Joseph O’Such spent much of his childhood with his family in Lane Stadium, shouting “Hokie hi” on Saturday afternoons with thousands of other Virginia Tech fans. As a budding engineer, he also envisioned himself walking the Blacksburg campus as a student one day. With the help of two key scholarships, that dream became a reality.

Growing up in Loudon County, the young engineering student developed an interest in Legos. He spent long hours sitting in front of a box of blocks, assembling plastic buildings, and creating new types of interlocked structures. He had a few large kits for complex designs, but he never left them assembled for long. His drive was to disassemble the custom pieces of starships and Lego towns and make his own worlds.

This imaginative approach served him well. As he grew up, he became interested in mathematics and discovered how numbers connect to the forces that made his structures strong.

The road to campus

O’Such’s list of prospective schools included Virginia Tech early on in his college search. In addition to his confidence in Virginia Tech’s engineering program, O’Such had a strong desire to build on the pleasant childhood memories of attending Hokie football games with his family. Unsure of what the financial situation might look like, he narrowed the list down to Virginia Tech and another similar school. The deciding factor became the scholarships he secured.

O’Such is the recipient of a Beyond Boundaries scholarship, a fund that supports the university’s long-term goal of preparing students for the interconnected world in which they will live and work by teaching them to be global and engaged citizens. More than 100 households have backed the scholarship program and supported this vision by equipping the next generation with the tools to make a difference.

Throughout high school, he participated in an initiative to support student advocacy at a local middle school. The team brought together students and school administrators to create an environment where students were comfortable voicing their concerns. The resulting conversations provided less vocal students with an outlet to be heard, leading to improved morale among students at the school.

O’Such also joined two peer mentoring groups to help fellow students explore possibilities for their future. One group brought student-made curriculum to other students in Loudon County, targeting issues such as career and college choices. The second group encouraged students to speak up about teaching methods, sharing their findings at the conference of the National Council of Teachers of English. The group’s philosophy was that if education is a business, students are the clients, and they should have a voice in how their education is administered.

Between the two groups, O’Such worked with roughly 250 students, putting himself on the front lines for helping his peers flourish and re-imagining what classroom dynamics might look like. That service was very much in line with the spirit of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), the Hokie motto.

"Taking something you are passionate about and being able to help others with it is truly a blessing,” he said. “It's a sort of a two birds, one stone scenario. I think that having the opportunity to apply student advocacy to service gave me a very positive and optimistic mindset surrounding service."

Mentorship activities helped shape O’Such’s view of helping others and challenged him to improve his skill set to provide meaningful expertise. He expanded on this goal while still in high school when he joined an independent research project studying electrochemical processes, converting carbon dioxide to ethanol. During the project, O’Such learned discipline and resourcefulness through tasks such as researching literature, choosing materials, brushing up on general science, and exploring experimental design.

“Learning how to find resources and construct an experiment based on those experiments was such a unique challenge,” said O’Such. “I really had to pull out everything I knew up to that point. And I think over the course of the year, I ultimately got way better at Google. It's such an underrated skill.”

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Digging into opportunities

In addition to earning a Beyond Boundaries scholarship, O’Such is also a Presidential Scholar. This scholarship is extended to Virginia residents who demonstrate potential for stellar academic performance and show evidence of leadership potential. This unique opportunity allowed him to engage in add-ons provided by the Honors College, opening up practical applications that bring classroom learning to life.

“In my linear algebra course, we went through the standard linear algebra curriculum, and then we went into image compression works with the application of linear algebra. That was a super cool unit,” O’Such said.

Now in his second year as an engineering student, O’Such has chosen mechanical engineering as his home department. The subject areas studied there have expanded on his Lego-fueled interest in tinkering with things, taking them apart to see how they work, and dreaming up his own creations. He has also put that approach to work as a member of student teams. One of those groups is the Diggeridoos.

When SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced a competition to create a tunnel-digging vehicle in July 2020, The Diggeridoo student team answered the call. O’Such lent his talents to building a durable structure capable of protecting the machinery and withstanding the forces bearing down on the vehicle.

His ability to understand the practical application of mathematical principles and strong structures was a good fit. The Diggeridoos had been one of 12 teams selected from a pool of 400 to proceed in the early stages of the competition, and the team took its design to the desert in September 2021 - fueled in part by a successful Virginia Tech crowdfunding campaign. O’Such made the trip and found tremendous value in watching the team’s design go through the rigorous testing process.

"Engineering classes tend to teach a lot of theory,” he said. “Working as part of the Diggeridoos allowed me a lot of opportunity to actually apply this theory. Taking the theories you learn and applying them to something material certainly has given me a more well-rounded understanding of mechanical engineering."

Looking back over his experiences, O’Such has been grateful for the opportunities that have come his way. Having the chance to carry on his drive to learn at Virginia Tech has been both inspirational and educational, and he has been able to adapt his approach to the bigger world of college in which he now lives. Through lessons learned in high school lab projects and work in the Honors College, he recommends that students take initiative in their studies and push forward.

“In college, start your stuff early. Even if you think something might take an hour, it might take five. Don’t wait for someone to tell you to do something. Take it into your own hands.”

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