On the Black College Institute at Virginia Tech (dedicated to Mama)

“BCI changed my life.”  I heard this a lot in the last few days.  What, I thought?  BCI?  BCI changed your life?  The Black College Institute (BCI) changed your life?  Could that really be possible?  Could a program that was no more than a thought in my mind two years ago have such a transformational impact?  As a rising high school junior, with tears in his eyes, shared at the BCI closing ceremony this week, the answer was yes.  His sister, murdered 6 months ago, his heart heavy with grief, he came, reluctantly, to BCI.  In three days, he found a community, he shared his grief, he learned that it was ok to be himself, a Black man of African immigrants, who always felt a little different.  He felt embraced by other students – also seeking self-knowledge, also searching for meaning and identity.  I remember that feeling – feeling different and often unwelcomed – that feeling as a daughter of an immigrant father, and now the wife with an immigrant husband, who is the immigrant father to our children.  That immigrant status is complicated and provides different experiences, backgrounds, perceptions, values, and beliefs.

Yet, this young man – brilliant, named by his peers, the “philosopher” emerged, with others, from their turtle shells that they have erected around their bodies and souls to survive the racism and oppression hurled at them,  men and women, predominantly African-American, but some White, some Latinx, some Asian, many mixed.  They emerged into their power and potential and promise at the Black College Institute (BCI).  (Please visit Virginia Tech Black College Institute Facebook Page https://facebook.com/VTBCI/to learn more and to see the amazing videos on identity created by the students).  Not only did these students, rising high school juniors and seniors, emerge from their shells, our entire leadership team emerged, guided by Natasha Saunders’ constant reminder: “there’s no comfort in the growth zone and there’s no growth in the comfort zone.”

The Black College Institute was envisioned in response to the challenge issued by the President of Virginia Tech.  President Tim Sands challenged the institution to uphold its responsibility as  a land grant institution – founded in 1872 — to educate the citizens of the state, to provide education to those who often are often overlooked, those without wealth, those without opportunity, those without privilege, yet those with merit, promise, skills, and potential.

The Morrill Act of 1862 provided grants of land initially funded by the sale of land, often the home of Native Americans, for the establishment of education institutions focused primarily on agricultural and mechanic arts.  The initial population envisioned for this opportunity was the “industrial and working classes” — the White masses who were not wealthy – that is “poor Whites” who could not afford the luxury of private education.  We must not overlook the irony of the sale of the land of Native Americans, often worked and tilled by African-Americans, for the education of White Americans.  African-Americans, still slaves, still less than human, still 3/5ths of a man (and not at all women) were not allowed to even read.  It wasn’t until almost 25 years later, that the second Morrill Act of 1890 established 17 predominantly African-American colleges and 30 American Indian colleges. Since neither the initial Morrill Act nor the second Morrill Act addressed the legalized racial segregation in Virginia, African-Americans and Native Americans have historically represented a handful of the total population at Virginia Tech.

Why is this relevant? This history reflects the magnitude of work required by Virginia Tech to meet the challenge issued by President Sands.  President Sands boldly set a goal last year that by 2022 (our Sesquicentennial), 40% of Virginia Tech student body should underrepresented and underserved.  That is 25% of the student body should be racially and ethnically diverse with African-American, Latinx, and Native American students and 15% should be underserved. He said that 1 in 4 groups of students should be racially and ethnically diverse, not because diversity represented skin color, but because racial and ethnic identity represented diverse ideas, cultures, experiences, values, perspectives, and beliefs. This value of diversity could only be achieved with a truly diverse community and student body  — White and Black and Latinx and Native and Asian and first generation and international and veterans and those from a range of socio-economic backgrounds — living and studying and working together.

Is this goal possible?  Is it possible for an institution founded on the cusp of Emancipation, in the heart of the Confederacy, with a legacy of exclusion, to shift:  to embrace equity, to celebrate diversity, and to demonstrate inclusion? Is it possible for Virginia Tech to recognize the range of talent and excellence in the state and to understand that although talent is not defined by wealth or race, opportunities may be constrained and limited by both wealth and race (see The Unequal Opportunity Race Video https://youtube.com/watch?v=vX_Vzl-r8NY shown at BCI).

