Sumaiya Haque looked at many paths for her post-high-school future, but for a time the perfect route was unclear.

“I wanted something, but I just couldn’t find exactly what it was,” said Haque, a graduating senior at Langley High School in McLean, Virginia.

A recipient of the 2019 Student Peace Awards of Fairfax County for her work using photography to help children overcome trauma in Bangladesh, much of her college search focused on institutions with well-known art history programs. But a simple email describing Virginia Tech’s Honors College’s Calhoun Discovery Program changed her path and brought her future into focus.

“No other school offered me this kind of opportunity to work in an environment where I’ll be able to collaborate with students from other disciplines,” said Haque, who plans to major in creative technologies. “It opened my eyes to a new way to make a difference through my education. It just really excites me, and it drew me to Tech.”

Haque will be one of 41 incoming Hokies with top-tier talents who make up the Calhoun Discovery Program’s inaugural cohort. They will be the first to experience a new curriculum that cuts across traditional academic boundaries by fostering teamwork among students and faculty from vastly different majors.

This unique platform was made possible by alumnus David Calhoun’s record-setting $20 million donation to the Honors College. A 1979 graduate and the senior managing director for Blackstone, Calhoun’s gift helped launch a pilot program that will equip students for success by allowing them to explore and solve real-world problems in the type of collaborative and diverse environments they will find in the workplace.

The incoming class of Calhoun Discovery Program students, which resulted from thousands of applications and hundreds of hours of interviews, represents the first successful outcome for the pilot; out of the 47 students offered, 41 have selected to join the program this fall.

The program’s student body is more than 50 percent female. Nearly a quarter of the inaugural cohort of students is from populations that are underrepresented or underserved at the at the university, and 17% is first-generation college students. Nine different degree programs will participate, ranging from business information technology and electrical and computer engineering to communication and creative technologies.

A Calhoun Discovery Program student.
“I don’t really believe you can solve some of the world’s greatest problems alone or through one approach,” said Sumaiya Haque, an incoming student in the Calhoun Discovery Program. “You need to approach problems from different angles. Not a lot of other schools offer that, so this is really exciting to me.”

As part of the Beyond Boundaries long-term vision, President Tim Sands charged the program’s founding director Thanassis Rikakis and Honors College Dean Paul Knox with piloting new ways to equip students for success.

“We knew this was only going to work if we could get a really diverse student body,” Rikakis said. “Diverse in training and experiences and diverse in background. We’re really excited about the makeup of this group of students. It’s showing that 18-year-olds are committed to a more collaborative and reflective world that arises from working in diverse cohorts.”

Each student will receive a full-tuition scholarship for four years and an experiential learning grant of $2,500 each school year, as well as 24/7 access to the Calhoun Discovery Studio in Hillcrest Hall. The studio, which includes its own prototype modeling area, will serve as a problem-solving headquarters, where students from across nine disciplines work not only with each other, but also with university faculty from those disciplines and with industry partners, such as Boeing.

“We’re trying to respond to a global economy where students have to be able to work with others,” said Knox. “So, instead of waiting until they get out to be thrown in with one another, the idea with the Calhoun Program is they work together across disciplines and with industry from day one.”

Boeing will support the studio by funding full-time Boeing Distinguished Professors of Practice, who will divide their time between Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus and Boeing’s multiple locations worldwide. In addition, Boeing staff will lend technical expertise by serving as visiting industry mentors, leading workshops, giving lectures and demonstrations, and helping to place students in internships.

“The majority of the employers we talk to like the idea of students crossing disciplines and knowledge sectors, like academia, industry, and community, constantly, as part of their learning experience,” Rikakis said. “But this can only work if all the participating sectors have a full commitment to exploratory modes of knowledge generation and learning. If they are willing to put skin in the game, that is the real difference-maker. That buy-in is critical to providing a truly transdisciplinary experience from day one and creating the global thinkers and problem-solvers needed for the future.”

The endless possibilities of such a supportive ecosystem is what convinced Will Poland to stay close to home and join the program’s inaugural cohort, rather than seek a future at other high-ranking academic institutions.

“I think what’s really special about this program is it’s about getting people together from different disciplines and specialties to solve problems,” said Poland, a senior at Blacksburg High School, located just a few miles from the campus where he will begin his university experience this fall.

“After getting this opportunity, I couldn’t turn it down, so I withdrew [my application] from M.I.T.,” Poland said. “It just didn’t make sense to go anywhere else when I have it all right here.”

The program

Following the visionary lead of Rikakis, a team of faculty members was pulled together to bring the innovative curriculum to life in an expedited fashion.

“Thanassis is leading the charge,” said Tom Martin, professor of electrical and computer engineering and a member of the program’s design team. “He’s primarily responsible for all this.”

