Menah Pratt-Clarke had a vision to make Virginia Tech a more inclusive place. She and her team in the Office for Inclusion and Diversity came up with a five-day camp called ExploreVT to bring high school students from underrepresented and underserved populations to campus to showcase what Virginia Tech has to offer.

After beginning her role as vice president for strategic affairs and vice provost for inclusion and diversity in February 2016, Pratt-Clarke began to assess the areas of challenge and opportunity for underrepresented groups at Virginia Tech. That’s when she began thinking about ExploreVT.

The program gave almost 50 students the opportunity to live in a Virginia Tech residence hall, immerse themselves in a college setting, and learn from faculty from all eight of Virginia Tech’s colleges.

Most of the students were rising juniors in high school, when the conversation about college typically happens.

“There was an opportunity this summer for them to begin to understand how their high school curriculum can prepare them and help them be more successful in terms of being able to succeed at Virginia Tech,” Pratt-Clarke said. “So, whether it’s certain math classes they need to take or a certain science curriculum or being more engaged in cocurricular activities, there’s still a chance to shift what they thought they were going to do to be ready.”

High school students assembled a disaster-relief prototype house with Architecture Professor Joe Wheeler and Virginia Tech architecture students
High school students assemble a disaster-relief prototype house with Architecture Professor Joe Wheeler and Virginia Tech architecture students who are developing the houses for international use.

The students arrived to campus on June 25 to begin their stay through Friday at West Ambler-Johnston Hall. Each day the students would eat together, attend academic events, and have free time.

“The schedule was designed to build community among the students and help them understand themselves and their potential,” Pratt-Clarke said. “So many in these populations are often told ‘no,’ or ‘you can’t,’ or ‘you’re not good enough.’ So affirmation and affirming their individual worth, their talent, their skills and potential is critical.”

Organizers felt that the event needed to showcase all colleges to expose students to all the  career paths they can take.

“The [students] may know about the main career paths like lawyers, doctors, things like that. But, being exposed to all eight colleges has the opportunity to show them that there are other majors out there,” Luisa Burgos, coordinator of summer programs, said.

C.L. Bohannon is an assistant professor of landscape architecture in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. As a minority designer, he wanted to tell students about what he does, especially those who may not think about design as a career.

“For me, as a black landscape architect, it’s important for people to see people of color and different ethnicities in design,” Bohannon said. “When I was in school, I didn’t have anybody that looked like me that was a professor, at all. But I could be that for someone else now.”

C.L. Bohannon challenges a high school student to think differently about what he is sketching.
C.L. Bohannon, assistant professor of landscape architecture in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, challenges a high school student to think differently about what he is sketching.

Along with the academic side, students had time to see other opportunities at Tech.

“It’s not just about curricular pieces but also the co-curricular opportunities that Tech has,” Pratt-Clarke said. “You’re exposed to the complete college experience of classes, labs, organizations, recreation, and the arts.”

Damira Augustin is a rising senior from Gainesville, Georgia. She heard about the camp from a family friend who attended the university. The ExploreVT experience really helped her decide on whether to apply to Virginia Tech.

“I could see myself coming to Virginia Tech. This is the first school I’m applying to because this program, you stay for a week. I’ve been to other schools and I was only there for a couple hours. I didn’t get to get the whole full experience,” Augustin said. “This is why I like this program because if you come here, and you’re living in the dorms, you see what it’s like. You have a better chance of actually liking it or not liking it.”

This is not the first event of its kind at a higher education institution. But Pratt-Clarke said Virginia Tech’s program is different.

“I think what’s unique about this particular program is that it’s got the engagement of every college. So every college at Tech has [created] a very unique, distinctive experience for these students to showcase the potential of the institution,” Pratt-Clarke said.

Pratt-Clarke says programs of this nature are often singularly focused, not all encompassing. She adds that getting all eight colleges involved was easy.

“It was just widespread enthusiasm,” Pratt-Clarke said. “We really felt it was an important opportunity for colleges and programs that  are typically maybe not on students’ radar to be an option  for their careers. Every college was delighted because of the opportunity to showcase their programs.

The high school students got to put together their own artwork with instructor Chris Pritchett in Burchard Hall.
A group of high school students participate in screenprinting with instructor Chris Pritchett in Burchard Hall.

Burgos stresses the need for this type of program at Tech.

“I’ve been impacted by a program like this for Latinos that has been sponsored by Virginia Tech. So to see something like ExploreVT that is actually created by Virginia Tech, specifically for underrepresented students, it is something that is needed. Because you don’t hear [about] programs out there that are only meant to target that specific population,” said Burgos, a higher education graduate student.

The main thing Pratt-Clarke and Burgos want the students to get out of the program is the sense of community and belonging.

“The big thing about Virginia Tech is this idea of Hokie Nation, that you’ve come here and we’re a community that takes care of each other. This is a place where we care and where you can be successful. We own that,” Pratt-Clarke said.

“I want them to leave with a support system,” Burgos said. “I want students to leave with that sense of community, that they can call ExploreVT a program that helped them decide their major, career. As long as they can say they narrowed it down, that would be amazing. And they at least left with a mentor. It’s that connection they have to Virginia Tech.”

Pratt-Clarke hopes to continue this event each year.

ExploreVT is an initiative of InclusiveVT Project 2022, a program designed to increase student diversity. InclusiveVT is the institutional and individual commitment to Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) in the spirit of community, diversity, and excellence.

Written by Olivia Coleman

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