A unique transdisciplinary community engagement project supporting the scholarship of hip-hop on campus and beyond has won a national award celebrating student-led scholarship in the community, while Virginia Tech’s autism research center has gained grant funding to support its efforts to work directly with communities to improve access to therapy.

For the past seven years, VTDITC: Hip-Hop Studies at Virginia Tech has been connecting students who have a passion for hip-hop to fellow fans and artists while at the same time placing a spotlight on the music and culture as worthy of academic study.

Also known as “Digging in the Crates” — a name that alludes to the nearly extinct practice of searching through crates of vinyl records at music shops — the project collaborates with other groups on campus to put on concerts, beat battles, and other events. It also has provided expertise and cutting-edge recording equipment to build studio space at the university.

But its work goes well beyond the Blacksburg campus. The project’s eight engagement fellows also take equipment and inspiration into the community to teach middle school and high school students that their interests have a place at Virginia Tech.

“We link students’ personal passions to their academic studies,” said Craig Arthur, head of community engagement for University Libraries and co-founder of the project with Frederick Paige, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering.

As part of the 2022 Excellence in Student Community Engagement Award, Arthur, Paige, and four students shared their experiences in a panel discussion with other category winners at the Engagement Scholarship Consortium’s annual conference in Athens, Georgia.

“Awards like this are really helpful to us in communicating that there’s value in this project. To get that outside validation is very meaningful,” Arthur said.

Arthur and Paige, who are also VT Engage fellows, offer support and guidance, but the project is driven by students.

“Our goal is to let the students know that they are leaders in this space and they have a voice to contribute as a scholar,” Paige said.

Applying for awards and presenting at national conferences are just some of the hands-on experiences the project gives students. From marketing to technology, the project includes a wide variety of experiential learning opportunities as each year it holds more than 100 events. Students work to secure funding through grants, create lesson plans, and schedule outreach programs at schools, public libraries, and other community organizations.

A computer with recording studio equipment.
Students are offered a wide variety of experiential learning opportunities through VTDITC, including hands-on experience with technical music production software and equipment. Virginia Tech photo

They get technical music production experience, too. “We held weekly recording studio hours in the library that we caused all kinds of ruckus in before we cleaned out a room in the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology’s Media Building for our own True School Studios. We got some really cutting-edge equipment, and a vibrant, creative community of students runs it,” Paige said.

Jasmine Weiss worked for several years as an engagement fellow before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in December 2021. She  spent the following spring working for the project and overseeing the students’ work. She was most affected by the way VTDITC is able to change perspectives among schoolchildren.

“They can see this thing that they’re interested in — that they’re connected to through social media and that they’re listening to — is a legitimate area of study and something they can make into a career,” Weiss said. “But there’s skill to it, and it’s not just holding a mic and talking about your life; there are things that you have to understand about hip-hop and how to pursue hip-hop to really be part of the community.”

Some of the outreach efforts have included rhyme-writing workshops and helping local schools build their own studios.

“We try to meet the students where they are. We check where their interests are and try to make this, in some ways, very scientific process of creation understandable and fun,” Arthur said. “What you do in a university setting doesn’t have to be removed from what you’re passionate about and who you are and your cultural background. We try to make the connection that the things learners are interested in, those things include science, technology, engineering, art, or mathematics. This is scholarly.”

Two women stand in front of an RV.
Jennifer Scott (at left) and Angela Scarpa-Friedman work with the Virginia Tech Autism Clinic and Center for Research to improve therapy for autistic children. Photo by Diane Deffenbaugh for Virginia Tech.

Grant to support autism center research 

The Engagement Scholarship Consortium (ESC) also awarded Angela Scarpa-Friedman, professor and director of clinical training in the Department of Psychology in the College of Science and director of the Virginia Tech Autism Clinic and Center for Autism Research, a 2022 Research/Creative Activities Grant to support the clinic’s work leveraging community partnerships to improve access to therapy for autistic children.

“It is incredibly meaningful to our clinic and research center to receive the ESC Research/Creative Activities Grant,” Scarpa-Friedman said. “This grant will allow us to expand our program of research and work directly with our community partners to understand what would be most helpful for them when it comes to adapting mental health services for youth on the autism spectrum.”

The $5,000 grant follows past success with awards from the consortium. Last year, the Mobile Autism Clinic was a regional winner and a finalist for the C. Peter Magrath Community Engagement Scholarship Award.

“The recognition we have received from ESC over the past several years has paved the way for academic-community partnerships that tremendously benefited our ability to understand the perspectives of our community stakeholders, which ensures that our research and clinical services align with the needs of our community,” she said.

Susan E. Short, associate vice president for engagement in Outreach and International Affairs and vice president of the consortium, said, “We are honored to see two outstanding Virginia Tech programs get recognition from the Engagement Scholarship Consortium. Both are shining examples of the impact that university engagement efforts can make in our communities and with our students.”

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