Dear Virginia Tech students,

Can we pause for a moment and think together as a community about the upcoming election?

First, if you are eligible, I hope you vote. You should know that your generation represents 37 percent of the eligible electorate — and your collective voices wield tremendous power and influence. Voting is one of the most basic ways to serve our democracy and practice Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).

Second, I urge each of you to be respectful and thoughtful in your discourse, as the Principles of Community call us to do. As we approach the election, it’s no secret that the political lines have been drawn, and the rhetoric feels intense. We feel these things deeply.

Our reactions toward each other have the potential to unify or divide, to strengthen or dismantle. While backing into our respective ideological corners may be the easiest and most instinctual choice, I wonder how we might instead approach the election by fostering those values that connect us, rather than those that threaten to pull us apart.

I recently encountered the work of sociologist Arlie Hochschild, who researches the social impact of emotion (to learn more, listen to her interview with On Being’s Krista Tippett). Hochschild emphasizes that the purpose of listening is not to change others’ minds, but to understand. As she says, “Turn your alarm system off, climb an empathy wall, and get to know people on the other side of it.”

I’ll admit that this can feel scary – particularly in light of the deep emotions associated with our personal truths on political issues and even our identities. But I care deeply about my relationships and my community—as I know you do—and we can work together to define the kind of community we want to be, before and after the election. In fact, this points to the most helpful and empowering question that we can ask: “Who do we want to be?”

To uncover this answer, I’ve recently experienced the value of reframing charged political conversations with a few well-placed questions:

  • Each person shares their thoughts and feelings about a matter, followed only by clarifying questions from the listener.
  • Both people take turns sharing their honest answers to these two questions:
    • “What’s good in the position of the other?”
    • “What troubles me about my own position?”
  • Both people share their takeaways from the conversation.

One honest caveat: While we hope that all participants will recognize the rights of others to be present in the conversations, there are some whose dispositions or intentions make this connection impossible. Pass them by.

I’ve truly found that the three principles above help me to be more generous, thoughtful, and open, and less rigid, defensive, and bitter. In short, it usually yields the answer I’m longing for when I ask myself the question, “Who do I want to be?”

To continue this important community conversation, Vice President for Strategic Affairs and Diversity Menah Pratt-Clarke and I will host a virtual event, “Finding Common Ground: Reflecting and Connecting After the 2020 Election.” The conversation will be on the day after the election, from 12 p.m. - 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 4. Stay tuned for more details.

For some of you, this is your first time voting in a presidential election, or even voting at all. Be sure to visit this page on the VT Engage website for answers to questions you may have about the voting process.

Fellow Hokies, as the election nears, ask yourself these questions: Who do you want to be in this moment? Who do we want to be together as a Hokie family?

With hope,

Frank Shushok, Jr.
Vice President for Student Affairs