Editor's note: Students who turn 21 during the winter break, including in December, will have the opportunity to participate in the birthday project once they return to campus in January.

When Jack Mills turned 21 in March, Hokie Wellness helped him celebrate.

Shortly before his birthday, Mills, a Virginia Tech junior, received a book of vouchers for free meals at some of his favorite downtown Blacksburg spots, like Sharkey’s Wing and Rib Joint and PK’s Bar and Grill.

He also gathered some tips about celebrating his milestone birthday safely.

It’s all part of the Hokie Wellness 21st Birthday Project.

“It’s such a cool way for Virginia Tech and the Blacksburg community to show students they care about us,” said Mills.

There was a simple premise when Kelsey O’Hara-Marasigan, assistant director of Hokie Wellness, and David Andrews, associate director of Hokie Wellness, founded the 21st Birthday Project in 2016. They wanted to celebrate Virginia Tech students when they turn 21 and ensure they have the tools they need for a safe celebration. The project is one of many sponsored by the Party Positive Campaign, which aims to educate students about alcohol consumption.

It's also an example of an activity that Hokies can do, despite the pandemic. Virginia Tech’s Division of Students Affairs is working to highlight these kinds of safe and fun activities that remain available to students.

This is how the birthday project works. All students receive an email a few days prior to their 21st birthday, inviting them to McComas Hall. When they arrive, they talk with another Hokie, a member of the IMPACT (Initiating and Motivating a Positive Alcohol Culture Together) Peer Education and Prevention Team, about ways to celebrate their birthday safely with harm reduction tips.

Then, students receive a coupon book to redeem at restaurants in downtown Blacksburg. Hokie Wellness partners with D.P. Dough, Sharkey’s, PK’s Bar and Grill, Top of the Stairs, and others to provide students with exclusive deals, all with COVID-safe delivery and carryout options available. Students who feel unsafe visiting McComas in person can join an info session via Zoom and schedule a low-contact pickup for the coupon book. The goal is for students to emerge with a solid plan of how they will approach their birthday.

“It is universally good knowledge to have in college,” said O’Hara-Marasigan. “We never assume that any student drinks, but we know that having harm reduction strategies will be helpful if they ever choose to do so or if they are around friends who are drinking. We want everyone to have all the information they need to make sensible decisions.”

Students are invited to the McComas Hall pool deck for the 21st Birthday Project.
Students are invited to the McComas Hall pool deck for the 21st Birthday Project. Photo by Annie Chalmers-Williams.

Universities across the country struggle to find opportunities to inject healthy conversations about drinking into students’ lives, but the project provides an incentive to bring students into an environment where they can do so safely. After seeing its success at Virginia Tech, educators at schools across the country, such as James Madison University and Kansas State University, have implemented versions of the project at their respective schools.

“The peer education model was the most inspiring part of Virginia Tech’s idea,” said Mindy Koon, assistant director of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Prevention at James Madison University. “What stood out to me was the opportunity for peer educators to use one-on-one time to speak with students about topics they wouldn’t regularly bring up. While we have staff members that are able to facilitate the meetings, it’s really our peer educators that have the most effective conversations.” 

Peer education is a key concept for the project, as well as avoiding a judgmental tone. IMPACT student peer educators are trained to do just that. They have a casual conversation with Hokies who are turning 21, rather than judging their choices.

“Expecting students not to drink could be really harmful, so it’s important that Virginia Tech acknowledged the fact that people will go out to celebrate their 21st.” said Alli Hill, a senior who turned 21 in January and participated in the birthday project. “That way, they can address concerns head on. They really just want people to be safe. My peer educator was really upfront and didn’t try to preach at me, which I appreciated. It was a conversation rather than a lecture.

Careful to make sure that no Hokie missed an opportunity to celebrate their 21st birthday with Hokie Wellness, O’Hara-Marasigan and Andrews even invited students whose birthdays took place at the beginning of the pandemic for a free T-shirt in August. Students formed a line that wrapped halfway around McComas to pick up their T-shirts, which was evidence of the popularity of the program. Students whose birthdays occur during this upcoming winter break will be invited to McComas when the spring 2021 semester begins.

“I don’t think many universities would think to give out birthday gifts, but then again, Virginia Tech isn’t like most schools,” Mills said. “They give you really helpful tips to navigate your first night downtown and a ton of free stuff, which is awesome.”

Written by Rosie Hutchison '21, intern for Virginia Tech University Relations