When Mohammed Seyam arrived in Blacksburg in August 2013, he took note of an impressive building situated prominently at the corner of Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus and the downtown area.
Sayem, who was adjusting to a new culture and community more 6,000 miles from home, had traveled from Egypt to attend graduate school at the university, and he immediately felt a connection to the new construction emerging at the edge of campus.
Over the next two months, he kept watch as the finishing touches were added to the building, which he learned would be the home of a new arts center at Virginia Tech.
Work on the new building had begun in 2010 and was slated for completion in fall 2013. Named for artist Patricia Buckley Moss, who signs her paintings, P.Buckley Moss, the 150,000-square-foot Moss Arts Center would include a 1,260-seat performance hall, visual arts galleries, amphitheater, four-story experimental Cube, multiple studios, and more.
To celebrate the building’s completion, a week of opening events were offered at the end of October 2013, and Sayem was front and center — even attending the inaugural performance in the 1,274 seat Anne and Ellen Fife Theatre, a concert featuring the Philip Glass Ensemble.
“So keep in mind, it was like two months for me moving from my own country to be here, so getting to realize the potential of this place and what I can get out of attending these shows was incredible,” said Seyam. “I loved that day, and everyone was excited. The spirit was amazing.”
Seyam has since earned both a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering. He has raised his children in Blacksburg and received his first post-graduate job at the university. Now a collegiate assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science, Seyam measures his time in Blacksburg using the Moss as his guide.
This fall, they both celebrate their 10th anniversary in the community.
What Seyam didn’t realize a decade ago was what a pivotal role the arts would play in his life as an engineering student.
Seyam’s experience at that first performance drew him to the Moss again and again — for performances as well as gallery visits, artist talks, and other special events. A graduate student with limited funds, he signed up for free tickets through the center’s rush ticket program for Virginia Tech students, which introduced him to artists he might have never known otherwise.
When presented with an opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the center, Seyam didn’t hesitate. He joined a committee of faculty, students, and community members committed to offering ideas and input related to the future programming at the Moss Arts Center. The group helped conceive and plan the Islamic Worlds Festival in 2015, paving the way for Salaam: Exploring Muslim Cultures.
A multiyear project, Salaam was supported through a grant from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters to strengthen cross-cultural understanding by engaging Virginia Tech students and other communities in Southwest Virginia with the diversity of Muslim cultures through an exploration of stories, images, sounds, and perspectives. The Moss Arts Center was one of only five grantees in the nation to receive this funding.
Salaam culminated in a performance showcasing the voices and creative work of Virginia Tech students and community members, who collaborated with visiting artists to explore Muslim cultures through dance, music-making, visual art, hip-hop, spoken word, and poetry.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” Seyam said of the performance. “I started to realize how different people speak different languages, but when they are here [at an arts event], everyone is having fun, despite the fact that we don’t really understand the lyrics. Everyone feels the music. Everyone feels the dancing. Everyone moves with the beats. The idea of getting everyone from around the world in one place … we are lucky to have it [the Moss Arts Center] here at Virginia Tech. This experience, when it happens, it shows the unification of all these worlds in one place for two hours … and I love it.”
Beyond the stage, students find invaluable experiences connecting with professional artists through master classes, workshops, question-and-answer sessions, and class visits connected to events at the Moss.
“The Moss Arts Center provides visibility and elevates the importance of the arts not only to Virginia Tech’s community of students, faculty, and staff, but to the local and regional community. But it’s more than that because it is very much connected with the educational and scholarly mission of the institution,” said Cyril Clarke, executive vice president and provost. “I can think of many occasions when a performer or a group doesn’t just come to perform at the center. They spend time with students. They spend time with faculty. They’re having interactions with students that really allow them to grow intellectually and in their appreciation for art.”
When Kieran Casey ’23 came to Virginia Tech as a first-year student, he dreamed of becoming a composer. He also worried about the career challenges he might face. His experiences at Virginia Tech over the next four years — many of them outside his regular class schedule — convinced him that his dream was attainable and sustainable. Engaging with professional artists inspired and introduced him to the varied career opportunities available to composers.
A recent graduate with a degree in music education and composition from the School of Performing Arts in the College of Architecture, Arts and Design, Casey took advantage of every opportunity that crossed his path, building a professional network and partnerships that he’s now leveraging as he looks to future opportunities.
Casey participated in workshops and master classes organized through the center that enabled him to connect directly with working artists. Ultimately, these interactions led to lasting relationships with the artists who he now describes as mentors and colleagues.
Casey recalled sharing a score he was working on with musician and composer Huang Ruo.
Known for his inventive musical voice and diverse compositional works, Ruo was in Blacksburg for a performance of his music theatre work “Books of Mountains and Seas” at the Moss Arts Center. Casey worked with the artist during a composition master class offered in conjunction with the visit. Ruo advised the aspiring composer on orchestrating his work and exploring the various voices of music.
Also, Casey developed a kinship with bassoonist and composer Joey Guidry, who spent time with Virginia Tech students during a residency hosted by the School of Performing Arts. Guidry inspired Casey to make more music, to discover his own voice, and to seek out and build meaningful relationships with other artists.
Following Guidry’s advice, Casey connected with Kevin Newton, a French horn player for the Grammy-nominated wind quintet Imani Winds. The ensemble performed at the Moss in October 2021 and offered a composition master class for students during the visit.
Later, Casey composed an original piece for Newton at the ensemble’s annual chamber festival. Although Casey is revising the work, Newton loved the initial iteration so much that he has expressed an interest in recording it for a future album.
