Maria Jernigan, a triple major from Virginia Beach, Virginia, thinks about how virtual reality could enhance high school learning. She absently taps an old-fashioned fountain pen against her notebook as she outlines a project that transports students to Washington, D.C., and Beijing to explore political issues that affect both the United States and China. She hopes the technology will motivate students to solve global issues through collaboration.

The four years that Jernigan has spent at Virginia Tech exploring ways to make learning more meaningful for high school students have led her on a journey of academic excellence, culminating with two honors: the Virginia Tech Undergraduate Student of the Year Award and the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences Outstanding Senior Award.

Jernigan’s quest to explore a nontraditional combination of majors led her to choose Virginia Tech and be part of its Honors College. She received a Calhoun Liberal Arts Scholarship that covered not only her tuition and expenses, but also summer enrichment funds. The Honors College, she said, encouraged her to explore combining majors in a way that would fulfill her interest and goals.

She chose to major in philosophy, Spanish, and theatre arts. Philosophy was a natural choice, she said, because she knew she wanted to explore deep philosophical questions. Spanish made sense because she wanted to travel the world and understand it better.

“Learning a second language has helped me comprehend not just how to conjugate verbs but how language can be a window into understanding how someone else thinks or views the world,” she said. “It helps create empathy.”

And then there was theatre arts. In that major, she said, she learned the importance of listening, how to be heard, and how to live in the moment.

Together these disciplines have given her the skills she hopes will help her change the world of secondary education, a desire that began in high school when she wondered why students seemed engaged in some classes, but not others.

One of her mentors, Joseph Pitt, a professor in the Department of Philosophy, encouraged her to explore that question.

“Her driving motivation was to find ways to make high school students enjoy learning,” Pitt said. “She first thought the way to do this was to introduce them to philosophy. She wanted to know where they taught philosophy in high school. I suggested Finland.”

Jernigan took Pitt’s advice and spent time observing Finnish teaching practice. The active learning she witnessed captured her interest. There, she also heard about project-based learning, in which students learn through collaboratively solving real-world problems.

For the next few years, she secured travel grants to observe and interview educators about project-based learning in such places as Colorado, Wisconsin, Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore.

In addition, she studied Shakespearean theatre practices at the Globe Theatre in London through the Fulbright Summer Institute, and twice attended the Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway, which convenes advocates, artists, entrepreneurs, and world leaders to brainstorm responses to human rights violations around the world.

Jernigan also put her Spanish skills to test when she worked on her Presidential Global Scholars project involving asylum seekers in Nador, Morocco; Melilla, Spain; and Calais, France. Although Arabic was the predominant language used, one asylum seeker spoke Spanish. He interpreted 60 interviews from Arabic into Spanish, while Jernigan did the interpretations from Spanish into English.

Her travels have given Jernigan confidence in navigating global environments, networking, and meeting international changemakers. She is now a Summit.Ahead. Fellow in a think tank through Forum280, a California-based nonprofit. Last October the group of elite scholars met in Reykjavik, Iceland, to build projects around the future of learning and the workforce.

During her time at Virginia Tech, Jernigan said, her perspectives have expanded. She believes that incorporating virtual reality into a project-based educational environment can break barriers of space limitations, provide access to other ways of thinking, and motivate students to learn. She plans to test this through her own educational startup, Redshift Education Inc., which has won funding through both Kickstart VT, a program of the Apex Center for Entrepreneurs, and Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology.

“When I talk about re-envisioning high school education,” she said, “I’m talking about how we can empower students to thrive in the 21st century. What skills do they need? What ideas and passions can they articulate?”

“When you look at Maria’s record,” said Pitt, “it’s one of achievement, academic excellence, grant after grant, curriculum reform, and community service.”

Jernigan reflects with gratitude upon the four-year journey that culminated in her most recent honors.

“None of this would have been possible if people hadn’t been willing to mentor me,” she said, citing especially Pitt and other key mentors, including Christina McIntyre, associate director of the Honors College; Marie Paretti, a professor of engineering education and co-director of the Virginia Tech Engineering Communication Center; Howard Haines, associate director of the Innovate Living-Learning Community; and mathematics professor Mark Embree. “They helped me to not accept the paths that were laid out as the only options and to create opportunities for myself. They helped me grow.”

The Virginia Tech Undergraduate Student of the Year Award is the most prestigious nonacademic undergraduate honor presented to a graduating senior. Selected by a committee of students, faculty, and administrators, the criteria for the recipients include achievements in academics, leadership, and service, exemplifying the university motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).

Written by Leslie King. Photography by Christina Franusich.