Monday, July 26, 2021

In memoriam: Susan McCartney Piercy

Susan Piercy

To see Susan Piercy — always poised, like the lifelong dancer she was — in front of a classroom of international students at the Language and Culture Institute was to see a master at work.

“Teaching here is very enriching,” she once said, “because you get to see students from diverse cultures collaborate. As they get to know each other, they learn a lot more about the world and maybe correct some misperceptions about other countries and other cultures — including ours.”

Susan, whose career at the LCI stretched from 2000 until her retirement in 2017, died of cancer at her Blacksburg home on July 22 at the age of 69.

At the LCI, she taught English as a second language and, in 2013, was named the assistant director for special programs. Over the years, she led programs such as the Humphrey Fellows and the Mandela Fellows — prestigious State Department programs that brought international development leaders from around the world to Virginia Tech.

“Inspired by the likes of Sen. Eugene McCarthy and the great educator Paulo Freire, Susan was passionate about social awareness and social justice, incorporating associated principles into her teaching. She was a gifted teacher who enjoyed her students tremendously,” Director Don Back said. “Susan was dearly loved by all of us here at the institute and will be greatly missed.”

Longtime colleague Pinar Gurdal said she was always amazed by Susan’s strength and resilience. “No matter what she was going through, she didn't lose her energy, beauty, and connection to life and her profession, her connection to art,” she said.

Liz Bowles, who started working at the LCI just before Susan, said she remembers sitting next to Susan in the faculty workroom, sharing stories about their daughters, and comparing notes about their students and the joys and frustrations they brought with them. “I could always count on her for an encouraging word or a helpful suggestion. She made a difference in my life and in the lives of so many others.”

A California native, Susan received her bachelor’s degree in art history from California State University, Fresno. She did graduate work at the University of Arizona and the University of California, Irvine, taught English in Mexico, and directed an adult literacy program in California before moving to Blacksburg to study at Virginia Tech, where she earned a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction.

Susan once said, “It makes me really proud when former students call me a year or two after they’ve finished here, when they’re back in their home country, to talk about what they learned at the institute and how it’s helped in their lives.”

After hearing that she was battling cancer, dozens of Fellows responded with stories, pictures, and videos reflecting on the impact she’d had on their lives. As her obituary notes, “Her work gave her great joy and touched many lives.”

“She was more than an English teacher. In just a short time, with her warm, sensitive, creative, and fun way, she became a very dear and close friend,” said Katia Luli Nakashigue, a former Humphrey Fellow from Brazil.

Gulnar Magauina, a Humphrey Fellow from Kazakhstan, said, “She was a unique person, courageous, and very fond of life. And we learned a lot from Susan about the U.S., language, culture, tradition, and people! She set an example of overcoming difficulties and loving life.”

Daniel Riche, a Mandela Fellow from Liberia, said Susan “taught us to give back to our community.” In her honor, he said, a women’s leadership program he developed and helps run in his country would be renamed for her. “Her legacy and training will forever live.” 

Susan is survived by her husband, Fred Piercy, professor emeritus of human development; her daughter and son-in-law, Adriane and Matt; and her grandson, Oren. 

A celebration of her life will be held at a date to be determined at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Blacksburg. In lieu of flowers, donations in her honor may be sent to the American Cancer Society

Monday, May 3, 2021

Virginia Tech helps launch English language center at Iraqi university battered by Islamic State

The University of Mosul's central library, once one of the largest in the Middle East, was left in ruins following the occupation of Islamic State forces. 

The library at the University of Mosul was once among the finest in Western Asia, housing more than a million books, maps, and rare historical materials. But in 2014, when Islamic State forces captured the Iraqi city, the grand library and about 80 percent of the sprawling, tree-lined campus were destroyed. Many faculty members were slaughtered or forced to flee.

Today, more than three years after the militant group was finally ousted from Mosul, students are returning, the library and other buildings are being rebuilt, and faculty members are re-establishing links with the international community.

The Virginia Tech Language and Culture Institute is contributing to that staggering task by helping launch an English language center at the University of Mosul. The institute is providing virtual training in English language instruction and assessment and relevant administrative procedures to faculty members in Iraq.

“The goal is for our Iraqi colleagues to learn what they need to be able to open and operate a center that will serve their university community,” Director Donald Back said. “We also hope to build lasting relationships with faculty members there, especially around academic publishing.”

Improving the English proficiency of faculty and students in Mosul will allow the university to better engage with the world and develop academically, scientifically, and culturally, said Rawaa Qasha, director of the Department of Scholarships and Cultural Relations and an assistant professor of computer science.

