In early 2006, the walls of the Graduate Life Center's first-floor hallways were bare.

Formerly the Donaldson-Brown Hotel and Conference Center, the building had just been converted into a space for graduate students after the university approved a proposal by then-dean for graduate education Karen DePauw to create the center, known as the GLC. Within a few months, the hallway walls held photos and art created by graduate students and submitted to the first GLC photo and art contest.

When it first began, the contest was a way to “engage students in the decoration of the newly opened GLC and thus increase their sense of ownership and belonging” assistant dean and director of graduate student services Monika Gibson said.

The initial call for submissions emphasized that goal: “Help us decorate the GLC!” The aim was to select 24 photos and four pieces of art to display in the GLC. The rules asked for photographs that depicted “interesting and artistic reflections of graduate student life and involvements,” and artwork created by graduate students. Gibson said response was positive. Her team invited a guest judge to choose the winners, who received certificates noting their achievement.

Sarah Gugercin M.A. '06 won one of the awards during the second contest, held in fall 2006. She said the photo she submitted was from a spring trip to visit gardens. “I saw and photographed a lot of interesting things on that trip, so I must have felt compelled to share them in the contest,” she wrote in a recent email.

Pardha Pyla Ph.D. '07 who earned two master's degrees and a doctorate in computer science, was another award winner from that 2006 spring contest. He said photography has been a passion of his for a long time. "I am mostly into landscape photography and I love wandering off the beaten path with my camera," Pyla said. "To me there is something interesting about capturing a scene; it is like expressing my subjective opinion on the objective reality out there. "

Fast forward 15 years, and a new array of photos grace the corridors of the GLC. The fall 2021 contest focused on the theme “Reunited,” asking students to “show us what you are glad to be reunited with after being away for so long.” Photos on the GLC walls show fans filling the seats at Lane Stadium, students walking on the Drillfield, someone feeding the ducks at the Duck Pond, tourists gathering at a state park, a group of friends laughing, and family members hugging one another.

The contest has been held every fall and spring since 2006, with the exception of the 2020-21 academic year, when the building was closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Holding the contest twice a year provides more students with opportunities to share their work, and also offers visitors new work to view regularly. The Graduate School invites guest judges, often photographers, to choose the winners.

There also is a people’s choice award. Winners receive a certificate and a small gift, but Gibson said the contest has an underlying goal. “It’s about featuring the creativity and soul of our students beyond their academic work and scientific accomplishments, and about students feeling like they belong to the graduate community and can contribute themselves and the way they see the world.”

Gugercin, who currently is pursuing a bachelor of fine arts degree, agreed. “Since grad students come from so many different places and study so many different things, I think the photo contest is a great way for them to share about themselves and what they find interesting,” she said. “Also, many of the grad students aren’t in artistic programs, so having an opportunity to share something like that is exciting.”

"The GLC fostered a great sense of community among the diverse graduate student population," Pyla said. "The art contest provided an amazing opportunity to see snapshots of their incredible experiences. Naturally I wanted to participate."

The photos and art have been as varied as the students who have submitted their work over the years, and provide viewers with glimpses of life and scenery in other nations, of home life, nature, and landmarks and scenes of Blacksburg, the New River Valley, and beyond. Some students also have submitted photos of their research, Gibson said.

For the first few years of the contest, students submitted prints of their work. Now 30-50 students participate in each contest and the Graduate School prints the photos to frame and display them. Student art also fills the halls of the Graduate School’s second floor offices and the dean’s office reception area.

In providing students with a showcase for their photos and art, “we were the first unit on campus to invite student submissions to decorate a public space,” Gibson said. “When we initiated this, it was something of a novelty.”

Gibson said the contest also offered an opportunity for students to showcase their work outside their academic fields. That was one of the draws for Gugercin: “The photo contest was a nice way for me to ‘show off’ something creative not related to my graduate research.”

The contest will open for submissions again in spring 2022.

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