instance, have examined academic freedom, interdisciplinary programs, research funding, tenure and promotion, and the roles of graduate students and women, respectively, in the university -- all from a comparative perspective.
Students, who meet monthly with DePauw throughout the spring semester prior to the trip, have come from all eight of Virginia Tech's colleges. There's a mix of master's and Ph.D. students.
"One of the goals from my perspective -- besides the students doing their own individual projects -- is to look at the structure, the organization and structure of the university: the different disciplines, the student demographics, things like tuition (or not), the fees, how the graduate degrees or undergraduate degrees are put together. What are the requirements, whether or not tenure is a factor in universities, ... the way they run their courses, teaching loads for faculty. Do they have the graded course hours like we have, the lectures and labs? Do they have more of a seminar concept? What about examinations?" says DePauw, who teaches the course and largely funds it through the graduate school budget (which pays up to $800 toward each student's flight, travel and hotel costs, and most of the food expenses. Thirteen students went this year and last; 10 attended the first year.)
"It's a commitment that I make to part of their graduate education, which I happen to believe makes them well-prepared for working in universities," DePauw says. "If I can provide just a bit of an opportunity for our grad students, even if it's a limited number, if I can provide that opportunity for them, I thought, 'Let's do that.' "
This year, students met in Zurich on May 18, then spent 10 days visiting and meeting with officials (including presidents), faculty and students at six institutions: L'Accademia di Architettura di Mendrisio, Politecnico di Milano, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, and the Universities of Basel, Lugano and Zurich. This year, they also discussed trends in European higher education with the secretary general of the European University Association.
"It really is a unique opportunity that I'm fortunate to have had," says Brennan Shepard, a newly minted M.B.A. who studied student services and student engagement at European universities on this year's Swiss trip.
"You know now when you come back that there's more than one way to do things," says Shepard, who hopes to work in higher education administration. "While it may not answer all of your questions, you know now that there are questions that are worth asking."