International students from the Virginia Tech Language and Culture Institute had front-row seats at the U.S. Capitol as Vice President Mike Pence cast a historic tiebreaking vote to confirm Betsy DeVos as education secretary.

The students and several of their instructors were on a field trip at the Capitol Building. Sixteen of them were watching in the visitors gallery as the Senate narrowly confirmed DeVos. The students, who hail from seven different countries, are studying at the institute’s National Capital Region location in Fairfax, Virginia.

 “Walking inside the building made us feel special . . . because we were walking under the same roof as the most important people,” said Abdulaziz Alfraikh, of Saudi Arabia. "We were lucky that the day we were visiting there was a vote to choose the secretary of education, so we were able to attend the Senate session and see the vote live with so many famous senators. It was amazing to see how democratic America is.”

Pence’s vote marked the first time a vice president has broken a tie on a Cabinet nominee’s Senate confirmation.

“To be able to witness this historic moment, along with seeing in person so many critical players in American politics, was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” faculty member Andrew Davis said.

Student Humaid Rashed Al-Mheiri said he was impressed that even though he is from the United Arab Emirates, he was allowed to witness the vote.

“It was a new experience and taught us something about American history,” he said.

“This was a true testament to the opportunities afforded to our students living and studying in the National Capital Region,” faculty member Inge McKenney said.

The field trip was one of several around the Washington area organized each term by the institute, part of Outreach and International Affairs. Other recent trips have included visits to the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the Supreme Court, the Capital Area Food Bank, and the Washington Auto Show.

The students are all part of the institute’s Intensive English Program, which, in addition to helping them improve their language skills, teaches them about American culture to prepare them for success in their academic and professional lives. Many go on to enroll as undergraduates at Virginia Tech or other U.S. universities.

“The field trips are important, because they expose students to our everyday culture,” said Guennadi Bratichko, assistant director for student services. “In addition to learning English grammar and pronunciation, our students learn skills that are important outside the classroom. They learn to interact with American people who are not their classmates or instructors, and, as happened during our field trip to the Capitol, they see in real time how American democracy works.”

In addition to watching the Senate session, students also received a guided tour of the historical areas of the Capitol. They learned about the building’s past and got to see the Crypt, the Rotunda, and National Statuary Hall.

“I was really fascinated by the hidden details in the building,” said Mashari J. Alharbi, of Saudi Arabia, who said he now better understands why people often describe the Capitol as the “Temple of Liberty.” “We were really amazed by the huge building.”

Share this story