Most Hokies take for granted being home for the holidays. So in the first-year experience (FYE) class for building construction majors, instructor Gary Kinder, a senior advisor in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction, shared a picture of a man in uniform that hadn’t always had that privilege.

“This is my brother from another mother,” Kinder said of his neighbor Bryon Mayberry, who left behind his wife and two young children to deploy to Afghanistan.

After Kinder’s neighbor returned home in 2013, Kinder and co-teacher Renee Ryan, an assistant director of student affairs and administration in Myers-Lawson, invited their FYE classes to the Veterans Day ceremony at the Pylons, hoping that their students would realize “that those monuments have names on them and those names are real people that died in the line of duty.” 

Then they thought, “OK, let’s do a little bit more than that.”

Instructor Gary Kinder speaks at the front of a room full of freshman students, with a PowerPoint screen behind him that says, "Ut Prosim... That I May Serve."
Gary Kinder, a senior advisor in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction, speaks to the building construction FYE course he co-teaches with Renee Ryan, about the value of 'Ut Prosim,' (That I May Serve). Photo by Christina Franusich for Virginia Tech.

All FYE courses incorporate Virginia Tech’s principles of community, including Ut Prosim (That I May Serve). Kinder and Ryan decided to cook up a project that would honor service members like Mayberry. 

The following year, just before Veterans Day, they began having the 60 students in their two FYE courses design nondenominational holiday cards and assemble care packages that would be mailed to deployed Hokies, who would then distribute them to their units.

According to Kinder, “Just to have a card for that one serviceman or woman who doesn't have family, from some anonymous kid from Virginia Tech, is saying, ‘You're not forgotten.’ This is a way we can do one small thing, in part, to recognize that population.” 

A pile of care packages for service members include clear cellophane bags stuffed with candy canes, beef jerky, and other items, plus a note that says, "Thank you for your service. Happy Holidays!"
Care packages include treats, toys, and a holiday message from Hokies. Photo by Christina Franusich for Virginia Tech.

On an early November day, first-year students in the FYE classroom in Bishop-Favrao Hall popped open a card template and began searching for Hokie-themed pictures. Laptops lit up with photos of a snowman on the Drillfield, Burruss Hall draped in white, and other winter scenes.

Jazzy holiday piano tunes played over the speakers as students filed to the front of the room in Bishop-Favrao Hall to assemble care packages. Assembly-line style, they dropped candy canes, raisins, beef jerky, a fidget toy, and a Myers-Lawson–themed koozie and pen into a cellophane bag, then grabbed the cardstock tag — “Thank you for your service. Happy Holidays!” — that would be stapled to it later.

At Ryan’s encouragement to “put your own personality into this,” students customized their cards with heartfelt notes. First-year building construction major Tucker Halsey, who grew up with two parents in the military and spent time living in Hawaii, Germany, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, wrote about his own experiences in a military family. “I'm talking about how I’d say goodbye to my mom when she was deployed and how hard it could be,” said Halsey, “but also that it's good to see them when they come back. It's just a really good experience to come back to your family.”

Completed cards and care packages will be sent to Hokies deployed abroad, who will then distribute the packages to the service members within their units that they feel would benefit most from the gesture.

Cmdr. Nate Brown, the alumni director of the Corps of Cadets who will be matching Kinder and Russell with former cadets, recalled how meaningful it was to receive mail while he served in the Navy. To get mail from Hokies? Even better. “Here at Virginia Tech, we value service and we value supporting our troops,” he said. “This project shows how the connection between Virginia Tech and its students goes far beyond your time here at Virginia Tech. The connection remains after graduation and extends for a lifetime.”

Students at long tables work on laptops to design holiday cards for service members while others create care packages at the front of the room.
Some first-year students design holiday cards on their laptops while others fill care packages. Photo by Christina Franusich for Virginia Tech.

Doing a military-focused service project also helps make Ut Prosim real for first-year students. “It ties into our Principles of Community,” said Kendria Mason, coordinator for First-Year Experiences. “Once we introduce students to that in the first year, once they have completed their First-Year Experience course, they're able to take that understanding with them and build upon it to serve other people.”

The activity hit a surprising nerve for several of the students in the class. One student in the front row wore a Corps of Cadets uniform while he wrote a long message on his holiday card. “In the Corps of Cadets, we talk a lot about this every day,” Billy Warter explained. “We talk about Ut Prosim and why we’re serving. So I wrote a little bit about why I was also joining the military: a life of service.”

Stella Johnson, whose father has served in the Navy for 27 years, mentioned how hard it was when he missed birthdays and holidays in the days before FaceTime. “But as a kid I knew what he was doing and that it was for the greater good.”

A handmade card and a little care package from a Virginia Tech student won’t make up for a holiday away from home. But it lets service members know that someone in the Hokie Nation is thinking of them.

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