Riding camels in the desert, taking in sunset vistas across waves of sand dunes, or browsing through colorful gifts at busy Middle Eastern marketplaces are Instagram moments reserved for affluent students on university-sponsored study abroad trips.

Or so Evan Furgal thought.

“Definitely go for it,” Furgal said of a unique program designed for ROTC students. “You’re going to be exposed to a new culture and see some amazing things that you can't see anywhere else, and you're able to have it funded, so there's no real burden on you apart from just your time, but it's time well spent.”

Furgal was one of several Virginia Tech ROTC students who spent eight weeks studying abroad this past summer through the Department of Defense’s Project GO program. Project GO stands for Project Global Officer and allows students enrolled Army, Air Force, and Navy ROTCs the opportunity to study abroad and sharpen their language skills through immersive training, while also gaining regional and cultural expertise in areas deemed strategic parts of the world by the Department of Defense.

The Department of Defense funds the initiative through grants that can be applied for by ROTC students at 22 universities across the country. Students do not need to be pursuing a degree in a foreign language, or even a minor in one, but during the application process, preference goes toward those with “language experience,” among other criteria.

Furgal, a sophomore from Loudoun County in Northern Virginia and a member of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets, is pursuing a degree in national security and foreign affairs from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences along with a minor in Arabic – though he may end up earning his degree in Arabic, which Virginia Tech added to its degree options in 2020. He joined several traditional Virginia Tech students and then-Project GO participants from other universities across the United States in an immersive six-week Arabic program held in Nizwa, Oman, in the southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula.

“It was an awesome experience,” Furgal said. “We would have classes every weekday, so that obviously allowed us to learn things from the book, learn the grammar and learn the vocabulary, but then after classes every day, we would have an hour with a language partner, who was an Omani college student, and they were part of the host program.

“A couple of us would be paired with them, and that's where we got to learn more of the cultural side of Arabic, as well as just talking dialogue, where sometimes we would go with our language partners to a market or to a restaurant, things like that. You’re getting more of the practical application that you can’t get while you're like sitting in class.”

The students spent their mornings in class and then an hour each day with a language partner, but had their evenings and weekends free. That allowed them time to enjoy extracurricular activities, not just in the city, but in other parts of the country.

Evan Furgal (fifth from right) spent eight weeks in Oman this past summer learning the language and the culture. He and his classmates especially benefited from excursions to the nearby market, where they practiced conversing in Arabic with Omani college students. Photo courtesy of Evan Furgal.

They rode camels in the desert, went to the beach, spent time with host families, took an Arabic calligraphy workshop, attended lectures about Omani culture, learned about ancient irrigation systems (aflaj) and henna local art, and conducted preliminary research about topics that interested them personally and professionally. Those extracurricular activities immersed them in the culture, something of importance for the Department of Defense, which often sends military personnel to foreign countries for extended periods of time.

“All these careers are requiring deep intercultural knowledge,” said Nadine Sinno, an associate professor of Arabic and a co-principal investigator of Virginia Tech’s Project GO program along with Robert Efird, who oversees the Russian piece of the initiative. “It's no longer about can you break the code? Can you literally translate? We have AI [artificial intelligence] for that, but there's the cultural piece that not many people have.

“Culture is complex, and you have to live it to learn it. You can read every book in the world about Arabs, and then you will go and your expectations are going to be shaken. Your assumptions are going to be tested on everything you thought you knew. … It's not enough to read tourist books on Oman or Lebanon or other places in the Middle East. Reality is just more complicated, and the more you spend time with people, the more you start to have this very intimate view of how things work or don't work.”

Created in 2007, Project GO is not limited to Middle Eastern countries. Jack Doty, a junior from Charlotte, is also pursuing a degree in national security and foreign affairs with a minor in Russian. A Corps of Cadets member, he joined approximately 30 traditional students from Virginia Tech and a few others from other universities in an eight-week Russian course held in Daugavpils, Latvia, near the Russian border.

Doty’s schedule resembled Furgal’s. He spent his mornings in the classroom studying the Russian language and then used afternoon and evening free time to explore the city with classmates. Excursions took him to places that promoted Latvia’s culinary scene, art history, and cultural locations important to the nation. He also went with the group to a summer solstice festival and his host family once took him to a lake in nearby Lithuania.

“I learned a variety of conversational aspects and words that I never would have learned in a class because of the more day-to-day focus,” Doty said. “Being able to really understand how to function outside of school and in a home life or around town was greatly beneficial to me. I would not have had that opportunity in the classroom.

“And also, the other added thing, too, was those excursions. You just understand a lot more culturally and historically when you go on those excursions. Culture is a big part, and I understood I'd be learning some when I was going in, but I don't think in my head I emphasized it as much as I should have.”

ROTC students studying Arabic can participate in a Project GO trip to Oman, where they not only learn the language and culture, but also get the opportunity to go on excursions such as this one that enabled them to take in spectacular desert views. Photo courtesy of Evan Furgal.

The Project GO experiences represent another part of Virginia Tech’s emphasis on experiential learning – where one learns by doing. Engaging students in hands-on experiences enables them to put theories and knowledge into practice in real-world situations.

Such experiences prepare students for their future careers. Furgal wants to become a foreign area officer in the Middle East and work as a liaison between the U.S. military and partner forces, while Doty aspires to work in military intelligence or conduct diplomatic work for the Department of Defense or the government.

Capt. Matt Krusiec ’19 represents the perfect example of someone who benefitted from Project GO. The alumnus, who graduated with a degree in history from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and minors in Mandarin and Asian studies and culture, went to Guilin, China, on two separate occasions through Project GO to learn and practice using Mandarin while educating himself on the Chinese culture. He now works as an intelligence officer in the Air Force and based in Arizona.

“Project GO gave me a solid foundation for understanding the reasons as to why a culture has certain reactions, certain actions, or perhaps policies, and that’s critical,” said Krusiec, who went to Shanghai, Beijing, and Taiwan while there. “There is also the importance of perspective as well. Until I went over the first time, it was very hard for me to come to an understanding of a different perspective from a different nation, and just constantly asking the question, ‘Why is this important?’ For me, what I learned through my experiences from Project GO has been critical to use in my job helping with providing leaders and decision makers with detailed and comprehensive analysis.”

Both Furgal and Doty and other ROTC members can go on multiple trips as part of the Project GO initiative. The Department of Defense encourages this because it wants students to reach a high proficiency level in specific languages and to understand better certain cultures, so Furgal and Doty may study abroad again in the future, pending the acceptance of their applications and potential conflicts with military training regimens and other coursework obligations.

Project GO is open to any ROTC student, though in the application process, preference goes toward those with strong academic credentials, language experience, and leadership skills. Virginia Tech receives funding to send a limited number of cadets on a Project GO-sponsored study abroad trip each summer.

“I think one of the major things that I would tell a cadet is that it [a Project GO study abroad course] basically hits so many goals,” Sinno said. “This one trip can allow you to achieve so many goals. You've got the linguistic competency part, you've got the intercultural competence, you've got the experiential learning, and you have the opportunity to do research. You also get to meet some amazing people along the way.

“On every level, it's going to be life changing.”

For more information about Project GO, check out the program’s homepage on the Virginia Tech website. There is an application link toward the bottom of the page.

Written by Jimmy Robertson