Class of 2022: Pathways program graduates its first cohort of seniors
In 2018, Virginia Tech revitalized the university’s core curriculum by launching Pathways General Education, a program created to both work across disciplines and address real-world problems.
Central to the initiative are the Pathways minors, 29 programs that cross disciplinary boundaries and are built around themes such as blue planet, health communication, leadership and social change, and visual arts and society. Pathways minors allow students to examine concepts from a variety of perspectives while working toward their general education requirements, culminating in a capstone project.
As the program’s first, four-year cohort graduates, we asked four seniors to share how a Pathways minor added depth to their studies, changed the direction of their education, and prepared them for their careers.
Pathways minor: Integrated security
When Cassidy Koo signed up for Intelligence Analysis Workshop, part of her Pathways minor in integrated security, she had no idea how significant the timing would be. The course focuses on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and six weeks after the semester started, Russia launched an invasion.
“By the end of February, there was a sense for all of us in the class that this situation was unfolding right now and that our work was relevant and maybe we could make a difference after graduation when we apply it to our careers,” said Koo.
The course is taught by Aaron Brantly, who is an associate professor of political science and an internationally recognized expert in cybersecurity with deep personal and family ties to Ukraine. He helped develop the integrated security minor and serves as the director of the Tech4Humanity lab at Virginia Tech.
“As a liberal arts major in national security and foreign policy, you have the opportunity to build your own path,” said Koo. “The integrated security minor gave me the opportunity to take classes that I wouldn’t have normally experienced and allowed me to understand a more technical side of the field.”
Koo grew up in a neighborhood in Fairfax County, Virginia, where people commuted to Raytheon, Fort Belvoir, and the Pentagon and with a mother who is a civilian contractor, which she said led to her interest in national service.
After considering careers in the military and law enforcement, she decided to pursue a national security and foreign affairs major. When her supervisor at a summer internship with the National Security Agency encouraged her to learn coding, Koo added the integrated security minor.
“Right now, I’m in the capstone portion of the program, so I’m working with a few computer engineers along with some computer modeling and data analytics and political science majors,” she said. “It’s a really interesting mix. They know the technical side of an issue and I understand the social piece, so when you put that together you create a complete picture.”
Koo believes that combination was a real advantage in job interviews and eventually helped land her a position with the federal government. This summer she will begin serving as an intelligence officer within the Department of Defense.
Pathways minor: Disabilities studies
A kid in a wheelchair rolled up to home plate during a game of kickball at Camp Arrowhead. Virginia Tech senior Ryan McNeill gently tossed the ball. As a staffer at this summer camp for people with disabilities in his hometown of Natick, Massachusetts, McNeill was tasked with finding ways for everyone to play. So when the kickball bounced against the bottom of the wheelchair, a volunteer helped the camper launch it far into the outfield, prompting the child to take a joyous spin around the bases. “The kids love that because they get to participate,” McNeill said.
McNeill’s passion for helping people with disabilities started at home. His older sister, Allie, has an intellectual disability. That, coupled with a Star Wars–nerd obsession with Luke Skywalker’s robotic hand, led McNeill to major in biomedical engineering. He wants to develop prosthetics and other technologies for disabilities. When his engineering advisor pointed out that the Pathways disability studies minor matched his interests perfectly, McNeill signed up.
“It's definitely a full courseload,” he said. But “it doesn't necessarily always feel like work.” In an Adaptive Recreation class he took this semester, he learned the science behind what he did at Camp Arrowhead. Recently, he and his classmates paddled around the McComas Hall pool clutching pool noodles with weights strapped to their legs — a dip into adaptive aquatics that academically grounded his firsthand experience.
While researching the ethics of assistive technologies for his capstone Disability Studies course, he went down an internet rabbit hole. When he looked up, it was 2 a.m. He was so interested he hadn’t noticed.