Read more about the partnership with the University of Mosul...

Thursday, May 21, 2020

AdvantageVT students complete first-ever online orientation

Today, the LCI’s AdvantageVT Program concluded its first 100% online orientation for new international students.

These 13 students, preparing to start the summer semester, began their orientation earlier this week setting up their PID and passwords. They then went to Canvas to participate in the AdvantageVT Summer 2020 Orientation course.

In this course, students completed four Modules: My VT Account, Communication, Student Resources and Support, and Academics. Each module consisted of a video presentation and corresponding quiz, with questions relating to the module topic to ensure students understood the orientation information.

Students were to complete the orientation by May 20 and attend a mandatory live orientation via Zoom on May 21.

They were introduced to LCI and AdvantageVT staff. Prof Vanessa Ghaderi, who is this cohort’s academic advisor, discussed academic and conduct expectations for AdvantageVT students.
Students were invited to participate in areas of the orientation while getting a taste of what their classroom sessions will be like in a Zoom classroom. A Q&A followed, along with students introducing themselves to each other.

The students attended from various cities in China as well as Blacksburg and Washington, D.C. One dedicated student recently returned to China and attended from a hotel while in quarantine.

A similar session is scheduled for Tuesday, May 26 for our new Intensive English Program students. They have already begun their Canvas orientation course.

— Jana Moore

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Author tells class what it takes to report on 'Survivor Stories'

Bonnie Sumner's Reading/Writing 550 class chats by Zoom with author Cara Tabachnick (bottom row, center).

The 17-year-old survivor of a plane crash in the Peruvian rainfores, the soccer team trapped in Thailand's Tham Luang cave system, the sole survivor of a serial killer in Los Angeles, and a survivor of the Babi Yar massacre in Ukraine. These are a few of the stories included in Cara Tabachnick’s book, "The Greatest Survival Stories of All Time."

Tabachnick recently joined the Language and Culture Institute's Reading/Writing 550 class, which read chapters from her book as a complement to the unit “Survival Skills” in their textbook. Students wrote journal responses to the stories and analyzed how the people demonstrated any of the six concepts of survival described in their textbook reading “Mind Over Matter.”

The author answered questions from students such as whether she had become friends with any of the survivors she wrote about, how she got people to talk with her, which was her favorite story, and if she would be able to survive an ordeal similar to those she wrote about.

In response to the first two questions, Tabachnick told the students that one of the rules of journalism is to not become friends with the people one is reporting on. She also said people generally are willing to talk about their stories and want to be heard.

Her favorite story, she said, was about the marathon runner who got lost in the Sahara Desert between Morocco and Algeria. Her response to her ability to survive a traumatic experience was that she felt that not only she, but most people, could summon the strength to survive, but what was often more difficult was dealing with the emotions following the experience.

One surprising thing Tabachnick shared was that for her, writing was akin to running: painful while you are doing it but extremely satisfying when a project is complete.

She does extensive research on her subjects prior to any interviews or writing. In addition, she said, she does not write questions in advance of her interviews but takes a more organic approach to interviewing.

 A graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism, Tabachnick is a former crime reporter for Newsday. She served as deputy director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, where she was managing editor of The Crime Report.

For the past 10 years, Tabachnick has worked as a freelance journalist. Some of her recent articles include “The Swift and Merciless Execution of Corrine Sykes,” “Morocco’s ‘mule women’ risk their lives hauling goods from across the border from Spain,” and “The teenager who ran from Africa and now hopes to run to Spain.”
— Bonnie Sumner

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Argentine students tour NYC and Washington

Students in the Friends of Fulbright Argentina program meet with Jorge Chediek, director of the UN Office for South-South Cooperation.

By Ayelen Silva Reis and Camila Barbeito
Friends of Fulbright Argentina Undergraduate Exchange Program 2020 

Last week, we had the opportunity to visit New York and Washington. First, we went to the United Nations in New York City. We toured the General Assembly and other meeting arenas. We learned about what the UN does to help countries around the world to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. For example, we learned that rapid economic growth in countries such as China and India has lifted millions out of poverty, but progress has been uneven.

We also had a meeting with Jorge Chediek, the director of the UN Office for South-South Cooperation, and a Fulbrighter himself. He explained to us his work there, which is to facilitate collaboration between developing countries as well as with the developed countries through a process called “triangulation.” He also explained how we can be involved in UN activities. Then, we visited Ambassador Martin Garcia Moritan, who is the outgoing ambassador of the Permanent Mission of Argentina to the UN. We talked about Argentina in the United Nations, focusing on history and challenges for the future.

