Leah Lord, a junior environmental policy and planning major, recently decided to make positive lifestyle changes after a study abroad trip to Europe this past summer.

“It (the trip) really changed how I do things now that I’m in the United States,” she said.  “I try to bike more often, ride the bus, and be more sustainable in simple ways, like the Europeans already live.”

For 22 days, Lord and 16 Virginia Tech students explored a variety of locations, including the Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and parts of France, as part of a trip with the College of Architecture and Urban Studies to study sustainability policymaking and planning.

The course was led by the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) professors Todd Schenk and Ralph Buehler, who had extensive research experience and connections to universities and practitioners in the countries.   Buehler has been leading study abroad programs like this for seven years and Schenk for three.

The students met with university experts, local partners, and visited the European parliament while learning about the ways that various governments and the private and nonprofit sectors are focusing on sustainability.

This included everything from air pollution and sea level rises to overcrowded populations and urban transport.

“I definitely think I gained a better sense of sustainability because a lot of times after discussions we would talk about how these issues relate back to our hometowns around the United States, and how Blacksburg and Virginia Tech are working on being more sustainable and what practices could potentially be implemented back here,” said Michael Bannon, a junior who is studying environmental policy and planning.

The students started off their trip to Prague, and continued to Ostrava, Czech Republic, to explore economic, social, and environmental sustainability.

The second stop of the trip took the students to Budapest, Hungary.   Students visited with a civil society organization that is aiming to help immigrants and discussed Hungary’s anti-immigration approach and how that creates tensions with other Western European countries.

They revisited the topic of immigration during a visit to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.   Here, politicians were trying to find a Europe-wide solution to the refugee crisis.

The third stop took students to Venice, Italy.  Bannon said this was his favorite part of the trip because of the culture, churches, gondola rides, and visiting Venice International University.

Students saw how Venice is dealing with sea level rise.   They learned from a local expert and took a tour of the lagoon by boat to see how the city has been transformed and the massive MOSE flood control gates designed to hold the Adriatic Sea back during high tides.

Also, students saw how Venice is flooded with tourists.   They discussed the issues and proposed solutions for overcrowding, including restrictions and fees.   The visit also overlapped with the world-famous Biennale of Architecture, which is an international architecture exhibit.   It gave students an incredible opportunity to visit pavilions and learn what groups all around the world are doing to advance sustainability.

After leaving Venice, students went to Virginia Tech’s Steger Center in Switzerland and then traveled to several other countries to explore different approaches to making urban transportation less harmful to the environment.

The trip had a lasting impact on  many of the students.   Since returning to the United States, Lord said she is more excited about her major, and she now has an idea about what she wants to do once she graduates.   She is more interested in city planning and energy, and her dream job is to work for a transportation company, such as Tesla.

“This trip made me so much more excited to graduate and go into my field and really try to make a difference in the ways we view energy and transportation,” said Lord.