One thing is for sure: there will be learning. And Tim Baird, newly appointed faculty principal for the Creativity and Innovation District Living-Learning Community (CID LLC) at Virginia Tech, is excited about the possibilities.

“I’ll become a better teacher from living with students – undoubtedly – because I’ll learn! And the students will become better teachers, because they’ll learn about learning. Most of the learning that occurs in our lives never gets called learning. But we’re going to call it out at the CID LLC. Late night trip to the supermarket? Learning. Nasty split-up with boyfriend? Learning. Failed exam? Learning. Envy over roommate’s success? Learning. Singing contest in the elevator at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday? Learning. There’s definitely going to be some learning there.”

Timothy D. Baird is associate professor of geography at Virginia Tech. He has been a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology at Virginia Tech since 2016, and director of the Pathways to Sustainability Minor since 2015. His wife, Kiyah J. Duffey, is co-founder and CEO of Kizingo LLC and director of strategic innovation for the Fralin Life Sciences Institute.

Baird, Duffey, and their three children will live alongside students in a specially designed apartment within the new Creativity and Innovation District complex. And they are looking forward to the challenges and opportunities of the job.

“When we’re at home, we let our guard down. We take our masks off and put on comfortable sweats. We’re vulnerable, and also available. We’re more ourselves. Learning should happen there, too. AND we need to call it learning,” said Baird. “Residential learning communities get everyone out of their comfort zone a bit. I imagine it will be pretty weird for college students to step on match-box cars on their way to the bathroom. And it will certainly be weird for our family to have 600 houseguests. But I’m quite sure that beautiful things can grow from that weirdness – with intention. We know this will be a tremendous experience for our kids. An adventure really. They will be 12, 9, and 8 when we move in.”

“For me, the residential learning communities harken back to my own college days at a small, liberal arts school,” said Duffey. “With only 1,600 undergraduates (and no grad students) we had a lot of access to our professors, including the opportunity to know them personally and to see their lives outside of campus. This was invaluable to me, and I like that the residential learning communities help to provide this for students at Virginia Tech.”

Virginia Tech announced plans for the Creativity and Innovation District in 2016. Site and utility preparations for the CID LLC began in spring 2019. It is slated to open in 2021. 

The Creativity and Innovation District under construction in August 2020.

The Creativity and Innovation District under construction in August 2020.
The Creativity and Innovation District is slated to open in 2021. Photo by Christina Franusich for Virginia Tech.

The Creativity and Innovation District Living-Learning Community is a 225,000-gross-square-foot residential building designed to house about 600 students. Already the residence halls themselves are an exercise in experiential learning, with students leading key aspects of the design process. The facility will include innovative spaces, such as performance and practice studios, maker spaces, collaboration and research areas, and creative lounges. It will be home to Studio 72 and Innovate, Virginia Tech’s arts and entrepreneurship LLCs. It will also be home to many student-athletes and a third living-learning program currently under development. 

Many campus entities are coming together to make the CID LLC a truly collaborative and innovative space: the School of Performing Arts; School of Visual Arts; Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology; Apex Systems Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship; Athletics; and Housing and Residence Life. It is located next to the Graduate Life Center between Kent and Otey streets and is part of the larger Creativity and Innovation District project.

“The joining of these communities - and in this space - is very exciting to me,” said Duffey. “As an entrepreneur whose business relies equally on creativity, innovation, and business acumen, I was immediately intrigued by the possibilities of the CID. I have had the pleasure of engaging students in this role as a business owner and found the process energizing. If I could help to engage their interests and inspire their own aspirations, I wanted to be a part of that.”

“We discussed the shallow stereotypes associated with art and business – and the potential cynicism that may lie between them,” the couple wrote in their application for the faculty principal position. “And we considered the student-athletes with whom we would share this space – whose journeys through college may look quite different from others’ but whose social and emotional needs may be quite the same – and who may have emerging or established artists and entrepreneurs inside them. If we could handpick groups from campus to live with, I don’t think we could make a more inspired choice than the groups that are slated to comprise the CID LLC. Supporting the existing bonds within these groups, while promoting new discussion, trust, and engagement across groups, all within an environment where students embrace a practice of bringing themselves into their academics and their academics into themselves, would be a life-defining endeavor for us.”