My vision for The Black College Institute was seeded as a defiant internal response, in part, to someone who once told me that the only way to get Black students to Virginia Tech was to move Virginia Tech out of Blacksburg.  This was a comfortably and oft recited refrain about the low enrollment of Black students at Virginia Tech:  “Black students don’t…Black students won’t….Black students can’t…”   This refrain is consistent with a refrain common to African-Americans in the United States.  It is part of the mindset of racism that has set low expectations, perpetuated stereotypes, and negated the potential of an entire race:  “you can’t …, you won’t …, and you don’t…”  The verb on the end of the sentence is irrelevant because it is the impossibility of life, the impossibility of success, the impossibility of achievement, the impossibility of anything of any substance, the impossibility of potential, the impossibility of possibility, and ultimately, the impossibility of hope.

The challenge for Virginia Tech is squarely on the table.  Can Virginia Tech be bold and audacious enough to change the impossible?  Can Virginia Tech live up to its mandate  – to educate the masses, the citizens, the industrial and working class, (and the elite, as well) those who are striving for opportunity, those who say “I can, I will, and I do”?

What does that look like?  How does an institution shift?  Can an institution shift?  Can an institution move from one that perpetuated the exclusion, marginalization, disenfranchisement, racism, and discrimination of populations to one that empowers those same populations?  Can an institution located three to five hours away from the largest and most diverse communities in the state – across an entire state, convince those populations to give Virginia Tech a “look-see”?  And if so, how?

The world of college sports provides a perspective. While the world of college athletics causes many of us to flinch and become nervous when needing to articulate the value of college athletics that pay some coaches more than presidents; often fails to even provide a degree to athletes of color whose labor often lines the pockets of institutions and the coaches of certain sports with millions, and who are often seemingly dumped empty-handed on the doorsteps of the same impoverished communities from which many emerged, there are lessons that can be learned from a business focused on talent identification.  College athletics believes that talent can be identified and recruited.  What do successful athletic programs do? They scout – search out talent – at a young age.  They pursue and engage.  They demonstrate the value of the institution to the student and the value of the student to the institution.  Most importantly, they create connection — an impenetrable connection that can’t be broken to the place, the people, and the program.  Scout, Pursue, Engage, Connect.  And that is what we have to do at Virginia Tech to fulfill our land-grant mission.  We have to start recruiting academic talent the way athletic programs recruit talent.   The mission is the same.  Find the best talent and recruit them to your institution.  Period. It isn’t complicated.

This year, for the Black College Institute, we upped our game.  We put on a full court press; went out to seek high achieving, academically talented students.  We reached out to churches, community centers, boys and girls clubs, schools, and Native American tribal communities.  And we found them. We had 600 applicants – a ten-fold increase from the first year’s class of 60.

There’s a competition for talent and we know Virginia Tech can compete.  We know that it takes special individuals to come to Virginia Tech.  In a way, you have to be a pioneer; you have to be curious; you have to be courageous.   You have to be willing to step outside what is comfortable and familiar.  You have to be bold and adventurous.  You have to be willing to be in a very different environment — a beautiful peaceful and amazing community in the mountains.  And, often, you have to be willing to be more than a hop, skip and a jump away from home.  And you have to trust us, that as an institution we will honor your courageous choice and that we will provide the support and programs to help you succeed.

Many have asked me why I came here. I came because of the motto – Ut Prosim – that I may serve. I came because of our Principles of Community  – a set of values that defines how we create and maintain and sustain a welcoming community. (See a powerful video sharing our Principles of Community: https://youtube.com/watch?v=Sl3mzgvSYUI). I came to be part of a place focused on potential and possibilities.  I came because of the people.   I came because of the values. And unknowingly, I came to be part of the Hokie Nation.

The Hokie Nation is a powerful tribe. When I came to Virginia Tech, I didn’t know if anyone could be part of the Hokie Nation. I didn’t know if I fit in as an African-American woman, the great granddaughter of a slave, the daughter of an immigrant father from Sierra Leone, West Africa. I didn’t know if I would be accepted, coming to this community as an outsider.  When you come into a new community, it is often difficult — finding your way, finding community, fitting in, finding your tribe.

