As Vinodh Venkatesh and María del Carmen Caña Jiménez eagerly awaited the birth of their son, their excitement soon turned to panic.

Caña Jiménez had a healthy pregnancy and wasn’t worried when she was induced at 41 weeks.

But watching the monitor in their hospital room, she knew the numbers on the screen were wrong. Their baby’s heartbeat was falling — despite reassurances from a nurse that his vitals were normal.

They pleaded for their doctor to help their child, but when she finally came, it was too late. His heart had stopped beating, and Caña Jiménez was rushed to an operation room for a blood transfusion.

Their beloved son, Marcos, passed away in November 2020 due to medical negligence. And what should have been the brightest day of their lives faded into the bleakest. The following year consisted of legal papers and conversations with lawyers. Their perseverance led to changes in protocol and staffing at the hospital.

Since then, Venkatesh and Caña Jiménez have continued to take steps to ensure their son’s name and legacy live on.

During the spring 2023 semester, Venkatesh, a Virginia Tech professor of Spanish, and Caña Jiménez, an associate professor of Spanish, created the Marcos Arvind Venkatesh-Caña Study Abroad Scholarship.

The $100,000 endowed scholarship will fund study abroad trips for Spanish majors. Though it is not a requirement, the scholarship is geared toward underrepresented minorities and first-generation college students, Venkatesh said.

“It was really important to do an endowed scholarship to keep our son’s memory alive long after we’re not around,” Venkatesh said.

The opportunity to study abroad holds a special place in Venkatesh’s and Caña Jiménez’s hearts. The two, now married, met when they were both students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Caña Jiménez, originally from Spain, met Venkatesh, originally from Malaysia, because they were “both brave enough to study abroad,” she said.

“We wanted the scholarship to represent what the identity of our baby is,” Caña Jiménez said. “We met each other thanks to studying abroad, and he was the result of that.”

The pair, who began working at Virginia Tech in 2011, was also inspired by a 2019 study abroad trip they led in Spain through the university’s VT in Spain program.

A group of students stands in front of a staircase while holding a Virginia Tech flag.
Spanish professors María del Carmen Caña Jiménez and Vinodh Venkatesh led the VT in Spain study abroad program in 2019. Photo courtesy of María del Carmen Caña Jiménez.

“We noticed that we had some students who were really struggling to get the funds to go abroad,” Venkatesh said. “There was one student who had to jump through all sorts of institutional hoops. He ended up going with a private loan, and it was difficult for him to even get a loan.”

Venkatesh said students do not need to show financial need to be eligible for the scholarship, because there are students who need funding but don’t necessarily qualify for financial aid.

“We took out the financial need requirement from the scholarship because we have seen a lot of people fall through the cracks,” he said.

During their six-week trip to Spain, students were asked to communicate in Spanish to the best of their abilities. The trip consisted of daily activities, like classes in the morning, along with trips to museums and walking tours.

Trips abroad provide pivotal learning experiences for language students, said Janell Watson, a professor and chair of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures.

“Immersion in a language facilitates and accelerates the acquisition of fluency,” Watson said. “The cost of study abroad is a barrier for some students, so we are grateful for the generous gift that will help a Spanish student benefit from an immersion experience.”

In addition to language improvement, trips abroad provide important lessons in cultural awareness, Caña Jiménez said.

“There were a lot of things about Spanish culture, particularly things related to food, that they weren’t willing to try just because it seemed weird to them,” she recalled of the trip she led. “And I remember talking to them, and I said, ‘You know, the peanut butter that you like so much or the root beer that you love so much, for a Spaniard, that’s actually really weird.’ And I could see a change in the students, and they were like, ‘Okay, we actually need to try things.’”

The scholarship is open to Spanish majors, and students can begin applying for it in the fall.

“We just want to maintain the legacy of our son,” Caña Jiménez added. “That’s the only thing we can do as parents right now — just talk about him. And when students apply to tell them what they are applying for.”

Both Venkatesh and Caña Jiménez teach Spanish for medical professionals and are dedicated to ensuring discrimination and language barriers do not stand in the way of quality medical care. The loss of their son, combined with stories from other parents in their support group, also inspired Caña Jiménez to develop a Spanish for legal professions course, which will be offered for the first time in the fall.

“We’ve been here for 12 years, and we're not going anywhere,” Venkatesh said. “If he had lived, he might have become a Virginia Tech student. He might have studied at Virginia Tech. So for our son to have a legacy and an impact on our students — that was important for us."

Written by Kelsey Bartlett