Editor’s note: With Virginia Tech Giving Day 2022 beginning at noon Feb. 23, a series of stories highlighting the impact of donations are featured on VTx this month.

Annual conferences are a staple of academic engagement where practitioners offer insights, vendors demo new products, and attendees connect with each other and explore the host city.

For Sara Lamb, a graduate student in Virginia Tech’s landscape architecture program, the conference experience offered much more than what she expected. In Nashville, Tennessee for the American Society of Landscape Architects’ annual conference, Lamb found that “visiting a new city is an immersion in the experience of a place. For a landscape architect, navigating the urban landscape, visiting parks and landmarks, discovering local restaurants, and taking in music, farmers markets, and street art is electric and exciting.”

Multiply that immersion experience by 68 landscape architecture students who attended the fall 2021 conference and you have a firestorm of excitement.

These students would not have had the opportunity if not for the generosity of donors and friends on the Landscape Architecture Advisory Board. In a novel approach to support the next generation of landscape architects, alumni and friends of the Virginia Tech program developed a big idea — to send the entire cohort of undergraduate, masters, and Ph.D. students to the conference. Caren Yglesias (architecture ’76 and advisory board member) said, “We were concerned that the COVID-19 pandemic might cause students to delay or forgo their college education. We wanted to do something exceptional to respond to these circumstances and retain, and even promote, the program and its students.”

The board’s planning and fundraising began in earnest just in time for Giving Day 2021, an annual university fundraising effort. Alumni donations were matched dollar-for-dollar by board member gifts. In addition, 21 corporate sponsorships from firms across the country and Canada topped up the funds needed send the students to Nashville.

“Our impact was even greater than our dream," Yglesias said. "As a result of our efforts, ASLA dropped conference registration fees not only for our students but for 600 students from schools all over the country.”

Prior to attending the conference, Chris Escobar, a second-year landscape architecture student, had only met two other landscape architects in person. “I was inspired to find myself in a room with hundreds of people who have similar interests as mine,” he said.

In addition to learning about innovative products, Escobar noted that “attending a professional conference will affect my career trajectory by introducing me to companies where I might want to work and to meet the people who are in charge of hiring.”

Escobar and other members of the Virginia Tech cohort visited the company sponsors who provided support for their attendance and travel the conference.

A group of 9 students and their mentor.
A cohort of landscape architecture students were mentored by Charles W. Ware Jr. ’87. Virginia Tech photo by Sara Lamb.

Terry Clements, chair of the Landscape Architecture Program, emphasized the dual role that advisory board members played in this groundbreaking project. “Our board has a well-defined mission and works on an ongoing set of initiatives to support our program priorities. Not only did the board members help to fund our attendance at the ASLA conference, but they also served as mentors to our students during the conference and helped them navigate educational opportunities as well as the EXPO exhibits,” she said.

Landscape Architecture Alumni Board member Charles W. Ware Jr. (urban design ’87) helped engage corporate support for the Virginia Tech contingent, and he served as a mentor to one of the student cohorts. On the first night, Ware led an exercise that helped students get to know one another and build the group’s cohesion.

“Student participation in the conference and the mentor program combined to instill a sense of connection to the industry and practitioners, to hear our stories, and to learn from our successes and challenges," Ware said. "But even more importantly, student-professional interactions represented a two-way dialogue, an opportunity to listen to one another, to learn from one another.”

Lamb was struck by Ware’s thoughtful advice on success. “It was quite possibly the most solid list of professional advice I have ever heard. He shared stories of his experience as a landscape architect that brought some big ideas to life.”

Ware stressed the need to develop core competencies, seek mentors, and commit to lifelong learning. At the same time, he stressed the importance of defining one’s purpose and seeking a balance of professional and personal goals.

“Chuck is a model of his last piece of advice for us: Get involved. Life is a two-way street and you must contribute, learn, and grow,” said Lamb.

For this cohort of Landscape Architecture students, a deep dive into a professional conference combined with thoughtful mentoring by alumni professionals in the field will have an indelible impact on their professional future and their personal growth.

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