While in New York, we visited the Museum of Modern Art, the Natural History Museum, the 9-11 Memorial, and iconic places such as Central Park and Time Square as well as the extraordinary centerpiece of Hudson Yards, its spiral staircase, “the Vessel.” This interactive artwork was imagined by Thomas Heatherwick and Heatherwick Studio as a focal point where people can enjoy new perspectives of the city and one another from different heights, angles, and vantage points. We witnessed the most amazing sunset over the Hudson River.

Our second stop was Washington, D.C. We visited the Virginia Tech Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center, where the director, Susan Piedmont-Palladino, showed us the building with its studios, library, and workshops and we discussed with students are doing. She had invited two Argentine architects, alumni of WAAC. Most of the current students are also working due to high demand.

Students tour the the Virginia Tech Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center with Director Susan Piedmont-Palladino.

We had a historical tour of Old Town guided by Paul Emmons, associate dean of graduate studies. One of the most interesting historical buildings is the Christ Church, built more than 235 years ago. It was the church where George Washington worshiped. The Civil War altered life at Christ Church. When the U.S. Army occupied Alexandria in 1861, it seized many churches for use as hospitals or stables. However, the reputation of Christ Church as Washington’s place of worship preserved it as a church where U.S. Army chaplains conducted services. Parishioners who remained in the area worshiped elsewhere. In 1866, Christ Church, its interior intact, was restored to its parishioners. President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited the church in 1942.

After that we visited the World Bank in downtown DC, and we had lunch with Antonio Blasco, who has been a public sector specialist and financial manager for the bank for more than 20 years. He explained how the World Bank works, the different agencies that are part of the World Bank group, such as the Multilateral International Guarantee Agency, the International Finance Cooperation – the private sector arm of the WB – and the International Monetary Fund, among others. Our visit coincided with the Korean Innovation Week, so we had the chance to visit the exhibition and consult some of the stands and presentations.

Finally, we met Minister Gerardo Diaz Bartolome at the Argentine Embassy. He received us in a very warm way and made us feel like we were at home. He described the different functions of the Embassy and how they can help Argentine people in the United States. In our free time, we walked around Georgetown University and went to see the Lincoln Memorial, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the National Air and Space Museum. During our last day, we had a tour of the U.S. Capitol and the Library of Congress.

At the World Bank in Washington.

Overall, it was an amazing week considering all the meetings we had and all the places we visited. This trip made us reflect about our lives and our futures. It had a big impact on us. We are sure we will always cherish these memories.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Argentine students accept engineering 'boat challenge'

Ashley Taylor, of the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity, introduced students in the Friends of Fulbright Argentina exchange program to the "boat challenge."

Student Matías Dogliani explains:

To keep learning about design process, data gaps and work team, Dr. Taylor Ashley and her team challenged us.

We had to work in teams of three people to construct a cargo boat. The challenge consisted of two rounds. At first we had to make a prototype with just one limitation: its base size. After trying this prototype with different loads in water we could see the strengths and weaknesses of our design. All three models were completely different from one another

Using the knowledge that we had acquired making the first prototype, we were asked to go on the second round. Here we had to improve designs so that they could take more weight, but also we had to consider some new limitations, too. Now the height was limited as well as the budget for the materials. Believe it or not we had to change many things from our original ideas, and we only had 30 minutes

The competition was about which boat could take more load and resist more time. Regardless of which team won, it’s worth saying that all teams incredibly improved their designs in terms of the cargo they could take. That is something that really impressed us since it was very difficult to leave behind our original boats and construct new ones: cheaper and with different sizes.

We have learned a lot about teamwork. Since we had a few minutes we had to split the task, listen to others' ideas, and learn from each other and from our previous mistakes.

Last but not least, we have also learned about design process and how to avoid data gaps. We could see that mistakes are part of the process and made us understand many things for future models. Data gaps in this challenge were also a big problem since if we had had all the information about the materials and its properties (and prices) we would have probably built a cheap prototype that worked better. In that case we could see that it would have been great to have the expertise of people of the area.

This challenge was amazing to us. We learned a lot but also we really had a great time. That’s why we would like to thank a lot to Ashley and Alex, who were in charge of the activity. We will take back home this moment and its learnings!

Friday, October 11, 2019

LCI students get to see where the money gets made

Students and faculty from Northern Virginia recently toured the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C. This agency is the nation’s sole producer of U.S. paper currency.

The BEP also advises other federal agencies on document security matters and also produces engraved documents such as military commissions and award certificates, and special security documents for a variety of government agencies.

Below, LCI students share their impressions of their tour.