In a time when international travel is difficult, Virginia Tech’s Center for European Union, Transatlantic, and Trans-European Space Studies (CEUTTSS) brought Europe to a group of 25 middle- and high-school teachers at a conference held at the Inn at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on December 4 and 5. 

The European Commission has designated CEUTTSS a Jean Monnet Center of Excellence. It is the only such center in the Commonwealth of Virginia and one of just 11 centers now in operation in the United States.

One of the center’s main goals is to promote the vital partnership between the European Union and the United States. The center’s director, Yannis Stivachtis — a professor of political science and the Jean Monnet Chair — noted that, in alignment with Virginia Tech’s goals as a land-grant university, part of the center’s mission is to reach out to the next generation of student-leaders at the high-school level, and by extension to their teachers.

“To this end,” Stivachtis said, “our educators conference sought to familiarize colleagues in secondary education with contemporary and salient political, economic, social, environmental, and other challenges facing Europe and to assist them in identifying ways to transmit this knowledge to their students.”

Titled “EU-Virginia Connections: Bring Europe Alive for Your Students,” the first annual CEUTTSS Educators Conference consisted of four panels in which Virginia Tech professors provided expert overviews of diverse issues affecting both the European Union and the United States today: European integration, identity and nationalism, Europe and its periphery, and the environment. Each panel was followed by a lively question-and-answer session, as well as a classroom application component in which the teachers shared how they could integrate the information they had learned into their own classrooms.

Binio Binev presenting at a podium
Binio Binev, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, presented “National vs. European Identity” during the conference. Photo by Chris Price.

The educators, who traveled from eight different states, said they appreciated the insights of Virginia Tech professors of political science, history, and urban affairs.

Samantha Futrell, a middle-school teacher who also serves as vice president of the Virginia Council for the Social Studies, said she found the conference valuable and planned to share its lessons with her students in Richmond. “The principles that the EU is founded on are really translatable to my students as global citizens,” she said. “It’s inspirational to look at how the EU is instilling those democratic values in its citizens, and that is something I want to instill in my students as well.”

CEUTTSS conference participants also enjoyed cultural activities. Under the guidance of local musicians LP (Liam Patrick) Kelly and Jen Barton, they learned about the Irish and West African roots and connections of Appalachian music and dance. They then had a chance to try their hands and feet at some Appalachian dancing themselves, accompanied by the Hollow String Band. 

Participant Kevin McCaffrey, who drove all the way from Chicago to attend the conference, reflected on how valuable the experience had been. He also noted that he intended to share the concise introduction to the European Union institutions that visiting CEUTTSS scholar Dimitris Tsarouhas had given.

“I found Dr. Tsarouhas’ overview of the operations of the EU really informative,” McCaffrey said. “I’m feeling very good about how I can bring that resource and that information to my students so they can then branch out on their own, and I can help scaffold them to the next level.”

Esther Bauer, an associate professor of German and the associate director of education, arts, and culture at CEUTTSS, summed up the impact of the conference. After noting how successful it had been, she talked about how the center intends to build upon the event with a range of programs and initiatives during the spring semester.

“Our conference clearly met a need of middle- and high-school educators teaching about Europe and the EU and underlined the importance of collaboration among all stages of the educational system as we prepare young people for the global challenges of the 21st century,” she said. “We are already preparing a Model EU Council debate, which will bring around 140 area high-school students to the main Virginia Tech campus in a few months, as well as shorter workshops for teachers.”

High-school world history teacher Lisa Mortensen encapsulated the value of the conference with, “A lot of my students don’t have the opportunity to travel outside their communities, or travel abroad. And so it’s really important for me as a teacher to be able to bring that back to the classroom for them, since they may not be able to go out and do that themselves.”

Written by Esther Bauer and Colin Baker