Obenshain endowment provides students with opportunities to travel, discover new ideas

Sam Obenshain

Sam Obenshain conducting research in the field. His love of travel and exploration is encouraging others to do the same.

By Amy Loeffler

Sam Obenshain — one of Virginia Tech’s earliest professors in what was then called the agronomy department — traveled throughout the state of Virginia and the world during his career. For Obenshain, travel was an opportunity to gain a different perspective, learn something new, or spark inspiration.

He believed in the educational aspects of experiential learning as much as formal classroom instruction, and travel was integral to the hands-on learning he fostered. Obenshain often recommended that his star pupils go far afield from the familiar surroundings of Southwestern Virginia, where clay soils were dominant, to the colder climes of Iowa or Wisconsin to study the properties of calcareous glacial till.

So it’s fitting that a former student of Obenshain’s, Bill White (agronomy ’49), has established a travel endowment that lets students carry on Obenshain’s educational philosophy.

“We are increasingly emphasizing the importance of experiential learning to create a well-rounded education for our students,” said Tom Thompson, head of crop and soil environmental sciences. “More than 60 years ago, Sam Obenshain knew and practiced this.”

“He always thought it was important to broaden your view, and he would be extremely pleased with the notion that students were expanding their intellectual horizons in his name,” said Joe Obenshain, Sam’s son.

Sam Obenshain also had a voracious appetite for the latest technology and was one of the first professors at Virginia Tech to use radioisotopes to study soil.

“He was quite ahead of a lot of his compatriots at the time,” White said. “He could talk about the soils of the Ukraine just as easily as he could talk about those of the Piedmont or Blacksburg. He made the study of soils come alive.”

White hopes that students will carry on Obenshain’s legacy of seeking out novel ideas and have the opportunity to travel and see new things through the inspiration that comes from disrupting the familiar and sojourning to other parts of the world. During his career, Obenshain traveled to Korea, India, and Bangladesh as part of a State Department delegation assessing soil quality for public works projects.

“I urge students to be on the leading edge of soil science and plant growth and be particularly eager to be inspired to expose themselves to new concepts,” White said.