While Virginia Tech is known for its excellence in fields like engineering, agriculture and football, foreign language studies isn't one that usually comes to mind.
The staff and faculty of the Office of Foreign Language and Literature, as well as the students involved in the program, aim to change that.
In the past few years, the size and scope of the department has grown significantly.
“I came to VT in in 2008. Since I was hired, the department has nearly doubled in the number of tenure and tenure track faculty, from 14 to 28, I believe,” said Dr. Debra Stoudt, a German professor and associate Dean in the college of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
The number of classes has grown from 217 during the 2009-2010 year to 251 for the 2011-2012 year.
Financially, the funding to the department depends on enrollment.
“Funding has increased to pay for faculty salaries...if for nothing else, just to cover the cost of the new professor,” said Robin Pennington, an office manager for the department.
Stoudt says that while the teachers have been integral in the growing success, that it's students who are revving up interest in foreign language and international travel. Interest extends outside of the actual department, with an increasing number of engineering and architecture students in opting to study and work abroad.
Stoudt explained that the cycle starts when students are bold enough to step out of their comfort zone and participate in internships and study abroad programs. Those students return to the U.S., bringing their experiences back with them and getting more students interested in going abroad themselves.
For the past few years, about 1,100 students have gone abroad each year.
“Our students are very active in getting the word out,” Stoudt said. She went on to say that cultural and language clubs are also influential in encouraging students to seek out opportunities abroad and in the classroom.
“It teaches new perspective, it definitely opened new doors for me,” said Philipp Kotlaba, this year's Outstanding Senior of the Foreign Language Department who participated in a study abroad in Berlin for the summer 2010, then interned with the Bundestag, Germany's Parliament, the following summer.
“It helped me stand out in law school applications.” said Kotlaba, who received three degrees in German, international studies and psychology, and will be attending Yale Law this fall.
But the students aren't the only ones to thank for the department's expansion.
“The growth of program is first and foremost students, but I like to the think to think the faculty has had something to do with it too," Stoudt said. "We're good teachers interested in innovation looking to develop our program.”
Less traditional languages have also gained popularity. This summer, for the first time since 2008, Virginia Tech offered a faculty-led study abroad program in Kyoto, Japan. For spring semester of 2009, only two Japanese classes were offered, both of which were elementary classes. The planned trip to Tokyo that summer was canceled due to lack of student sign-up.
For the upcoming fall semester, Japanese language classes will range from the elementary to advanced levels, with five classes offered in total.
Interest in different language waxes and wanes with each school year, with the numbers going up and down for each individual language. Students determine which classes will be offered from year to year based on enrollment.
If the language program is to maintain its slow expansion, it's the students who need to make the request.