Graduate students will play a fundamentally important role in Virginia Tech’s reopening this fall, because they occupy an important place as students, researchers, and instructors.

That was the overarching message of an hourlong webinar on Tuesday that explored the university’s approach to graduate education this fall.

Virginia Tech President Tim Sands was joined by Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril Clarke, Vice President and Dean for Graduate Education Karen DePauw, and Interim Vice President for Research and Innovation Don Taylor. Dawn Jefferies led and moderated the discussion, which included topics and questions related to graduate student education ahead of the return to campus for the fall 2020 semester.

Sands expressed optimism about the university’s ability to balance academics, an in-person campus experience, and public health and safety.

“This may be surprising to some, but I am fairly confident in Virginia Tech’s ability to thrive this semester,” Sands said. “It’s going to be challenging. But I think our plan for the fall is sound.”

The plan’s success will hinge on two factors, only one of which the university community can control. The first is the ability to control the novel coronavirus pandemic through treatment and vaccines, both of which are still evolving. The second, in which Hokies play a part, is adherence to public health guidelines: wearing a mask, physical distancing, self-quarantining when symptoms arise, and following the guidance of experts. 

“We all have to resist the urge to let our guard down, and I’m confident that Hokies can do it,” Sands said.

Learn more about Virginia Tech’s plans for the fall semester at its Ready site. The webinar can be viewed below.

Here are five key takeaways from the discussion:

Virginia Tech recognizes the complexities inherent among graduate students and is taking a flexible approach to helping them work through challenges.

Graduate students occupy an important place at Virginia Tech. They’re students seeking advanced degrees. Many are researchers collaborating with other students and faculty in pursuit of the advancement of knowledge. Many are instructors, through various assistantships, playing an important role in the education of undergraduate students.

Beyond that, they live in different geographic regions, pursue a vast array of degrees and programs, and come to Virginia Tech with dramatically varying life experiences and situations, said DePauw. The university recognizes the wide range of challenges that face this population of students, from financial resources and access to mental health services to health concerns and even parking, and it is working to ensure that it is supporting graduate students as they work toward their degrees.

The university is also open to working with students to find solutions, even unconventional ones.

“We don’t have a template that says, ‘This is what can happen,’ but assure all students and faculty that the graduate school is here to help work through those issues,” DePauw said. “We want to encourage students to have candid and direct conversations with their advisors, to talk about challenges, and to see if they can work out a solution.”

Graduate students occupy an important place in the Virginia Tech community and will play a fundamental role in helping the university to reopen safely.

The webinar’s participants acknowledged that graduate students have concerns about the risks that come with returning to campus in the fall. While the university is committed to implementing protocols to ensure physical distancing and minimize exposure to infection, it’s also up to every member of the Virginia Tech community to ensure the health and safety of everyone around them.

That’s part of living the Virginia Tech motto of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve). 

“The way forward is for us to care about the community, to place the interests of others above ourselves,” said Clarke. “When it comes to issues such as mitigating health safety risk, there’s no hierarchy here, in terms of whether you’re a graduate student, whether you’re a faculty member, or whether you’re a staff member here.”

Virginia Tech values its international students and is committed to supporting them this fall.

Sands began the webinar by talking about how he’d worked closely with international students throughout his career. Many of those former colleagues went on to reinvent the superconductor and technology industries, he said. Many remained in the United States, but even those who returned to their home countries became informal ambassadors who helped build relationships with their respective universities.

That flow of international talent strengthens institutions like Virginia Tech, while also helping to build lasting relationships with other places in the world. 

“At Virginia Tech, we value our international students, faculty and staff,” Sands said. “Our strategic plan commits us to continue to grow and diversify the global talent that is critical for serving the commonwealth [of Virginia] and the world as a major research university.”

Sands also expressed a commitment to supporting domestic students from underserved and underrepresented communities. Virginia Tech has pursued a structural transformation that results in more racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic equity, but the “intentionality and pace” of that shift will increase, Sands said.

“The real change will require a shift of the burden from a few to a many,” Sands said. “I’m optimistic we’re at that turning point, not just at Virginia Tech, but in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

Maintaining the ability to learn in an experiential yet safe way is a key priority for Virginia Tech academics during reopening.

Clarke emphasized Virginia Tech’s commitment to team-based, hands-on, experiential learning as a key part of its academic programs. The pandemic has created new challenges to facilitate that type of learning, which tends to engage students more and can’t easily be replicated on other platforms. Experiential learning tends to play an especially heavy role in graduate education, Clarke said, but this fall it will be affected by two other factors: public health considerations and limited resources

Virginia Tech will continue to look for opportunities to facilitate those hands-on, small-group-based activities, while working to develop new ways to make online and hybrid forms of learning more engaging as well.

Virginia Tech researchers, including graduate students, are conducting important work and public service in response to the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

Virginia Tech has played a key role in enhancing public health through the pandemic, whether by leading coronavirus testing in the Roanoke and New River valleys or applying 3D printing technology to make personal protective equipment. 

“Virginia Tech has a very broad research portfolio, which enables us to attack something like a pandemic in a transdisciplinary way that very few universities can do,” Taylor said. “We’re able to address everything from how aerosols move through the air to things like how a community reacts to a pandemic or a child with ADHD reacts to not being in school for a while.”

Graduate students play an important role in that research, developing and conducting their own projects while also supporting faculty researchers. Despite the effects of the pandemic, Taylor said Virginia Tech has just finished a record year for research.

Tuesday’s webinar can be viewed below.

— Written by Mason Adams