Virginia Tech Fulfills Mission Through Service to Community

Diversity Champions exemplify an unyielding commitment to diversity and inclusion throughout their campus communities, across academic programs, and at the highest administrative levels. INSIGHT Into Diversity selected institutions that rank in the top tier of past Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award recipients. 

Established in 1872 as a land-grant university to extend higher education to broader segments of the population, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, located in Blacksburg, remains committed to its roots. But while the institution’s mission has not changed since that time, the surrounding community has — leading the university to adjust in order to better connect with those it aims to serve.

By acknowledging the rapidly evolving demographics of the commonwealth and the unique needs of the diverse groups that it comprises, Virginia Tech is working to ensure a bright future for all residents. In fact, serving the community is a foundational pillar of the university; its motto, Ut Prosim, is Latin for “that I may serve.”

Through an initiative called InclusiveVT, Virginia Tech achieves its mission by not only supporting the academic and professional advancement of all students, faculty, staff, administrators, alumni, and members of the community, but also engaging them in diversity efforts.

[Above; Virginia Tech faculty and staff engage in discussion during a forum at the 2016 Advancing Diversity Workshop.]

Menah Pratt-Clarke gives the keynote address at the university’s 2016 Advancing Diversity Workshop.
Menah Pratt-Clarke gives the keynote address at the university’s 2016 Advancing Diversity Workshop.

“InclusiveVT is an institutional and individual commitment to Ut Prosim and the spirit of community, diversity, and excellence. It is a recognition of what our commitment as a land-grant institution is toward diversity,” says Menah Pratt-Clarke, JD, PhD, vice president for strategic affairs and vice provost for inclusion and diversity at Virginia Tech. “Under that commitment, there is an expectation … that faculty, staff, and students own the individual responsibility for promoting a welcoming, accessible, and diverse campus climate.”

Accountability and Awareness
Diversity and inclusion at Virginia Tech are integrated into all aspects of university life — from community outreach and the curriculum to recruitment and retention efforts. More than words, InclusiveVT translates to action and accountability, with each unit responsible for ensuring diversity, access, and inclusion of and for all.

Much of this responsibility falls on individual deans, provosts, and department heads, but they are not alone in this work. Every college has a diversity committee “charged with thinking strategically about the work of advancing diversity and inclusion in [its division],” according to Pratt-Clarke. Each college also has a designated InclusiveVT representative who works to promote a welcoming, inclusive climate in his or her respective school.

“They’re charged with understanding what different populations need to be successful,” Pratt-Clarke says. “They are thinking about inclusive pedagogy that reflects the challenges multiple populations might face.”

INSIGHT Co-publisher Holly Mendelson (right) presents the Diversity Champion recognition plaque to Menah Pratt-Clarke and Virginia Tech President Timothy Sands.
INSIGHT Co-publisher Holly Mendelson (right) presents the Diversity Champion recognition plaque to Menah Pratt-Clarke and Virginia Tech President Timothy Sands.

Virginia Tech is also working to engage students in understanding the challenges, as well as the privileges, that some groups face. The university is in the process of reviewing and updating its core Pathways curriculum to increase students’ awareness of issues of difference and identity through education and interaction with others.

If the process goes as planned, beginning in fall 2018, the general education curriculum will include an expanded focus on intersectional diversity, identity, the human condition, and life chances. Pratt-Clarke says the proposal is a way for the university to address diversity in a more meaningful, intentional, and educational way. It’s also another example of how Virginia Tech remains true to its mission.

“[It] allows us to specifically focus on our motto and the recognition that if we’re going to effectively prepare students to lead and serve in a global world, they have to do so with an understanding of issues of identity,” says Pratt-Clarke.

Beyond the classroom, she and her team in the Office of Inclusion and Diversity have also created opportunities for members of the campus community to engage in discussions around identity and difference, a project called #VTUnfinished. In a series of “sharing sessions” at War Memorial Chapel, students, faculty, staff, and community members came together this fall to share and reflect on their experiences in these areas.

The series culminated in a daylong workshop led by master diversity trainer and renowned documentary filmmaker, author, and educator Lee Mun Wah. Hundreds of people attended the event, which focused on how to build community across difference.

“I don’t think [these issues are] unique to Virginia Tech,” Pratt-Clarke says. “They’re unfinished conversations that America has not been having about issues of difference, identity, race, class, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, [and] religion. The stories that were shared in the chapel are representative, in my mind, of the stories of America. … I think it was a microcosm of our country and experiences of diversity.”

Recruitment and Outreach
With the ever-increasing diversity of Virginia’s general population, Virginia Tech recognizes the need to keep pace. Through an umbrella initiative called InclusiveVT Project 2022 — part of Beyond Boundaries, the university-wide strategic plan — Virginia Tech President Timothy Sands has set goals around increasing the enrollment of minority and underserved students.

 Two faculty members use sign language to converse during Virginia Tech's 2016 Advancing Diversity Workshop.
Two faculty members use sign language to converse during Virginia Tech’s 2016 Advancing Diversity Workshop.

Over the next six years, the university aims to increase underrepresented minority student enrollment from 13 to 25 percent of the entering class, as well as the enrollment of underserved students, including those who are first-generation and low-income, from 23 to 40 percent. To do so, Virginia Tech is engaging members of the campus and local community, including alumni, in Project 2022

“The initial outreach component is alums contacting high school students and encouraging them to apply [to Virginia Tech]; then there will be a special campus visit day where alums and prospective students can connect,” Pratt-Clarke says. “There’s also an effort around Project 2022 that involves the Native American indigenous population and creating more substantial, meaningful relationships with the 11 tribal nations in Virginia.”

