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Social justice retreat inspires diverse student groups to work together

October 4, 2017

A group of students attend a retreat.
Student leaders and faculty advisors attend a retreat at Highlander Research and Education Center.

At the end of a two-day retreat focused on social justice, a group of diverse Virginia Tech student leaders realized the power of collaboration.

“We may have different identities and different struggles, but we also have a lot of similarities,” said Jaclyn Marmol, president of the Asian American Student Union and a senior from Falls Church, Virginia, studying management in the Pamplin College of Business. “When it comes down to it, we’re all human. We all need help and a push along the way. Why not be that support system for one another?”

Just before the start of classes, 35 students and faculty representing six University Chartered Student Organizations (UCSOs) affiliated with Cultural and Community Centers (CCC) participated in a retreat at historic Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Paulo Freire are among the many activists who trained at Highlander during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Advocacy for and representation of smaller, marginalized groups on campus was the focus of the work session, and students left with a resolve to collaborate for the benefit of their peers.

“Resource offices for student well-being seem to be overwhelmed with the number of students seeking support,” said Monica Fikes, vice president of Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences and a senior from Alexandria, Virginia, studying agricultural sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “What can we do with the resources that we have to help our communities?”

“It’s about carrying down institutional knowledge,” added Isaiah Johnson, vice president of the Black Organizations Council and a senior from Cartersville, Virginia, studying building construction in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, “not only in our respective groups, but sharing it beyond our groups so that all of us have access and can get the right resources.”

These student leaders started the school year ready to take action toward achieving collective goals.

“We’ve realized that by trying to reach out to other clubs, it will help us grow and network better, and it will help us connect with other people and give us a bigger presence at Tech,” said Steven Mendoza, president of Latin Link and a senior from Lorton, Virginia, studying electrical engineering in the College of Engineering.

“Especially with the political climate right now, it’s very important that we’re together on a lot of things,” added Marmol.

“One major thing we’ve been considering doing is some sort of forum or something for mental health,” said Jaylen Foskey, community liaison for the Black Organizations Council and a sophomore from Chesapeake, Virginia, studying marketing management in the Pamplin College of Business. “In our respective communities, mental health isn’t something that is as proclaimed or talked about.”

Mendoza added, “It’s very taboo.”

Evan Robohm, president of HokiePRIDE and a junior from Leesburg, Virginia, studying civil engineering in the College of Engineering, offered a summary of the students’ Highlander retreat and the motivation behind the UCSOs’ work moving forward: “Each person is not liberated until everyone is liberated.”

One avenue for championing diversity at Virginia Tech is Cultural and Community Centers’ (CCC) spaces and programs. Formerly the Intercultural Engagement Center, CCC is a department within Student Affairs that supports the success of underrepresented students and develops the cultural competence of the entire Virginia Tech student body through advocacy, advising, and awareness.

“Reminding students that they matter, belong here, and have spaces to gather in community with others is essential work for retention and persistence of talented students,” said Patty Perillo, vice president for student affairs.

The student leaders were joined at Highlander by the following CCC faculty advisors: Rhonda Rogers, executive assistant and office manager; Jariah Strozier, graduate assistant for the Black Cultural Center; Joseph Frazier, assistant director of the Cultural Community Center; Kimberly N. Williams, assistant director for the Black Cultural Center; Luis H. Garay, assistant director for the LGBTQ+ Resource Center; and Veronica Montes, assistant director for both El Centro (the Hispanic Latino Cultural Center) and the American Indian and Indigenous Community Center. Angela Simmons, assistant vice president for student affairs, helped organize the retreat and offered support to students and staff who attended.

CCC hosts six centers that serve as a cultural composite of the university, all located in Squires Student Center: American Indian and Indigenous Community Center (room 122), Asian American Cultural Center (formerly Multicultural Center, room 140), Black Cultural Center (room 125), El Centro (room 309), Intercultural Engagement Center, room 150), and LGBTQ+ Resource Center (room 312).

In addition to supporting students in leadership and education, CCC celebrates six heritage and history months throughout the academic year that feature opportunities to learn about and appreciate cultural differences.

  • Hispanic Latino Heritage Month: Sept. 15 - Oct. 15
  • LGBTQ+ History Month: Oct. 1 - 31
  • American Indian & Indigenous Heritage Month: Oct. 15 - Nov. 15
  • Black History Month: Feb. 1 - 28
  • Jewish Cultural Month: March 15 - April 15
  • Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month: April 1 - 30

For the past two years INSIGHT Into Diversity Magazine has named Virginia Tech one of 10 Diversity Champion colleges and universities nationwide. Diversity Champions top the list of Higher Education Excellence in Diversity  Award recipients. The InclusiveVT initiative, a commitment to Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), the Project 2022 vision, and the AdvanceVT framework are among Virginia Tech’s markers of excellence recognized by INSIGHT.

Written by Tiffany Woodall.

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