With steady hands, a trio of high school girls supported their spaghetti tower as they added one last noodle. With a pasta spire shooting straight out of the top like a lightning rod, they were banking on their (perhaps slightly leaning) cathedral’s height to make it a winner.

It sat alongside several other spaghetti-and-marshmallow-frame buildings — some boxy and squat, others slanting precariously. The student builders gathered around, beaming over their creations. One of the girls exclaimed, “I could see myself working in construction!”

And that was exactly the point.

The Virginia Tech Southwest Center brought the girls, all juniors or seniors, from the rural coalfields of Buchanan County, about 125 miles west of Blacksburg, on a two-day tour of campus to spotlight STEM career opportunities. It was also the first taste of life on a college campus for most of the students.

“This is a gateway for opportunity,” said Ruchelle Thornsbury, a counselor at Council High School in Honaker. “In the area we live, we’re so isolated that students don’t know what’s out there.”

Coming from a tiny high school where only a couple dozen students make up an entire junior class, a visit to Blacksburg can open students’ eyes to a whole new world. The trip is free for the students, paid for by a grant from the United Company Foundation of Bristol, Virginia. Over the past several years, about 500 Buchanan County girls have visited Virginia Tech through the program, with 94 perce nt of those students going on to enroll in college or a technical program after high school.

“This program is a shining example of how the Southwest Center continues to help the university fulfill its land-grant mission and connect Virginia Tech to communities in all corners of the commonwealth,” said Susan Johnstad, director of the Richmond and Newport News centers who led this year’s program. The centers are all part of Outreach and International Affairs. “It’s amazing to watch these girls gain confidence and explore the possibilities of a STEM career.”

A junior at Twin Valley High School in Pilgrim’s Knob, Morgan Lester already knew she wanted to attend college after graduation, but she left campus knowing she wanted to be a Hokie.

“Seeing college in person has been really great. It’s a big campus, but it still has a small-town feel. Everyone is really friendly,” she said. She was captivated by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s Smart Roads and their ability to create all kinds of weather conditions to test vehicles.

High school girls put their hands into sticky black slime.
Buchanan County students make magnetic slime in a lab at the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. Photo by Diane Deffenbaugh for Virginia Tech.

Many of the students’ families, friends, and neighbors lack experience with higher education, and the tour gave students an inside look at Virginia Tech as well as guidance on the admissions process, financial aid, and some of the special programs available to students at the university. A presentation from the Global Education Office highlighting study abroad opportunities left Abbi Deskins dreaming of a semester in Italy. 

“It’s important for first-generation students to see that there’s something else out there. Where they’re at is all they see,” Thornsbury said. “In the past three years, Council High School has had a handful — fewer than 10 kids — who have gone to a four-year university. You have to start changing the pattern somewhere. If we could just get more exposure to this area and the university, they might see that they could do it, too.”

The students got a firsthand look at some of the STEM programs available at the university. They also had a chance to get their hands dirty in a Fralin Life Sciences Institute lab making lava lamps, magnetic putty, and flower-scented bath bombs.

Even lunch at D2 at Dietrick Hall provided a new experience.

“When we got to the dining hall, one of our students said, ‘This is so fancy, I can’t figure out how to get anything,’” Buchanan County teacher Cathy Ratliff said. “They’re not used to this type of stuff.”

The students also heard stories about and met other successful women who grew up in Buchanan County, including Elizabeth McClanahan, a former justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia and the CEO of the Virginia Tech Foundation.

McClanahan found herself welling up with emotion as she told the students how excited she was to be in a room with a group of women from Buchanan County. From accents to small-town values, she urged them to appreciate the many strengths that come from their hometown and to dream big. 

“Exposing students from small, rural communities to opportunities in higher education is critically important. Virginia Tech, with its land-grant university mission, is perfectly situated to provide experiences that inspire and transform the next generation,” McClanahan said.

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