Another approach to recruitment by Virginia Tech involves community outreach via a program called College Access Collaborative (CAC), launched in July 2016. Modeled after a successful collaborative initiative with An Achievable Dream Academy — an elementary, middle, and high school in Newport News, Va. — CAC is characterized by partnerships with secondary schools and college access organizations in the state.

Associate Vice Provost for CAC Karen Eley-Sanders, PhD, and her staff evaluated institutions from across the state, in both urban and suburban areas, and selected 10 schools based on several factors: availability of free or reduced lunch, parents’ educational level, low college attendance, and the presence of underrepresented racial minorities.

“Those are the populations that are underrepresented in higher education,” says Eley-Sanders, who is also the chief diversity officer for the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. “[The initiative] is to help show students and their families that college is an option, that no matter your background, you can advance educationally.”

The challenges faced by each school, region, and set of students vary greatly; therefore, CAC takes a customized approach to the services and support it provides. “While we have a menu of options we can offer, Virginia Tech never goes into a school or community and says, ‘This is what you need; therefore we’re going to do X, Y, and Z,’” Eley-Sanders says. “We start by having a conversation with the superintendent, principal, and other leadership to find out what the school’s needs are.”

Programming may include SAT or ACT preparation, mentoring, teaching assistance and training, STEM education, scholarship and financial aid workshops for parents, or any other number of things.

While Eley-Sanders says that students learn a lot about Virginia Tech through the program, the focus is on encouraging them to apply to and attend any college. However, CAC guarantees that of the students who choose to attend Virginia Tech, at least five will receive a full-ride scholarship that covers tuition, room, board, and fees for up to five years.

Eley-Sanders is hopeful the initiative will be as effective as the university’s partnership with An Achievable Dream Academy. Since establishing that partnership 10 years ago, Virginia Tech went from enrolling only two students from the school to enrolling 24.

Faculty Advancement
Another way in which the university engages its members is through its AdvanceVT/InclusiveVT team, a group of senior faculty who advise their colleges and departments on issues related to faculty recruitment, hiring, and retention.

Menah Pratt-Clarke bumps fists with master diversity trainer Lee Mun Wah after a daylong diversity training workshop.
Menah Pratt-Clarke bumps fists with master diversity trainer Lee Mun Wah after a daylong diversity training workshop.

Lucinda Roy, an alumni distinguished professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech, represents her college on the team. Beyond conversations about faculty, Roy says they discuss issues related to students and campus climate as they act as a “sounding board” for Pratt-Clarke.

“[Pratt-Clarke] made sure she chose people from all over [the university] who come with different experiences,” Roy says. “All of us have been at Virginia Tech for some time and understand how it works, have institutional history, and because we’ve been in administration, know something about what it takes to make something work.”

AdvanceVT is focused specifically on the preparation, recruitment, and retention of high-quality diverse faculty. It began in 2003 as a National Science Foundation-funded initiative to promote and enhance the careers of female faculty in science and engineering. Since the grant ended in 2010, Virginia Tech has continued to fund the project while expanding its focus to different areas and groups.

“We put a lot of emphasis on work-life balance, so we have reviewed university policies around tenure-clock extension, and we drafted and implemented new policies for modified duties and dual-career support to help faculty members balance their personal and professional life,” says Peggy Layne, assistant provost for faculty development in the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost at Virginia Tech. “Those are available not just for women in science and engineering, but also for all faculty across the university.”

Beyond their implementation, Layne says, policies are actually being used — the importance of which should not be overlooked. “You can have policies on the books,” she says, “but if people are not comfortable using them, if they feel like they’re going to be penalized for taking advantage of [them], then that’s not accomplishing the goal.”

AdvanceVT also works to ensure transparency in the tenure process and equity in faculty searches, in addition to encouraging mentorship beyond campus.

“We recognize that to be successful at the level we expect our faculty to be, they need to develop relationships with leaders in their field outside of our university, so we provide some funding and guidance for early-career faculty members to encourage them to do that,” Layne says. “They have to develop a proposal before we give them money to support their activities. It’s really an incentive for them to think strategically about what they need to do to be successful as scholars.”

AdvanceVT also hosts a number of events throughout the year to support the advancement of faculty and promote diversity, such as its Advancing Diversity Workshop, which features sessions on different aspects of diversity and inclusion — from LGBTQ issues to diverse faculty searches. However, another purpose of the event, which typically draws about 300 Virginia Tech faculty, staff, and administrators, is to promote the university’s diversity efforts.

“It’s a chance for people who are working on diversity and inclusion across campus to come together, share their knowledge and experiences, and [help] people who aren’t actively involved in supporting [these efforts] find ways to participate,” Layne says.

For her, AdvanceVT is a key part of Virginia Tech’s investment in the success of its faculty. “Hiring a faculty member is a big investment for the university,” she says. “It takes a lot of time on the part of search committees and administrators, and it takes a lot of money. So once we get people here, we want to do what we can do help them be successful.”

This initiative, like the others, is just one component of Virginia Tech’s approach to ensuring access to higher education for all. However, it exemplifies the university’s commitment to serving and supporting Virginia’s diverse community.

“We’re focused on creating structures that institutionalize diversity. That includes organizational structures, that includes increasing actual diversity, it includes making sure [we are] a welcoming climate — and the curricular piece,” says Pratt-Clarke. “Each of these efforts is part of our larger vision. … [Diversity] is part of how we live, breathe, exist, and prepare students.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. Virginia Tech is a 2013-2016 INSIGHT Into Diversity HEED Award recipient.