For seven years, faculty from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and minority serving institutions (MSIs) have come to Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus in October to exchange ideas, make connections, and discuss research with their counterparts in departments across the university.

Those faculty members bring undergraduate students and master’s students with them who are interested in Virginia Tech’s graduate programs, but also want to know what support the university provides to help them thrive as they earn advanced degrees.

The eighth annual HBCU/MSI Research Summit, sponsored by the Graduate School and the Office for Inclusion and Diversity, was markedly different from the previous seven. This year, the summit took place online.

Virginia Tech programs created virtual “booths” on Brazen Connect for faculty and students to visit, and all presentations and panel discussions took place on Zoom. While there were no meals and in-person demonstrations, the summit was a success, said Justin Grimes, assistant director of Recruitment, Diversity, and Inclusion for the Graduate School.

Programs from all of the university’s colleges and its campuses in Blacksburg, Roanoke, and the greater Washington, D.C. metro area participated, meeting with faculty and students during the two day summit.

“The summit this year, through using Brazen Connect, provided a great opportunity to extend access for more students, faculty, and institutions across the country to learn more about Graduate Education at Virginia Tech,” Grimes said. “A major takeaway from this year's summit is that Virginia Tech is a place where students and faculty from an HBCU or MSI want to engage with us in collaborations, research, and the pursuit of graduate education.”

The Oct. 29 session focused on faculty research and partnerships. More than 170 faculty members participated, including faculty members from 15 HBCUs and MSIs. Deborah Carlier, director of strategic initiatives and engagement, research and graduate studies for the College of Engineering, offered a presentation on creating and sustaining partnerships, using her work with Innovation Campus programs reaching out to Virginia universities and colleges as an example. Faculty members from Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, College of Engineering, and Cooperative Extension and their partners from Delaware State University, Virginia State University, and West Virginia State University, shared their experiences working on three successful and ongoing projects.

Both programs were held on Zoom and participants peppered presenters with questions and networked among themselves as well. After the Zoom sessions, faculty members converged on the 32 virtual booths on the Brazen Connect platform, engaging in discussions with the Virginia Tech faculty members and other representatives.

Students participated in the Oct. 30 sessions. The summit saw more student participation than past years, with undergraduates attending from 18 institutions, including two from California. Assistant Dean and Director of the Office of Recruitment, Diversity, and Inclusion Shernita Lee suggested that this may have been because they did not need to worry about travel or missing days on their campuses. Lee said more than 245 people participated in the student day offerings. Program booths were busy, logging almost 120 conversations between program recruiters and interested students.

“I appreciated the flexibility of everyone to learn a new platform and step outside of their comfort zone to achieve what I anticipate to be a promising impact on Virginia Tech and HBCUs and MSIs” said Lee. “More importantly, by the shift in summit delivery, other students and faculty were able to attend without having first identified a VT program to host them. This truly allowed for authentic interactions.”

The highlight of the day was a panel discussion by Virginia Tech graduate students who had attended HBCUs, moderated by Grimes. The students were frank about adjusting to life and work at the land-grant university based in Blacksburg. They talked about the need to find “your community” and supportive faculty members in programs. They also discussed the transition from in-person to online instruction and research as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. First-year master’s student Kordell Dixon has yet to set foot on the Blacksburg campus, taking his first semester of classes online from his home.

Lee said university programs helped make the virtual summit a hit with participants on both days. “The summit was successful due to an institutional commitment to its goals of forming partnerships, student recruitment, and collaborations,” she said. “Without campus-wide interest and willingness to support this endeavor, the planning aspect would have been significantly more challenging.”

The COVID-19 pandemic may have pushed the move to hold the summit online, but Grimes said the virtual event yielded results that may shape future summits.

“The shift to using more virtual platforms has positioned Virginia Tech toward successfully using innovative and accessible recruitment platforms and strategies,” he said.