To help form the program, Rikakis tapped into the same vision used when leading the establishment of the university-wide transdisciplinary discovery communities, known as Destination Areas, and leaned heavily on the Beyond Boundaries vision as a roadmap.

“The program will leverage ongoing work at Virginia Tech in general education pathways and transdisciplinary problem-solving initiatives,” Rikakis said. “We aim to foster reflective discourse among people with radically different intelligences; people who are focused on solving complex societal problems, but also mastering multiperspective reflective practice. This will result in graduates able to integrate multiple realities in their work, which will lead to new insights and greater innovation.”


“After getting this opportunity, I couldn’t turn it down, so I withdrew [my application] from M.I.T.,” said Will Poland, an incoming student in the Calhoun Discovery Program's first cohort.

A Calhoun Discovery Program student.
“After getting this opportunity, I couldn’t turn it down, so I withdrew [my application] from M.I.T.,” said Will Poland, an incoming student in the Calhoun Discovery Program's first cohort.

Virginia Tech mathematics professor Mark Embree, a former honors student and the university’s most recent Rhodes Scholar, said teamwork characterized the program’s creation.

“In the same way that we will challenge students to cultivate interdisciplinary collaboration among themselves, we have been tasked with designing this program in a collaborative and interdisciplinary way,” Embree said.   

The faculty members’ work resulted in a curriculum that includes problem-based studios, where students will work together across majors towards solutions. The program will also offer 40 one-hour credit courses, called “modules,” that supply enough exposure to other majors to create the shared vocabulary needed for collaboration.

“If I say the word ‘model’ to an [electrical and computer engineering] student, they think, mathematical model,” explained Martin, the engineering professor and design team member. “[Industrial design] students think of a physical model … and business students think of a business model: ‘How am I going to monetize this thing?’ You have to know which one you’re talking about in the moment to work together.”

As well as curbing misunderstandings, the module courses are also designed to encourage a communal respect for what each discipline brings to solving a problem.

“You’re not getting a minor in it, you’re learning just enough to communicate,” Martin said.

Faculty team member Lara Khansa said the extent to which students will solve problems and work on specific projects is one special aspect of the Calhoun Discovery Program.

“The students from day one will be presented a project or a real-world problem from industry, and they’ll be working on that throughout their four years of studios,” said Khansa, associate dean for undergraduate programs in the Pamplin College of Business. “I don’t want to say it’s the only one in the world, but it’s one of the few programs that has all of these components. The disciplinary depth, the transdisciplinary knowledge, and the service piece that’s focused on real-world problems that we hope will solve humanity’s issues.”

She predicted: “The students that come out of this program will be superior.”

The impact

Ripple effects of the Calhoun Discovery Program pilot learning experience will likely be felt throughout the Honors College, Virginia Tech, and other forward-looking institutions in higher education.

“We have great minds trying to implement a very unique higher education innovation, and if it works, it’s not just great for the university and Virginia, but also for the nation and world,” Khansa said. “The mindset of higher education itself could change.”

Already the development process has helped leadership begin to rethink the structure of the entire Honors College.

“The momentum and ideas associated with the Calhoun Discovery Program have helped me and others work toward a revised framework for Honors education here,” Knox said. “So, Calhoun’s investment is not only developing a progressive and innovative program inspired by him, it’s also driving a bigger change.”

One highly visible aspect of this change will be the development of an Honors College-wide SuperStudio, which will be modeled after the Calhoun Discovery Studio and is tentatively slated to open in the winter of 2020. The exact location has yet to be revealed.

As the first group of students ventures through the Calhoun Discovery Program, many university leaders will be watching in hopes of implementing similarly successful approaches to the needs of their own departments and colleges.

“What I’m really excited about in the Calhoun Discovery Program is trying some new and innovative things around teaching and learning,” said College of Engineering Dean Julia Ross. “They’re really thinking out how to restructure the learning that students do, and are doing it in some very interesting ways.”

Ross said the process and results from the problem-based learning strategies and partnerships with industry would be especially interesting to observe.

With the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering heavily involved in the program, Ross believes the College of Engineering will benefit from having a front row seat to gather insights from the pilot.

“I think for the College of Engineering, we have to figure out what pieces can scale broadly to a larger number of students,” Ross said. “Those are things we really need to pay attention to, because we need to be innovative at the college and throughout the university.”

With the program now shaped and the first students’ arrival on the horizon, excitement is building among those directly involved, and the university community as a whole, to get started and make an impact.

“I don’t really believe you can solve some of the world’s greatest problems alone or through one approach,” said Sumaiya, the incoming student. “You need to approach problems from different angles. Not a lot of other schools offer that, so this is really exciting to me."

Written by Travis Williams

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