After graduation, McNeill will stay at Virginia Tech to earn a master’s degree in biomedical engineering. He still hopes to work on prosthetics one day. “I'm going to have a lens that not many other biomedical engineers have,” he said, “where I can understand the perspective of the end user who's going to be using a device.”
Pathways minor: Data and decisions
When a ballgown-clad Himanvi Panidepu was crowned Miss Virginia Teen USA in 2018, she didn’t just gain a title. She gained a new Hokie best friend in Miss Virginia USA Ashley Vollrath, who was then a student at Virginia Tech.
“She would always rave about how fun Virginia Tech is and how it's truly a community and how everyone always comes together, whether it's for the Big Event or tailgating,” said Panidepu. “That was definitely something I wanted.” After a year at George Mason University, she transferred to Virginia Tech.
Panidepu has been as driven about her academic career and her post-graduation plans as she was about her pageant reign. “I had to literally Google around and make Excel sheets of what I wanted to do, what kind of companies are out there, and stuff like that,” she said. Choosing double majors in management and business information technology (BIT) was a strategic path to success.
Because Panidepu’s research showed that business consultants often start as data analysts, she added the data and decisions minor. “Especially in consulting, it’s all about gathering data so that you can explain your solutions to your client,” Panidepu said.
Actually, it was all about data everywhere, including in her management and BIT classes. “I just feel like everything starts with data in terms of how to continuously improve systems within a business.”
Though she worried that doing a minor might take too long as a transfer student, Panidepu was right about the data and decisions minor giving her an edge in the job market. Even before her senior year, she locked in a job as a cybersecurity consultant at EY in Dallas. She’ll head there later this summer, but first she’ll be a bridesmaid for Vollrath, the one who led her to Virginia Tech. “She’s like my big sister,” Panidepu said. “She's doing a Hokie-themed wedding, too.”
Pathways minor: Appalachian cultures and environments
Cecile Trivigno’s interest in the natural world started as a young child in her family’s backyard in Albemarle County, Virginia, where she overturned rocks and logs to collect salamanders and placed them in a big, orange, dirt-filled bucket. She’d feed them bugs for a few days until releasing them back to the woods and repeating the process.
Trivigno carried that childhood curiosity throughout school. More than a decade later when she enrolled at Virginia Tech, declaring her major as wildlife conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment was an easy decision.
“At the time, I was purely interested in the science part of wildlife,” said Trivigno. “I wanted to be in the woods and collect data. That’s it.”
But a chance meeting with a faculty member changed both the direction and depth of her education.
During the summer between her first and second year at the university, Trivigno interned with Wild Virginia, a nonprofit based in Charlottesville. While attending a public hearing, she met Emily Satterwhite, who had made news the previous summer by chaining herself to construction equipment in the path of a proposed pipeline on Brush Mountain, north of Blacksburg.
“When I met Dr. Satterwhite, I only knew her as an activist and had no idea she was faculty at Virginia Tech,” said Trivigno. “Meeting her helped me make the connection between socio-economic issues and conservation and helped me see the value of pursuing a minor in Appalachian cultures and environments.”
Satterwhite is an associate professor in the Department of Religion and Culture and coordinates the Appalachian cultures and environments Pathways minor with Amanda Villar. The coursework introduces students to the history of loss of Native lands, environmental degradation, and community exploitation by coal companies. For Trivigno, it helped explain how the landscape's past informs attitudes toward land management and the environment.
Now, as Trivigno completes her capstone project for Conservation Biology, her academic interests have come full circle. This spring, she’s conducting a survey of Dixie Caverns salamanders on Roanoke’s Mill Mountain. After graduation, Trivigno plans to pursue community-based conservation in this region.
“There are a lot of connections between my major in wildlife conservation and my minor, Appalachian cultures and environments,” she said. “By being part of a Pathways minor, it provides context for the work I’ll be doing with the wildlife and people of this area and provides a deeper connection for me to the land, which can only improve my ability to be successful.”
Written by Will Rizzo and Melody Warnick