Two transfer students find their way as Hokies and as future conservation scientists
For Truffaut Harper, transferring to the College of Natural Resources and Environment meant having the chance to channel his talent in computer science toward his love of the natural world.
“Studying computer science meant working on hypothetical problems, and I realized that I wanted to do something that had a tangible impact on the world,” said Harper. “I’ve always loved the environment and being out in nature, and I wanted to do something where I could take my skills in programming and data science and make a difference.”
Harper found his path in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation’s environmental informatics major, which uses data to tackle the complex challenges of natural resource conservation and utilization.
For Sofia Avila, transferring to Virginia Tech was a way of realizing a lifelong ambition to understand meteorology.
“Studying weather was always one of my goals, even as a kid,” said Avila, a senior who transferred to Virginia Tech’s Department of Geography after getting her associate’s degree in science from Northern Virginia Community College. “I was fascinated by weather — by how storms happen and why — and I knew that Virginia Tech had a great program in meteorology.”
Making the most of resources and academic opportunities
In coming to Virginia Tech to purse their interests, both students quickly adapted to new academic environments and located helpful resources.
“Some of my courses had a lot of students enrolled, and that makes it more difficult to talk to the professor or ask questions,” Avila said. “It helps to make the effort to connect over a professor’s office hours, but that isn’t always easy.”
While she found bustling lectures surprising, Harper was learning how to navigate Virginia Tech’s campus.
“Making the adjustment from a small campus to a big one was a challenge,” said Harper, who enjoys long walks in nature, something he did a lot of as he learned the best ways to get to class. “I walked a lot the first week I was on campus before I realized that there was a bus system I could use.”
Harper notes that the Services for Students with Disabilities office (SSD) was another resource that helped him adjust to campus life. “The professors here have been very willing to work with the SSD office, and the experience has been extremely positive,” Harper said. “I would not be so successful as a student had I not been supported as a student with disabilities.”
Both students soon found connections with professors in the college. Harper has worked closely with professors Valerie Thomas and Randolph Wynne, applying his geospatial science skills to real-world challenges.
“Currently, I’m working with Dr. Wynne on a project that analyzes farming data from Senegal,” explained Harper, who will graduate this spring. “We’re looking at a number of different field plots in an effort to determine carbon accumulation in woody species in an agroforestry context.”
Prior to that, Harper collaborated on a project analyzing satellite imagery from a remote sensor on the International Space Station.
“I was able to work directly with a scientist from NASA, which was kind of a dream come true for me because I wanted to be an astronomer when I was younger,” he said. “Virginia Tech has offered me the kind of opportunities I wouldn’t have gotten at another institution.”
Wynne praises Harper’s success at making the most of his experience as a Hokie. “Truffaut has really hit the ground running at Virginia Tech,” Wynne said. “He has brought unique perspectives to the environmental informatics program and to the undergraduate research opportunities that he’s been involved with.”
Avila had the chance to see meteorology science happening in real time, as a participant in Instructor David Carroll’s weather instrumentation field methods course last summer. Hiking to weather stations on mountaintops in the region was a great opportunity to gain experience working with the technologies that aid meteorology science.
“We basically learned how to build a weather station from scratch, top to bottom,” Avila explained. “It was a course focused on weather instrumentation, and we had the chance to climb to weather stations on Mount Rogers and Bald Knob to fix some problems on the equipment there.”
Harper, a recipient of the A. E. “Jim” Evans scholarship, said that the College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE) has the feel of a small college, with the resources and learning opportunities of a major university.
“Thanks to the size of the college, I feel like I’ve really gotten to know my professors well,” he noted. “I’ve been able to build relationships with faculty, and because of that, I’ve been able to get advice and gain really great research opportunities.”
Making connections as transfer students
Both students say that a key to making connections is getting involved. For Avila, who was born in Mexico, that meant joining Latin Link, a campus group that celebrates Hispanic heritage through social and cultural activities. She also joined the Meteorology Club.
“One thing I really encourage for transfer students is living in the residence halls,” she said. “I was able to move into one of the living-learning communities, which was a really great way to make friends quickly.”
Harper, who is the treasurer for the Virginia Tech chapter of Xi Sigma Phi, an honor society for forestry students, echoes that getting involved is a good way to get the most out of the Hokie experience.
“I think the biggest advice I’d give is get involved in campus activities, either with clubs or with professors who are doing research that interests you,” said Harper. “Even though you’re coming late, it’s your school too, and it’s good to become a part of the community.”
John Gray Williams, the college’s recruiter, agrees that transfer students are a welcome addition to the college and the university. Williams speaks from experience, as he too was a transfer student, leaving Tidewater Community College to join Virginia Tech’s Department of Geography.
“I think transfer students add tremendous value to the college. They often bring with them a sense of humility and gratitude. Many of them are so energetic and eager to finally be at Tech, and this enthusiasm shows,” Williams said.
He added that transfers do need to be prepared to work hard from the beginning, but that CNRE’s environment is a big asset: “Transfer students have to hit the ground running, as they dive right into upper-level classes on day one at Virginia Tech. The beauty of our small college is that this transition is eased by the strong community feel and the low faculty/student ratio. A support network is essentially built in, and transfer students will readily find new friends and mentors around every corner.”
Both Harper and Avila have their sights set on graduate school. Avila said that she would like to further her education by studying climate science, while Harper aims to one day work with policy makers to provide data that will inform decisions on environmental challenges.
Written by David Fleming and Krista Timney