Virginia Tech’s Sesquicentennial offered a perfect opportunity for new research into the university’s history, including the meaning of the Latin words, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), the university’s motto.

Andrew Becker, an associate professor of Latin and ancient Greek languages, literatures, and culture, found that most forms of “prosim”  indicate transformative or beneficial service in a broad and influential way. Cicero, Seneca the Younger, and Seneca the Elder, all first-century Roman philosophers and writers, defined “prosim” as doing something that’s not only nice, but also helps others in transformative ways. 

Even Plautus, a Roman playwright, contrasted “generosity,” which is nice, with the stronger “prosim,” which is helping in a deeper way, in his comedy “Amphitryon"

Many Virginia Tech students and alumni equate Ut Prosim with volunteering. A person gives, through actions, to a person or group, and the receiving person or group gratefully accepts the help.

That’s part of the meaning, but Rosemary Blieszner, interim dean of the College of Architecture, Arts, and Design and chair of the Sesquicentennial Steering Committee, hopes students will take Ut Prosim to a deeper level by evaluating the societal structures that created the original need for community engagement through volunteering. 

“Sometimes with volunteer work, people go and do it and it isn’t necessarily connected with anything other than being a good citizen of the community,” Blieszner said. “If we can help students think about working toward what Seneca called ‘striving to do some lasting benefit to one another,’ they might find meaningful links between their academic studies and their community activities. That is like the scholarly engagement that faculty do to extend and apply their research for the benefit of others, in keeping with the engagement mission of land-grant universities. It’s also the approach to community involvement promoted by VT Engage.”

The Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Virginia Cooperative Extension are two of many examples that focus on collaboration among students, faculty, and the community with a deeper impetus on creating programs that help improve individual communities. 

It’s that richer interpretation of Ut Prosim that Blieszner believes will take on even more importance looking ahead to the next 150 years.

“It’s based on the idea that, ‘I know some things. You, in the community, have other expertise. Together, let’s identify what the needs are and develop possible solutions,’” she said. “You really end up with better results.”


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