Richard Randolph will graduate from Virginia Tech next spring.

Lisa Carter Ellison finished her bachelor’s degree in 1986.

Thirty-three years separate these two Hokies’ graduation years. A June trip to Havana, Cuba, brought them together.

Ellison and Randolph were two of 18 alumni, undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and staff who together traveled to Cuba for seven days in June for the first cultural immersion trip hosted by the university’s Black Male Excellence Network. The purpose of the excursion, funded in part through Virginia Tech’s crowdfunding campaign this past spring, was to provide a way for students to travel abroad and connect with Hokie faculty, staff, and alumni.

“From the alumni side, it makes you feel attached and engaged with the university when you know the students who are there,” said Ellison, who learned about the trip through the Virginia Tech Alumni Association.

Tommy Amal, assistant director of the Student Success Center at Virginia Tech, organized the excursion, which the center spearheaded.

“The more relationships students have with faculty, staff, and alumni, the greater chance they have to be successful,” Amal said.

Crowdfunding played a large role in making this trip possible for students. Through the university’s spring JUMP crowdfunding campaign, the Black Male Excellence Network raised about $7,000 to cover most of the trip’s costs for undergraduate students. The Student Success Center funded the rest.

Alumni in Cuba
Hokie alumni, graduate students, and faculty members try out musical instruments in Cuba. Pictured from left to right are Alana Thomas, Danielle Barber, Patrice Dickerson, Greta Harris, and Lisa Carter Ellison.

The Virginia Tech Alumni Association - specifically Matt Winston, senior associate vice president for alumni relations, and Latanya Walker, director of alumni relations for diversity, inclusion, and community engagement -  helped to recruit Hokie alumni for the excursion.

Cuba’s African-American culture, unique history, and affordability made it the perfect destination, Amal said.

While abroad, the group traveled throughout Havana, Cuba’s capital city, and visited Matanzas, capital of the Cuban province of Matanzas, and the town of Vinales. They went to museums, toured historic sites, and learned how to play musical instruments. Joe Scarpaci, a Virginia Tech professor emeritus and executive director of the Center for the Study of Cuban Culture and the Economy in Blacksburg, was the group’s guide. One evening, a Havana music group performed a private concert for the travelers.

They stayed in bed and breakfasts located throughout the city.

The experience helped Lamont “Gucci” Livingston, a Virginia Tech student, to appreciate certain U.S. amenities, such as clean water to drink.

“What we take for granted in the United States became luxury items,” in Cuba, he said.

Havana view
A view of Havana, Cuba

As for staying in the city, “I really loved interacting with the people in the neighborhood,” Randolph said. “We equally had a curiosity about each other.”

Randolph, a building construction major, made another important connection in Cuba. He met Ellison.

After finding out about Randolph’s interest in working in construction and affordable housing, Ellison introduced him to Ed Green, a Virginia Tech graduate who is director of interiors for Harvey-Cleary Builders in Washington, D.C.

Since returning from Cuba, Randolph and Green have spoken by phone about Randolph’s career goals, and the two hope to meet in person this summer.

“It’s always nice to have a connection in the Hokie network,” Randolph said.

Greta Harris, a 1983 Virginia Tech graduate, also traveled with the group to Cuba. “It was a good reminder about why we went to Tech,” said Harris, who is president and CEO of the Better Housing Coalition in Richmond and a member of Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors. “All of our networks are expanded as a result of spending time together.”

The Black Male Excellence Network plans to offer another abroad experience next year for students, alumni, and others, Amal said. Harris and other alumni are helping to raise the funds needed to pay for more students to travel.

It is important for alumni to be involved in these kinds of opportunities, to inspire students, Harris said.

“Getting through college is not always easy,” she said. “To see the success that alumni are having around the world gives people hope and inspires them to keep working hard.”

Photos by Richard Randolph

Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone