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VT Stories captures alumni experiences through the decades

December 4, 2016

Ren Harman interviews a Virginia Tech alumna
Ren Harman interviews alumna Katie Beth Brooks for the VT Stories site. Harman is the project manager for the website, which collects stories from alumni and posts them to vtstories.org. Professor David Cline and Tarryn Abrahams work in the background.

Every Hokie has a story.

Whether attending as a cadet in the years following World War II, breaking ground as one of the first African-American women to be accepted as a student, or using time on the university tennis team to build a career as a professional tennis umpire, alumni made memories on campus.

Collectively, those stories and shared experiences tell Virginia Tech's history.

Now, a team of faculty, staff, graduate students, and undergrads are working together to collect those stories and make them available through VT Stories.

The website launched on Nov. 12 with nearly 20 stories from a variety of alumni. Each story resides on its own page that includes a written narrative, images, and highly produced audio highlights from a longer oral history interview.

Individuals who are intrigued can dig deeper to find interview transcripts and recordings, housed in Special Collections.

“VT Stories is a place where people can find out about the multitude of stories that make up the history of Virginia Tech,” said Katrina Powell, who is the VT Stories coordinator, an English professor, and director of the Center for Rhetoric in Society. “On one hand it’s a great place to find out about great things going on at Virginia Tech and the really amazing things alumni do after leaving. It’s also a place to understand some of the complicated and meaningful — and not always happy — moments that happen at the university as a place for lots of change.”

Katrina Powell reviews the site
Katrina Powell (right), coordinator for VT Stories, reviews the website with Tarryn Abrahams, a graduate research assistant, with Jessie Rogers working in the background.

David Cline, an oral historian and assistant professor in the Department of History in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, said the VT Stories project is about using “the power of storytelling to really get at what it means to be a Hokie, and for allowing our community to have a better sense of its own history.”

VT Stories grew out of previous research Cline had conducted, first on African-American history in the New River Valley centered on the Christiansburg Institute, and then on regional experiences of those in Virginia Tech's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transexual (LGBTQ) community.

Shelli Fowler, previously a Virginia Tech associate professor of English and senior director for Networked Pedagogies and Professional Development in Technology-enhanced Learning and Online Strategies (TLOS), came away from the LGBT project enthusiastic about the potential of the oral history technique to tell Hokie history.

Fowler, now an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, shared her thoughts with Laura Sands, who had heard a wealth of stories from Virginia Tech alumni over the course of President Tim Sands’ first year at the university. 

“After Tim was named president, we began hearing from Hokies around the world,” said Laura Sands. “In addition to offering a warm welcome, they told us their stories: about being a first-generation student, making groundbreaking discoveries, facing hardship, and achieving success. I remember feeling an urgent need to record and preserve these moments. The Virginia Tech community is a storehouse of experiential knowledge and wisdom that can greatly benefit our new Hokie graduates as they face a changing and challenging world.”

A bridge for alumni and students

A working group consisting of Sands and representatives from TLOS, history, English, Special Collections, and the Alumni Association formed around the idea.

The president's office provided seed money, and in the summer of 2015, what became VT Stories launched a pilot project, with Cline and Ren Harman, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Education, interviewing about 10 alumni, mostly Old Guard members.

Harman, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences in 2011 and a master’s degree in education in 2014, became the project manager in 2016. Quinn Warnick, senior director of academic innovation and user experience in TLOS, who'd been involved from the beginning, shifted into a new role when Fowler became interim dean at University College at Virginia Commonwealth University. Warnick and Cline are both co-principal investigators on the project. The Virginia Tech Alumni Association helps make the connections between alumni and the VT Stories team.

VT Stories also took on a number of graduate and undergraduate students in various roles. 

Laura and Tim Sands review site
Laura and Tim Sands review the VT Stories site with Ashley Stant.

“VT Stories is about bringing people together through shared memories and experiences,” said Ashley Stant, a senior professional and technical writing major from Hague, Virginia. “That’s something I love about it. When you show the website to someone, another alumni, and they say, ‘Oh! I know that person,’ or ‘I can relate to that.’ It’s such a cool thing to do.”

VT Stories has connected older alumni to younger, and it’s pulled together contributors from a variety of disciplines that include English, history, design, and digital technology, all in service of telling Virginia Tech’s collective story.

“That attitude is really important to me,” said Andrew Kulak, a 2014 master’s degree graduate and Ph.D. candidate in rhetoric and writing who helped design and build the website. “People from the English department come from one perspective, people from the history department come at it from another. We use digital tech to get this out to people in the world. It brings in whole new questions.”

This spring, the provost's office is funding a course, "New Media Storytelling," co-taught by Cline and Warnick, through which undergraduates can get involved. Internships also are available through the Center for Rhetoric in Society.

Several weeks after the formal website launch, the VT Stories team has interviewed more than 100 alumni, ranging from the Class of 1949 to the Class of 2012. 

“One thing that always draws me and animates my oral history work is the question of what creates a community, what is at the center of any given community, what unites it,” Cline said. “Going a little deeper, that means recognizing that any one community is not universally painted with the same brush. Within that unity there’s always difference and fissures. It’s very enriching to plumb the depths of that.”

Uncomfortable history

Some of the stories can be uncomfortable, especially those involving cadets who struggled in their first “rat” year or pioneers who broke racial and gender lines to attend Virginia Tech during tumultuous years of social change.

“Stories have power to amplify and confirm, but also to call into question our theories about history,” said Warnick. “That’s what we’re doing with some of these interviews. We’re finding stories that may have been marginalized and ignored, and we’re bringing those to the forefront. We want to include a range of stories and experiences, and we don't want to varnish them. Many of these stories have awkward and painful moments in them. It’s important to acknowledge that.”

Stories told by the women of the Class of 1970 and by African-American women who attended in the late ’60s include reminders that the atmosphere on campus wasn't always as welcoming as it is today.

At the same time, those same stories include humorous moments and a shared love of Virginia Tech that shines through even during challenging times.

The team of faculty, staff, and students wrote an article, titled “(co)Constructing public memories: interdisciplinary approaches to creating digital-born oral history archive,” that has been accepted in the academic journal Collections: A Journal for Museum and Archives Professionals to be published in a special 2017 issue called “Storytelling: Oral Histories, Archives, and Museums.”

The VT Stories team hopes to steadily add new stories, often collected during alumni reunion weekends through the fall. They'll also be doing some short trips to collect interviews from alumni in western Virginia.

As the project grows and more stories appear online, the team intends to expand its efforts. In doing so, they're producing an alternative Virginia Tech history that's told not from an institutional perspective, but by the students who represent Tech's footprint in the world.

To share your story, visit vtstories.org and click the "Share Your Story" tab in the upper right corner of the screen.

Written by Mason Adams

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