Virginia Tech’s Black College Institute has helped many incoming Hokies find community and friendship long before classes begin.  

Taylor Whitehurst, who graduated in May with a degree in public relations, came back this summer to be a student staff leader for the Black College Institute (BCI), an academic leadership program for high school students interested in the African American college experience.  

Student leaders have participated in BCI and are now attending Virginia Tech. During the opening ceremony, they introduce themselves and talk about the community that BCI has helped create.  

“BCI is the reason I chose to attend Virginia Tech. At BCI, we are big on family and community. BCI ensures that no student gets left behind. When I came to campus, I already knew people, specifically people of color, that I had gone to BCI with. I even roomed with people I met in BCI,” said Whitehurst.

Whitehurst is one of 30 former participants who are a part of BCI this summer and show the impact of the program created by Menah Pratt, vice president for strategic affairs and diversity, and currently led by Crasha Townsend, assistant provost for diversity and inclusion. 

“When I came to Virginia Tech I was concerned about the relatively low number of African American students. The entering class was 3.8 percent African American. Since Virginia is a diverse state, our numbers should reflect that as we have a responsibility to educate citizens of the state,” said Pratt, who took over the Office for Inclusion and Diversity in 2016.

BCI is designed to attract high achieving and intellectually curious students interested in the African American experience. Activities offer a multicultural perspective of the Virginia Tech experience with special emphasis on the African American identity.

This year, three BCI sessions were held in June. During the four-day period, students have a chance to see what college life is like. They stay in the residence halls, eat at the dining halls, explore campus, and get information regarding all the challenges they may face when applying and enrolling in college. Sessions include preparing for college, scholarships and financial aid as well as the application process.

“The biggest thing I hope students take away is knowing that there are so many opportunities and resources available at Virginia Tech to help each student succeed. These were things I wasn’t aware of until attending BCI,” said Whitehurst.

The program serves as a recruitment program, encouraging students to attend Virginia Tech. The Office for Inclusion and Diversity is partnered with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions to reach other communities: high schools, cultural centers, churches, and minority communities that are largely African American.  

 “I felt as though we should be actively recruiting academic talent, like we do for athletic talent," said Pratt.  

Of this fall’s entering class, 8.9 percent identify as Black, an increase from 3.9 percent in 2016.

"I am proud of that change that the program has made. It wasn’t just BCI, but other programs as well, including the work of the Office for Enrollment Management. The Black College Institute, however, has been a significant component that led to that change,” said Pratt.

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During the institute, students participate in a social justice project as well. Students are given a topic and encouraged to do college-level research to find solutions to a variety of social justice issues.  

“It is just incredible — students have gone above and beyond, they have created websites, documentaries, videos, and plays. They work in teams to understand problems that the African American community faces nationally. The top three teams share their presentation in the closing ceremony for all the parents and staff involved,” said Pratt.

Visiting students also have the chance to see all the colleges and majors that interest them. BCI is a campuswide effort, and faculty and staff engage with the incoming students to show them what it would be like to study in that specific field.   

“The BCI would not work without those colleges creating amazing sessions and interesting content to give the students something to be excited about when it comes to academic life here,” said Pratt. 

Whitehurst interned with Student Opportunity and Achievement Resources (SOAR), part of the Office for Inclusion and Diversity, which allowed her to help plan BCI as well as serve as a student leader. She helped foster communication between all the colleges and campus organizations.    

“There are so many misconceptions about college that give students hesitation when applying to schools. A big obstacle is money, but BCI is completely free and helps students learn the process of applying for scholarships and financial aid,” said Whitehurst.

A major component of BCI is exposing students to the African American community at Virginia Tech that they can call home while exploring other aspects of their identities. After the creation of BCI, other resources have been added to help each student to succeed — programs such as Jumpstart and SOAR, both dedicated to welcoming and retaining underrepresented students. 

“Students can continue to explore their identity while at Virginia Tech. I have always encouraged students to find their 'safe place' and their 'stretch space.' A safe place is somewhere they feel they belong, while a stretch place pushes them out of their comfort zone to grow and pique new interest, despite maybe feeling different,” said Pratt.  

Written by Caroline Reed, a senior and an intern for Virginia Tech Communications and Marketing

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