Plenty of Virginia Tech students have people they call friends, but only a select few have a peer group that answers to mangoes.

“We came up with our pod name pretty randomly, not going to lie,” said Morgan Barnickel, a first-year student studying engineering. “I think we were talking about fruit and I yelled out, ‘mangoes!’ I don’t remember why, all I know is that it stuck and I love my fellow mangoes.”

The Mangoes are just a few of hundreds of students taking part in the enhanced pod network on the Blacksburg campus this semester. By registering their pods — small groups of students who can relax some COVID-19-related precautions when together due to their commitment to one another’s health and well-being — the students are able to tap into specifically tailored activities and resources.

“One of the major benefits of pods this semester is that several departments and offices are creating and customizing programs specifically for pods,” said Meghan Weyrens Kuhn, director of VT Engage: The Center for Leadership and Service Learning. “An excellent example are the pod programs with Rec Sports that allow students in registered pods exclusive opportunities, such as private group exercise classes and game nights, where they can be more relaxed and unmasked.”

Registered pods are also connected with a Virginia Tech faculty or staff member who provides targeted support to individual pods. Kuhn and Rohsaan Settle, director of Fraternity and Sorority Life, are heading up the group of Virginia Tech professionals who have volunteered for this special effort.

“The pod coach’s main goal is to meet with the pod leader and/or members about twice a month to check in, engage students, and connect them with campus and community experiences and resources to ensure they feel supported,” Settle said. “For students, it’s a low commitment with a really high level of rewards.”

For the pod coaches, the new system provides an opportunity to help Hokies make the most of the challenging semester by providing a little help navigating college life during the pandemic.

“I think many students are facing a sense of being unsure what to do, how to get involved, and who to reach out to so they’re a little hesitant,” said Sam Buchanan, assistant director for professional development with Student Affairs. “With this role I really want to help them maximize their experience here.”

Buchanan said pod coaching fell very much in line with Virginia Tech’s individual approach to education and her personal drive to serve the university community.

Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) is really what brought me to Virginia Tech, so I really try to embody that,” she said.

It was a similar motivation that drove James Kittinger, reservations coordinator with Student Engagement and Campus Life, to also volunteer as pod coach.

“Being a pod coach gives me the perfect opportunity to serve and work with amazing students,” Kittinger said. “Having the opportunity to see students engaged and enjoying their college experience during a pandemic safely is very satisfying.”

Barnickel, whose pod coach is the Virginia Tech Police Department’s John Tarter, said having such a connection with a member of the university's professional community had been far more enjoyable than she expected.

“Honestly, I love my pod coach. Officer Tarter is so friendly and funny. I know he wants the best for us and is always willing to guide us,” Barnickel said. “I look forward to our meetings every time.”

Interested students who are not yet in a pod can register on this page.

— Written by Travis Williams