But Casey’s growing network of possibilities didn’t end there.
An interdisciplinary team of Virginia Tech researchers organized by Virginia Tech’s School of Visual Arts and led by one its faculty members commissioned Marcus Norris, a composer based in Los Angeles and Chicago, to create a score for “Monuments Dissected,” a documentary initiative centered on a growing collection of interviews about the past, present, and future of confederate and colonial monuments in the United States.
Celebrated for bringing innovative twists to contemporary classical music, Norris has composed for orchestras across the country, developed film scores, and founded the South Side Symphony. Norris’ genre-blending style even resulted in a collaboration with Beyoncé.
When Norris came to campus, Casey knew that he needed to meet him.
“Everyone says, ‘Connections, connections, connections,’” Casey said. “I just picked his brain. It’s really important. It helps students immensely when these artists come, but the students have to take the opportunity to actually engage with them.”
Casey and Norris talk regularly and are now working together.
“He does exactly what I want to do — he teaches, he has his own symphony, he scores films, he does it all,” Casey said.
The diversity of the guest artists with whom Casey worked added another dimension to his educational experiences. He credits Charles Nichols, associate professor of composition and creative technologies, for his thoughtful curation.
“It was absolutely amazing to be working with people of color,” said Casey. “It was important to Dr. Nichols that I was receiving feedback from artists that come from different backgrounds. Working with these people brought a comfort that I didn’t really know I wanted until working with them, so I am very grateful to Dr. Nichols for his initiatives with visiting artists.”
Human-centered power skills
The arts also shape the Virginia Tech experience through more informal routes.
“Our students here at Virginia Tech embrace the arts in so many important ways — taking part in student acapella groups, leading the XYZ Gallery, or being part of step dance clubs or the many thriving cultural groups for visual arts, theatre, and music,” said Waalkes. “They gravitate to those opportunities because it is important to have those outlets as human beings. It is an important, essential, part of who they are, and also how they build their own community. It’s how they understand and express who they are as individuals, learn to collaborate, and develop leadership skills.”
Atlas Vernier ’23 is a lifelong musician and didn’t want to lose their connection to music when they came to Virginia Tech to study engineering. Joining the Marching Virginians provided an artistic outlet for Vernier and became one of their most treasured university experiences. Now a graduate student studying industrial and systems engineering, Vernier is entering their fifth year as a Marching Virginian and has found it complements their academic experiences.
“You have everyone who’s from all these different realms of study,” said Vernier. “You have architects alongside physicists, alongside musicians, alongside engineers. A lot of the dynamics that exist inside the band, they only work because we have different backgrounds.”
Different perspectives and approaches, Vernier said, only enhance the band experience. Vernier noted this was also true in the classroom and working on research teams, where they found inspiration collaborating with artists, designers, and historians. As a graduate research assistant for the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT), Vernier recognizes how the arts augment Virginia Tech’s research landscape.
“There are research projects that would not happen, would be impossible, and you’d never see if you just locked a bunch of engineers into a room. You need to have this element of the arts — you need to have storytellers and historians.”
Vernier’s appreciation for humanity, arts, and culture has informed their problem-solving methods.
“I know that I have a very different approach to solution finding and systems thinking because I have these other experiences that inform the way I interact with things and the way that I know other people interact with things,” Vernier said. “The way we design and the way we choose to have those interfaces really changes when you consider who is going to be using it.”
According to Ben Knapp, executive director of ICAT, this kind of empathetic approach to work is a critical skill for recent graduates heading into the workforce. Previously known as soft skills, the characteristics related to creativity, communication, and emotional intelligence have been rebranded as power skills to reflect their importance in the workplace. These kinds of skills are cultivated and strengthened through arts-related experiences.
“That’s really been the theme of ICAT, human-centeredness,” Knapp said. “That integral connection we’re forging is really essential and isn’t something a student can get from one class. It grows through experience. If our students aren’t getting those power skills — empathy and critical thinking — then they’re not going to survive and succeed. It’s not a ‘nice to have,’ it’s a ‘have to have.’”
In the classroom, research lab, data center, studio, residence hall, and all spaces in between, student life at Virginia Tech is infused with the arts.
“It is essential that creative thinking, diverse cultural experiences, and artistic exploration are part of every student’s experience here at Virginia Tech,” said Waalkes. “These opportunities broaden their perspectives and lead to conversations that expand their thinking, their sense of identity, and how best to live in the world. We owe all students chances to experience creative arts and expand their knowledge of diverse perspectives while they are here at Virginia Tech.”
By the numbers
- 194,759 total tickets have been sold to Moss performances.
- 67 events have been sold-out, including unforgettable performances by Yo-Yo Ma, Dance Theater of Harlem, David Sedaris, Kristin Chenoweth, Bela Fleck, and the always popular annual “Holiday Pops” performance by the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra.
- 41,191 Virginia Tech students have attended Moss performances.
- 104 visual arts exhibitions and installations have been presented.
- 281 guest artists presented throughout the Moss Arts Center seasons.
- 1,296 engagement events offered. That’s an average of 130 events each year that are in addition to the center’s performances and exhibitions offerings. These free experiences offer deeper connections with artists, ideas, and community members, including pre- and post-performance talks with artists and Virginia Tech faculty members on timely topics.
- 22,558 school-aged children have participated in free Moss engagement programs, such as school-day matinee performances and in-school workshops with artists.
- 22,534 Virginia Tech students have participated in free Moss engagement activities, including exclusive access to master classes and other special on-campus engagement events with renowned artists and ensembles.