Lucy Ferrari, Steger Center co-founder and international education trailblazer, honored as director emerita
Without Lucy Ferrari, there would be no Steger Center for International Scholarship, according to the center’s executive director, Sara Steinert Borella. “She has touched the lives and hearts of generations of students and set the stage for the Steger Center to become a vibrant place for international exchange.”
As faculty members of what is today known as the College of Architecture, Arts, and Design, Ferrari and her late husband, Olivio, were instrumental in launching Virginia Tech’s study abroad programs in the late 1960s. After years of leading these programs, the couple conceived the idea for a university-owned hub for European study abroad. They saw that idea become a reality in 1991, when the Virginia Tech Foundation purchased an 18th century villa in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland — a facility that would become the Steger Center.
Last fall, Ferrari retired from her service as a board member of the Olivio Ferrari Foundation, which was set up to help the Steger Center facilitate study abroad opportunities in Switzerland and across Europe. To commemorate her work as an educator and trailblazer for international scholarship, the foundation bestowed upon her the honorary title of director emerita.
When presenting her with this honor, the foundation’s board of directors members wrote that they felt “great admiration and appreciation” toward Ferrari and saw the honorary title as a fitting “recognition of her lifetime of leadership, service, and friendship.”
A legacy of international leadership
Lucy and Olivio Ferrari began their service to Virginia Tech and its students in 1965, when Olivio was recruited to help grow what was then the newly formed College of Architecture. While he spearheaded program development and taught architecture students, Lucy, who was adept with textiles and spoke seven languages, supported his efforts with a litany of initiatives.
“Lucy immediately wove herself into the fabric of the university,” said Frank Weiner, professor of architecture and curator of the Lucy and Olivio Ferrari Archive who has known Lucy Ferrari for more than 35 years. “With her unique background and skills, she greatly assisted Olivio in establishing Virginia Tech’s first study abroad program at a time when organizing international travel was especially challenging.”
She taught the college how to travel, Weiner said. “Before coming to Blacksburg, Lucy worked as a consultant at the Zurich train station, where she learned how to get anyone anywhere in the world — and she brought those skills to Virginia Tech.”
As the popularity of their international education program grew over the years, the couple soon realized that it needed a permanent, university-owned location. They envisioned a place where students could absorb the history and culture of Europe without the logistical challenges of arranging accommodations abroad. In 1990, the Ferraris found an ideal location in a country with which they were both intimately familiar: their homeland of Switzerland.
Said to originally have been the home of Abbondio Bernasconi, a member of one of the area’s founding families, Villa Maderni once served as the headquarters of the independent Republic of Riva San Vitale. When the Ferraris came across it in 1990, though, it had fallen into disrepair. However, the couple advocated for their vision, and a renovation project brought new life to the villa. It became the Center for European Studies and Architecture and, in 2014, was renamed for Charles W. Steger, Virginia Tech’s 15th president and a close friend and collaborator of the Ferraris. Today part of Outreach and International Affairs, the Steger Center for International Scholarship is a hub for Hokies of all majors to learn and explore in Europe.
A legacy of service
When they first arrived at Virginia Tech, the Ferraris met Ellen Braaten, who was working as assistant to the dean in the architecture department. Braaten, who witnessed the scope of the Ferraris’ contributions throughout their careers, described Lucy Ferrari’s impact on the university and its students as long-lasting and practical.
“You have to realize how many places Lucy served,” Braaten said. “She worked in the library, the language department, she worked to prepare students for travel, she spurred the college to pursue opportunities for students, and she kept Olivio focused.”
Braaten recalled standing with Lucy Ferrari in Villa Maderni — before the renovations — and marveling at the beauty and potential of the location in southern Switzerland.
Olivio Ferrari became the center’s first director, and Lucy served on the board of the Ferrari Foundation, established to facilitate the center's operations. After Olivio’s death in 1994, Lucy assumed his role as director for the next three years.
The recipient of numerous awards throughout his career at Virginia Tech, Olivio Ferrari was named an Alumni Distinguished Professor in 1982 and professor emeritus posthumously in 2013.
