As a land-grant institution, Virginia Tech was founded to provide educational opportunities to anyone in the Commonwealth of Virginia who wanted to learn. That mission has not changed. What has changed is that higher education has grown more difficult to access and more expensive.

Following the identification of access and affordability as leading strategic priorities for the university by Virginia Tech President Tim Sands and the Board of Visitors in 2022, Sands launched the Virginia Tech Advantage, which seeks to ensure that a Virginia Tech experience is financially within reach for undergraduate students in Virginia.

Sands named Menah Pratt, vice president for strategic affairs and diversity, and Matt Holt, professor and head of the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, to lead the effort. Their personal experiences have helped shape their commitment to the initiative.

Menah Pratt’s story

As an undergraduate student at the University of Iowa, I became independent from my parents after my first year. I worked several jobs, including as a waitress at Golden Corral, as a tutor for Upward Bound (a program for underrepresented and underserved high students), an office worker in the Student Support Services office, an orientation guide, and a counselor at an after-school program in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for Black sixth grade girls.

I was working almost 30 hours a week and taking at least 18 hours of coursework a semester.

Approaching my last year, I ran out of money and couldn’t pay tuition. After going to all the offices that I thought could help, I was without options. I shared my predicament with the director of the Honors Program, Professor Sandy Barkan. She loaned me $5,000 and told me to pay her back whenever I could, even if it was just $5 a year.

It took me some time to pay her back, but I did. 

My experience with affording college was similar to my mother’s experience in the 1950s. She was getting her master’s degree at Indiana University School of Social Work and ran out of money.  She petitioned P.E.O., an organization dedicated to supporting women in education, for support. After learning from the dean of the college that she did not qualify for a scholarship because she was Black, my mother sat crying in a hallway. A secretary stopped to ask what was wrong, then wrote a personal check to my mother from her own pocket.

My mother remembered her kindness and made a decision to pay it forward.

Eventually, my mother became a professor of social work at Illinois State University, and in 1993, she created a fund — the Mildred Pratt Student Assistant Fund — “to provide financial assistance to currently enrolled … students experiencing temporary financial hardship or need.”

My mother’s experience and my own are two examples of financial challenges that students face while pursuing education.

Emergency funds are transformational in the lives of economically vulnerable students, enabling them to continue their education, graduate, and pursue their dreams. It is a privilege to be working on this initiative for current and future students at Virginia Tech.

Matt Holt’s story

As a first-generation student who worked part-time throughout college and received Pell grants, I understand the challenges students from under-resourced backgrounds face. Growing up on a family farm, I understood the meaning of hard work and sacrifice. And because of the values instilled by my family and community, I had the resilience to eventually earn my bachelor’s degree from a land-grant institution. But it was never easy. And it was not a linear path.

I also understand the challenges students face when thinking about a meaningful internship experience. As an undergraduate, I spent every summer working as a farmhand or in construction. I never had an internship. In fact, I did not even apply for one. I could not envision a world outside of farm and construction work — my perspective was limited and, truthfully, I was scared. I felt confident I could earn the money I needed by working long hours on the farm or in construction. Even though many years have passed, I believe that many first-generation students face similar concerns and constraints today.

The path to earning my undergraduate degree was facilitated by great academic advisors and faculty members who took a direct interest in me. Although I thought little about it then, I would constantly bother the professors teaching the classes I took during their office hours. In every instance, they were kind, generous, and took the time to know me as a person, not just another “face in the crowd.” Over time, several of them gently but persistently encouraged me to consider graduate school. In retrospect, they saw a potential in me that I didn’t know existed. Without such coaching, my life and career could have gone in a much different and likely, less desirable direction.

I am profoundly honored to play a role, along with Menah Pratt, in launching the Virginia Tech Advantage. You might say I am motivated to pay it forward. I can never begin to repay those who created and sustained an environment where I could achieve my fullest potential. My fondest wish is that Virginia Tech Advantage will stand as a shared, lasting commitment to the land-grant mission — unleashing human potential regardless of income or socioeconomic status.  


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