Over the course of two weekends in October, Virginia Tech’s College Access Collaborative (CAC) welcomed more than 100 students from Virginia and North Carolina to the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

The purpose: to provide a high-octane, hands-on career exploration experience for prospective college students. The opportunity is one of many Ignite the Spark programs facilitated throughout the year by CAC. 

“Joy Capers, assistant director in career and professional development, attended a professional development institute at the [NASCAR Hall of Fame] and mentioned the vast racing industry-related career opportunities on and off the track,” said Karen Eley Sanders, associate vice provost for CAC. “When discussions about racing-focused career exploration began, we thought Charlotte would be perfect for an in-person engagement.”

Their daylong agenda included professional headshots, a career panel and mock career fair, driving simulation, a pit crew challenge, and interactive workshops. By the time the checkered flag flew on their visit, the students had a greater understanding of the opportunities and educational paths to careers in motor sports. 

“Everything from sales, marketing, engineering, media, . . . it’s important for students to see what goes into the success of the NASCAR industry. And the hands-on activities and career panel, which included several Hokie alumni, helped the students understand how a Virginia Tech education can help them reach their career goals,” Sanders said. 

Hokie alumni Darian Grubb, director of performance at Chip Ganassi Racing; race engineer Jonathan Branzelle, also of Chip Ganassi Racing; and Marvin Aylor Jr., director of partnership marketing, served on the career panel. 

Earlier in the day, Kevin Kidd, a Virginia Tech alumnus and technical director at Roush Fenway Racing, outlined his career path in a video message and encouraged students to embrace the career exploration journey.

“I recommend that you find your passion,” Kidd said. “It starts there. That’s where my story started. As a young kid, I had a lot of exposure to the car culture, motor sports, and racing in general. That passion found me more than I found it and it was very clear to me that this is what I wanted to do.”

Building on earlier sessions, students later formed small groups and engaged in workshop challenges to engineer a car, create a team identity, and get physically and mentally ready to race. Individually, they each developed, practiced and delivered elevator pitches, a skillset Sanders said is critical to creating lasting first-impressions.

“This event provided an opportunity for students to network with professionals so we wanted them to properly hone their skills," Sanders said. "Practicing and delivering the elevator pitch helped minimize the students’ anxiety and allowed them to develop an additional skillset in a supportive environment. The mock career fair also allowed the high schoolers to practice their pitches.”

The Virginia Tech College Access Collaborative, a division of Enrollment Management, aims to increase academic preparation, access and affordability for first-generation, low-income, underrepresented minorities (Black, Latino, and Native American), women, and students from rural and inner-city communities. 

“Our hope is that students left the experience with ideas and resources on how to begin or continue their career exploration journey,” Sanders added. “We hope the day ignited a spark of curiosity to further focus on their post-secondary opportunities. We know that this activity helped grow our pool of potential Hokies.”

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