The residential college concept dates back to the 12th century. The idea evolved at Oxford and Cambridge universities, which provide models for residential colleges in the United States. Unique to Virginia Tech’s approach to living-learning communities is the sense that learning – wherever and however it occurs – is valued, supported, and integrated into the student experience.

Vice President for Student Affairs Frank Shushok Jr. is the lead architect of Living-Learning Program at Virginia Tech. Shortly after he came to the university in 2009, he began laying the groundwork for residential learning environments that emphasize student engagement with faculty and staff, provide opportunities to gain knowledge both in and out of the classroom, and create physical spaces that encourage and enrich the learning experience.

“It is not just about connecting students’ academic and co-curricular experiences,” said Shushok. “It is about building communities that support students in their exploration of disciplines, perspectives, and self. Our goal is to provide seamless learning and growth and the opportunity to form strategic partnerships and unexpected collaborations.”

There are now 16 Living-Learning Programs at Virginia Tech – 13 living-learning communities centered on a theme or major, and three residential colleges, each led by a live-in faculty principal:

  • Pablo A. Tarazaga, faculty principal for the Honors Residential Commons in East Ambler Johnston, is associate professor and John R. Jones Faculty Fellow in the mechanical engineering department at Virginia Tech. Additionally, he is a principal faculty member in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction, the and director of the Adaptive Structures and Testing Laboratory and the Virginia Tech Smart Infrastructure Laboratory.
  • C.L. Bohannon is faculty principal for the Leadership and Social Change Residential College. Bohannon is associate professor and director of the Community Engagement Lab in Landscape Architecture in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech. 
  • Danna Agmon, faculty principal in the Residential College at West Ambler Johnston, is associate professor of history and core faculty in ASPECT (Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought) in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

The faculty principal plays an important role in redefining the residential experience by strengthening the academic and intellectual climate of the community. Faculty principals are the intellectual leaders of the community and are charged with creating a culture where students are taught and encouraged to engage meaningfully in their college experience inside and outside the classroom.

Virginia Tech’s living-learning communities connect students’ academic and co-curricular experiences to create a supportive, dynamic learning environment that becomes home. “Learning should be happening everywhere, all the time. Exposing ourselves to a diversity of ideas, experiences, opinions, and backgrounds through partnerships across campus is what will provide us with the greatest chance of creating something meaningful and sustainable,” said Duffey.

“I think we will learn how to balance work and personal life,” she said. “I think we will learn how to make the most of our personal space, shared space, and of campus. I think we will learn about the ways we haven’t imagined that our kids will grow and benefit from this experience. We have the incredible good fortune to have current and previous faculty principals’ shoulders to lean on. And one day we can do the same for another faculty principal.”

“The CID Living-Learning Community is a shining example of how vision, knowledge, and ingenuity can come together to expand learning experiences far beyond the classroom,” said Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril R. Clarke. “This endeavor is a clear illustration of our commitment to leverage creativity and technology to prepare students to serve and improve a global society. The CID LLC will also serve as a beacon for attracting top talent to our university to advance our transdisciplinary communities and Beyond Boundaries vision.”

The Creativity and Innovation District is a key component of the university's strategic plan, The Virginia Tech Difference: Advancing Beyond Boundaries. One of the university’s strategic milestones is to have 67 percent of students in Living-Learning Programs by 2024. In fall 2013, the number was 25.2 percent. By fall 2019 the number had risen to 38.1 percent.

“Community grows slowly. Culture even more so,” said Baird. “And this new building will house several communities, each with its own culture and set of traditions. We must begin by listening, attending groups’ events, learning names and stories, being available, and building trust. At some point ideas will sprout and we will begin to experiment with new traditions, including new ways to use our physical space, actively and passively, to nudge us all towards community. We will keep sight of our positionality, our whiteness, our heterosexuality, and our gender identities to guide our practice of empathy and inclusion for all students, from all backgrounds. And without a doubt, we will seek advice from the knowledgeable and experienced members of our campus community, most certainly the other Faculty Principals, LLC Directors, and student life professionals who live Ut Prosim [That I May Serve] each day. And when we stumble, as we assuredly will, we will ask for forgiveness – and a helping hand to start again.”

Read the full interview with Tim Baird and Kiyah Duffey. 

Written by Sandy Broughton