In a year when many are missing community, the members of the fourth cohort of the VT Engage Faculty Fellows program are determined to find ways to connect.

The goal of the Faculty Fellows program is to increase the prevalence and quality of community-based work at Virginia Tech in the areas of service learning, leadership education, and civic engagement. Selected Fellows join other scholar-educators dedicated to integrating high-impact, ethical, community-based learning experiences in their academic courses and programs. Fellows receive funding to expand current offerings or create new ones.

The two fellows selected for the one-year program are Craig Arthur, head of community engagement for University Libraries, and Natalie E. Cook, an assistant professor of public health in the department of population health sciences in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech.

“We chose these project proposals because of both Craig and Natalie’s demonstrated commitment to authentic community engagement and social justice,” said Catherine Cotrupi, assistant director at VT Engage: The Center for Leadership and Service Learning and manager of the Faculty Fellows program. “Despite COVID-19, they have found ways to make meaningful connections with students and community partners.”

Arthur is the first administrative professional member to be chosen as a VT Engage Faculty Fellow. His project focuses on the co-curricular program Virginia Tech Digging in The Crates (VTDITC): Hip Hop Studies at Virginia Tech, which collaborates with a wide variety of community organizations to offer free, hands-on experiential workshops that celebrate STEAM ingenuity and explain the systemic oppression that created hip hop culture. Arthur hopes to provide an avenue to students who want to pursue their passion but are not sure what to do next.

“I’m really interested in how university libraries can enhance and contribute to community engagement, and I wanted to learn from the experts in VT Engage,” said Arthur. “Through these workshops, I want to provide resources for kids who might not have access to them and let the kids know that the creative stuff is scholarship too.”

Cook redesigned the PHS 5644: Program Evaluation course, which is cross listed between the departments of human development and public health, so that it now has a critical, community-engaged focus. Students in the course partner with community organizations on a specific assessment project that assesses the process, outcomes, or impact of an organization’s program or project. Cook has a unique perspective on ideas for redesigning the course: she took it as a doctoral student while at Virginia Tech. She wanted to participate in the Fellows program to continue that work and integrate a focus on equity and cultural responsiveness in program evaluation work.

“Program evaluation can provide essential insight for community organizations. They need information to see if things are working, making an impact, and if changes need to be made,” said Cook. “Best intentions in community work can still lead to harm – these types of evaluations can help determine if the project is meeting the goal of positively contributing to the community.”

While both Arthur and Cook had to change their approach to their work due to the constraints of COVID-19, it opened the opportunity for both to reach people in a new way. Arthur reaches more people virtually at workshops and is no longer bound by having to factor in distance, driving time, and related costs to get to a workshop location. Cook also had to get creative with connecting to her community partners, but this provided the option for her students to work with organizations in their hometowns instead of only in the New River Valley region. 

During the academic year, Arthur, Cook, and Cotrupi have met monthly, either virtually or, when weather permits, they gather in person, outside, and observe public health guidance on physical distancing. Cook said it is helpful to have the support of a small cohort to troubleshoot together and to brainstorm new ideas. Arthur also appreciates the small-group time as it allows each of them to meet their individual goals while also learning collectively. 

“This program is designed to support faculty members as they create innovative ways to live out Virginia Tech’s land-grant mission,” said Meghan Weyrens Kuhn, director of VT Engage. “Craig and Natalie’s work sets an incredible example for the students they are working with of what it means to integrate community engaged pedagogy into a curriculum as they work toward mutually-beneficial goals with their community partners.”

The application for the 2021-22 Faculty Fellows program opens April 12 and applications are due May 15. This program is open to any full-time teaching or administrative and professional faculty member at Virginia Tech. Learn more about the program on VT Engage’s website

Written by Lindsey Gleason.