Graduating seniors get all the pomp and circumstance in May. But toward the end of spring semester, a more under-the-radar milestone finally got its own celebration: completing freshman year.

At 92 percent, Virginia Tech’s freshman retention rates are significantly higher than the national average, which hovers around 75 percent. But at any college, the first year presents a gauntlet of social, academic, financial, and mental health challenges. Successfully making it through is a win worthy of applause. 

So Zack Underwood, director of University Studies, worked with the advising directors from three colleges to design First Year Finish, a retention event “to help students on the home stretch of their first year to stay motivated and continue to their second year at VT. We’re saying, ‘Wow, you've made it, you did it.’”

About 200 first-year students from University Studies and the Colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Natural Resources and Environment, and Architecture, Arts, and Design, attended the inaugural First Year Finish event in the atrium of Wallace Hall on April 26. Plied with free T-shirts and popcorn, they played games, painted, or enjoyed a moment with a Virginia Tech therapy dog.

Even the HokieBird made an appearance. “It was really cool that I finally, actually got to see the HokieBird,” said attendee Levi Shoates.  

For campus groups such as Academic Advising, Career and Professional Development, the Student Success Center, Global Education, and The Virginia Tech Recovery Community, First Year Finish was an opportunity to reinforce first-year students’ sense of belonging at Virginia Tech.

“Many students have a more difficult transition in their first year than expected,” said Dana McGuire, assistant director of academic advising for the College of Natural Resources and Environment. “Support and caring from folks who work with and interact with students in various capacities can make all the difference in whether a student decides to return to a college or leave.” 

What else makes a first-year student want to return to Virginia Tech for year two? Four students who attended First Year Finish shared their first-year experience: what was hard, what was amazing, and what made them feel like they belonged here.

“I went to the Student Success Center and started meeting with tutors.’”

Cassidy Powers, Springfield, Virginia, majoring in human nutrition, foods, and exercise

Cassidy Powers poses in downtown Blacksburg wearing a Virginia Tech t-shirt with VT stickers on her cheeks
Cassidy Powers

"Learning how to live by yourself and do school by yourself is an adjustment. Nobody's there to be like, 'You need to do your homework.' I went to the Student Success Center and started meeting with tutors weekly to try and get my study habits together, because my grades were definitely shocking first semester. There were multiple people directing me to the Student Success Center for help. And tutoring is free.

For HFNE majors, we have to take chemistry first year. My advisor, Deborah Pollio, created a formal study group called chem team. Twice a week, upperclassmen assist freshmen in chemistry. My advisor also would do grade check-ins with us to make sure we were on track to success in this hard course. She was always available. She knew how hard the class was."

“I found my place in the Latinx community.”

Carlos Dubon Hinojosa, Laurel, Maryland, double majoring in animal and poultry sciences and wildlife conservation

Carlos Hinojosa with a queen snake he caught at the Duck Pond
Carlos Dubon Hinojosa

"Before I even got to Virginia Tech, I met some people who told me that there was growing and very welcoming Latinx community at Tech. Since joining Latin Link and groups like Salsa Tech, those clubs have been the center of my social life. I've met so many lifelong friends. I actually applied to be the public relations chair of LASO, the Latinx Association of Student Organizations, and recently got the position, so next year I'm going to be on the executive board with three of my close friends. It's our familia

Last semester, I took wildlife field biology from Dr. Kevin Hamed. Right off the bat, I knew he was going to be one of my favorites at Tech. I can literally ask him anything. I’ll say, 'I really want to learn more about this,' or 'You mentioned this research project, what can I do to join it?' I'm always the first person to say, 'I want to do this.' I'm paying for this. Let me give it all I have."

“I started reaching out to my friends who were in my classes.”

Nseya Hodge, Mount Kisco, New York, majoring in forestry

Nseya Hodge sits in a room with gothic windows
Nseya Hodge

"A lot of the first semester I spent being like, 'Oh, this is miserable, I hate it. I miss my friends from home, and I’m not understanding my classes.' Most of the first semester I was feeling really down.

I don't know exactly what changed for me for my second semester, but I told myself, 'Try to have a more positive outlook. If you don’t want to struggle, you’re going to have to change.' I started reaching out to my friends who were in my classes and being like, 'Hey, do you want to study together?' I also joined Queer and Trans People of Color at VT, and I met some friends through that. After that first semester I'd say it was pretty positive, because I started looking at it a different way. I was expecting to have no friends and be alone all the time. But I'm glad it was the exact opposite."

“I really can't see myself anywhere else.” 

Levi Shoates, Newport News, Virginia, majoring in creative technologies

Levi Shoate poses with pink and blue hair
Levi Shoates

"I’m at Tech on the Presidential Scholarship Initiative, so when it comes to paying for tuition, I'm fine, as long as I keep my GPA up and meet with my PSI advisor every semester. I love talking to my advisor, Teresa Wilson. She asks, 'How are you doing? How's the first year treating you? Any stresses? Any accomplishments?' Just like really motivational talks.

Balancing doing projects — sometimes four or five a week — and my work schedule at Dunkin’ was the biggest hurdle for me this last year. Professors really try to help you and work around whatever problem you're going through. I got a dad chat from one of my professors when I was super stressed.

I’m a first-generation college student, so I kept my expectations for college kind of low. I didn't expect to meet as many people as I did or go to as many events as I did this year. I went to a culture show for the Asian American Student Union. I really liked Gobbler Nights, these activities they would have at Squires where you can kind of just chill out with your friends on Friday or Saturday. There are so many things always going on at Tech. I really can't see myself anywhere else. "

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