Boxes of Lego Studio’s specialized architecture blocks were stationed strategically around the classroom as professors in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction explained the rules.

Thirty minutes to design, organize, and build a “dream house,” and the winning team of five received orange hardhats bearing the construction school’s logo. The clock was set, and go!

Teams of students at seven tables set to work, designing and building on the fly. Seven structures began to take shape as black and brown hands arranged, shifted, and molded white Lego blocks into floors, walls, pillars, and architectural flourishes.

Time ran out, and seven Lego houses were placed on a central table. The winning team received their hardhats and a photo with their house, but of course this competition was about more than deciding a winner.

“When you were looking for a part you didn’t have, what did you do? Ask someone else,” said Gary Kinder, an academic advisor in the Department of Building Construction. “When you needed an idea, what did you do? Look around. Collaboration. You talked to each other. You collaborated. You connected. These are key pieces in this type of work.”

The 90-minute session felt like summer camp, and it kind of was, except it also doubled as a sort of get-to-know-you experience for talented, senior high-school students who are considering applying to Virginia Tech for an undergraduate education. They were part of a group of nearly 120 students who participated in the Black College Institute at the Blacksburg campus in late June.

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The Black College Institute is part of a broader effort by Virginia Tech to meet President Tim Sands’ goal for 40 percent of the 2022 class to consist of underrepresented, first-generation, or lower-income students.

“The Black College Institute is an opportunity for Virginia Tech to hold true to its promise of a land-grant institution to provide education to the citizens of the state,” said Vice President for Strategic Affairs and Vice Provost for Inclusion and Diversity Menah Pratt-Clarke. “This program specifically focuses on making sure that underrepresented, underserved students are aware of the opportunities at Virginia Tech. The goal is to recruit these students to become future Hokies.”

Later this month, rising high-school juniors will attend a similar though abbreviated program. This summer, Virginia Tech will also host the annual Hispanic College Institute, a broader program run by the Virginia Latino Higher Education Network that takes place in Blacksburg. Along with Tech’s College Access Collaborative and a new application developed by the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, the university is putting concrete actions to make its principles of community and dedication to inclusivity a real thing, not just words on paper.

Diversifying Virginia Tech’s student body is good not just for students from underrepresented, underserved groups, but for the entire university community.

“One of responsibilities we have as an institution is to prepare students who graduate at Virginia Tech to be leaders in the spirit of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve),” Pratt-Clarke said. “As part of that, we need to make sure their education includes working, living, and interacting with people from broad cultural, religious, and community backgrounds with different values, beliefs, and social contexts. What we’ve heard from our corporate partners is that they expect that new employees will be ready to work with a global multinational corporation that’s in different countries around the world. We have an obligation to our students to make sure their experience here prepares them for that.”

Over five days, the rising seniors participating in the Black College Institute lived in a campus dorm, ate food in the dining halls, attended interactive events and lectures showcasing the depth and breadth of the university’s academic programs, and generally lived the Hokie life in Blacksburg.

The students experimented with screen printing, explored Smart Bikes and the Future HAUS, and participated in the Lego challenge in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. At the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, they talked about social media marketing strategies, critiqued the design elements in fliers for campus events, and heard from Virginia Tech police officers about criminology. They viewed groundbreaking helmet research and the real-time water and weather monitoring system at the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science. Those are just a few highlights: Each day was packed with glimpses of campus life, as well as sessions centered on professional and personal development.

Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean of Engineering Julia M. Ross met with the students personally to pitch them on the College of Engineering, espousing the college’s various programs, taking questions, and sticking around afterward to chat one-on-one with a queue of roughly 20 students who lined up to speak to her.

“We are transforming lives of students,” Ross told the prospective Hokies. “We are changing your life in terms of your trajectory in ways that are really profound. That’s not just true in engineering but true for the institution as a whole. We also believe we’re changing the world That’s really what engineering is all about … It’s about changing the world. It’s about making the world a better place. It’s about confronting and solving our most difficult problems in society.”

During the Black College Institute, undergraduate and graduate students are embedded with the rising seniors, giving them an insider perspective on the Virginia Tech experience. Elysia Budu, a junior history major, Taylor Mallory, a senior political science major, and Alejandro Pezo ’17, who majored in psychology, were among them. All three said their decision to attend Virginia Tech was largely influenced by campus visits, and now they’re helping guide prospective students on a similar visit.

“The program allows for students to really be opened up not only to the college experience but to all these different majors they wouldn’t know about,” Budu said. “It shows that not only is college an option but Virginia Tech is an option.”

“It shows that people of color have a place here,” Pezo added.

Mallory remembered that she sometimes found herself discouraged her first year, since she was often the only black person in the classroom. “But after I found the black community, I started to open up and pretty much found my purpose,” Mallory said. “I love to serve here. I love to advocate for underrepresented communities here. It really clicked with my major and helped me understand what I want to do with my future.”

Now, Mallory is serving by guiding and mentoring prospective students. Should they chose to apply to Virginia Tech, the high-school students who attended the Black College Institute will arrive with established friendships, not only with other institute attendees but with the older students who are participating as leaders. That includes not just the undergraduates, but graduate students like Jamelle Simmons, a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering.

On Wednesday, the fifth day of the institute, admissions representatives met with the students to offer guidance and help them work through portions of the application.

“If we can ensure this captive audience does that, I am confident more potential students will  follow suit,” said Alphonso Garrett, director of undergraduate diversity recruitment initiatives. “We’re giving them the opportunity to see the university as well as guidance through the application process.”

Even if they don’t apply, Virginia Tech is giving these prospective students an experience, a different perspective, and some concrete takeaways.

“The main thing is finding extra ways to get students exposed to Virginia Tech and the opportunities it can provide,” Garrett said. “It is my goal for these students will not only have a great experience, but that they will also go back home and talk about their experience at Virginia Tech. Often, the best recruitment happens via word-of-mouth, and that helps drive more interest in the university.”

And as many student and alumni Hokies know from first-hand experience, once you visit Virginia Tech and see what it has to offer, it’s hard not to want to come back for more.

— Written by Mason Adams