Last spring, Cadet Walter Gonsiewski of Lebanon Township, New Jersey, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech, was one of seven cadets who traveled to Panama on a cultural immersion trip sponsored by the Olmstead Foundation. While there, he met a nun whose charitable work and outlook on life changed him forever.

In October, Gonsiewski was selected as a recipient of the Division of Student Affairs Aspire! Award, honoring his self-understanding and integrity. But, when he was interviewed for the award presentation, Gonsiewski didn’t want to talk about himself. He wanted to talk about Sister Barbara. 

Starting at the age of 20, Sister Barbara has devoted the last 65 years of her life to helping the people in an impoverished district in the city of Colόn. It was there, while on the Olmsted Foundation cultural immersion trip to Panama, that Gonsiewski met Sister Barbara. Despite her illness and age, she welcomed him with love and energy, and made a lasting impact on his life.

“Her amazing sacrifice truly demonstrated to me what it means to embody service before self,” said Gonsiewski. “I was pleased to make a positive impact on the community through a service project, but I found that the community made a greater impact on me. Through this visit to Colόn, I realized how fortunate I am to be granted the opportunity to better myself; how privileged I am to have the life I have.”

Gonsiewski had never been out of the United States before, and the travel experience changed him. He said it gave him a chance to fully understand how traveling forces one to leave familiar, secure routines to absorb new ideas, values, and cultures. 

“Thanks to the Olmsted Foundation, not only did I learn about the country of Panama and its people, I also learned a lot about myself,” said Gonsiewski. “I gained an invaluable perspective on life and culture. I know the skills and lessons learned from this trip will make me a wiser and more understanding leader in the future.”

Gonsiewski is a dean’s list student and has accumulated many honors and awards during his time at Virginia Tech. He is one of six cadets who will intern with Northrup Grumman. Following graduation, Gonsiewski plans to fulfill a lifelong dream by joining the United States Air Force as a second lieutenant and training as a pilot.

Gonsiewski’s approach to life is, “There is no excuse to be mediocre when you can use all the things around you to better yourself.”

He is devoted to reaching his highest potential — academically, personally, emotionally, physically, spiritually, and through his love of music. He has served in multiple leadership positions within the Corps of Cadets and loves helping other students become their best selves.

“There is a great deal of satisfaction in seeing them succeed,” said Gonsiewski.

Gonsiewski said he is most proud of his brother, who is a Virginia Tech sophomore and just joined the Corps of Cadets. He is most inspired by his mother. His father passed away unexpectedly when he was 12, and Gonsiewski’s mother raised him and his siblings.

Gonsiewski said he admires her work ethic, her dedication, and her compassion for people. His mother is also pursuing a degree and there is a friendly competition when it comes to grades. Mom usually wins.

Each year, the Division of Student Affairs recognizes 25 students who embody Virginia Tech's Aspirations for Student Learning.

In October, November, February, March, and April, these exceptional students are honored with Aspire! Awards. 

Anyone can nominate a student for an Aspire! Award. Nomination information, along with Aspire! Award dates, can be found online.

Written by Sandy Broughton and Holly Paulette.

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