Lucy Ferrari, meanwhile, has been recognized as a member of the Ut Prosim Society for her philanthropy to the university. The couple established the Lucy & Olivio Ferrari Annual Scholarship and the Ferrari Study Abroad Award and have financially supported the Steger Center and the College of Architecture, Arts, and Design.
In 2015, the library in the Steger Center was named after the Ferraris, who had donated their extensive book collection to the center. “Naming the library after the Ferraris is a fitting tribute to two individuals who were so dedicated to the educational importance of international experiences and who played pivotal roles in developing Virginia Tech’s international travel program and the center in Riva San Vitale that has provided a home base for European studies for thousands of students,” Charles W. Steger said at the time.
Two years later, Lucy Ferrari donated more than 1,000 items to create the Ferrari Archive in Cowgill Hall. The collection includes many of the Ferraris’ original designs, paintings, prototypes, and other creations. It represents the critical role the couple played in establishing Virginia Tech’s architecture program.
Even after retiring as director of the Steger Center, Lucy Ferrari has continued to stay engaged with the university. She donated her time to the Ferrari Foundation board until stepping down in 2022 at the age of 93.
A legacy of friendship
Lucy Ferrari remained extensively involved in students’ experiences at the Steger Center — traveling across Switzerland with many cohorts of students over the years. Weiner said her presence on these tours was “an invaluable contribution to students’ education.” Even after retiring, she would meet with students at the center to answer questions and make presentations.
Weiner said that because of Ferrari’s role in founding the Steger Center, “she was seen almost as maternal figure to many students. Practically speaking, she was the source of many vitally important elements of their education at Virginia Tech.”
Each fall and spring, cohorts of undergraduate and graduate architecture students experience the Steger Center in person. In 2022, Leah Chapman was one of the 26 students studying in Riva. For her and her classmates, meeting Ferrari was a big deal. The students showed Ferrari the projects they were working on and talked to her for hours about architecture and the importance of international education.
“I got the impression that she sees us as her children and she wants us to excel,” Chapman said. She was also struck by “the work and effort that [the Ferraris] put in to get the center started. Acquiring the building would not have been easy for the university. The fact they were willing and able to do that says a lot about Virginia Tech and how the university seeks to help students grow.”
Studying at the Steger Center helped Chapman solidify her love of architecture and helped her feel more prepared to launch her career. “Traveling is so important as an architect. It’s one thing to study a building in class, but experiencing it in person is so different. A lot of being an architect is about your experiences and the observations you have of the world around you. Through my time at the Steger Center, my understanding of architecture and myself were both broadened.”
When Lucy Ferrari stepped down from the Ferrari Foundation board, the contributions she made to the College of Architecture, Art, and Design and to Virginia Tech’s international presence were recognized. In an intimate reception at the Steger Center, Ferrari was presented with the board’s resolution recognizing her as an honorary director emerita.
It was a warm and emotional moment for Weiner, who has witnessed firsthand how Ferrari’s efforts have affected students and many others. According to him, recognizing five decades of service was an important acknowledgement of her many contributions.
Kay Winzenried, a longtime member of the Ferrari Foundation board, has worked closely with Lucy Ferrari for years. “Her steadfast commitment to the vision and spirit of the international center that she and her husband, Olivio, founded, provided cross-cultural leadership, academic excellence, and personal enrichment for students, faculty, Ferrari Foundation board members, and the Riva San Vitale community,” Winzenried said.
Undoubtedly, Ferrari’s impact will continue to reverberate for years. In 2023, the Steger Center will not only house scores of Hokies studying, teaching, and researching in Europe, it will also host President Tim Sands and the inaugural Faculty Development Workshop focusing on leading study abroad programs.
“Lucy and Olivio established a strong foundation for both the university’s international education initiatives and the Steger Center that will provide transformative experiences for students for years to come,” Steinert Borella said. “As the Ferrari Foundation board of directors’ resolution recognized, Lucy Ferrari’s work at Virginia Tech has been a tapestry of leadership, service, and friendship decades in the making.”