Tribes are an importance concept in native, African, and indigenous societies.  Tribes are connected to land, with a commitment to unity, to community, to culture, to shared values, to protection, and support.  Tribes have power based on their identities.  They survive because of their shared commitment to the success and perpetuation of the group.  The Hokie Nation is a powerful tribe and we are stretching out our arms to say to those who have actually been excluded “you are welcome here.” (See the beautiful “You are welcome here” Virginia Tech video https://youtu.be/EbU-hcuIKKw ).

The Black College Institute, the Hispanic College Institute, the Native American Outreach, the College Access Collaborative, and many, many outreach efforts across colleges, disciplines, and programs are efforts to say to anyone with talent – defined broadly and uniquely to encompass a range of different views, identities, potentials – “You are welcome here.”

Something special happens at Virginia Tech when you spend time on this campus.  A little bit of it becomes part of you.  The beauty, the people, the values, you start to feel a little transformation — a shift.

And that is what is happening at Virginia Tech — a shift.  A shift, a movement, There’s a phrase that says, “culture is not taught, it is caught.”  I believe you can’t be taught about the culture of Virginia Tech. You have to come here, catch it.  Feel it, touch it, and be absorbed by it…the connection.

As the last Black College Institute ends, and as our visits to Native American communities approaches an end for the summer, I am reminded about the amazing students we have here at Virginia Tech.  Native American students who selflessly visited tribal communities to talk about education; African-American students who dedicated their summer to serving as student leaders; White students who were willing to be “minorities” but committed to serving others through Ut Prosim; and Latinx students who were committed to supporting a cause greater than themselves, but also impacting their communities.

I am reminded that leading is often an exercise in allowing others to lead.  Graduate students at Virginia Tech, Chantel Simpson, PhD student in Agriculture Leadership, Jamelle Simmons, PhD student in Biomedical Engineering, Chris Kwaramba, PhD student in Business Information Technology, and Stacey Wilkerson, PhD student in Higher Education were a phenomenal team.  Leemar Thorpe, our Associate Director, coordinated multiple details and logistics of navigating high students around Virginia Tech, finding space, transportation, food, and mentoring as needed. The Admissions Team of Alphonso Garrett and Luisa Burgos were tremendous partners in coordinating the work of recruiting talent to Virginia Tech. Natasha Saunders, in her role for only 6 weeks as the director of a new program to support student success, the SOAR (Student Opportunity and Achievement Resources) Program, demonstrated incredible and amazing leadership.  Her quote:  “There is no comfort in the growth zone and there is no growth in the comfort zone” will resonate with me for a lifetime.


Duston Scarborough, an alumni who choose to use his vacation time from work to come to the Black College Institute, provided wisdom, guidance, and served as the on-site force of inspiration and motivation — a force who continued to ask and challenge the students – Did you get what you came for?

And Andrew Alston, a staff member in Conferences and Institutes, and Arlethea Scott, Talent Search advisor, quietly came to each program, and volunteered as needed, and made a difference.  Our faculty, Kecia Smith, Assistant Professor of Accounting, told us about mountain business and that it was time to stop letting our pots of potential soak, and instead get to the business of scrubbing and agitating for change up here in the mountains.


And Kimberly Williams, Black Cultural Center Director gave honest and authentic advice about succeeding.

Brandy Faulkner, Political Science faculty member, reminded us there is no time to waste in being who we are called to be.

And, my amazing and incredible colleague, Mercedes Ramirez Fernandez, Associate Vice Provost for Strategic Affairs and Diversity, guided this ship with grace, with conviction, with determination, and commitment to Virginia Tech, its mission, and vision for inclusive excellence. A fierce, yet gentle leader; a steady force; a calm and courageous voice; a team builder; a guide who allows others to guide; a persistent reminder of the great goal while balancing the essential reality of managing minutiae.


This program could not have succeeded without the amazing student staff leaders – our own sophomores, juniors, seniors, and alumni at Virginia Tech, and the campus community. 


Our Provost, Cyril Clarke, came to the Opening Session for BCI for seniors, met BCI parents and families, and shared a powerful explanation of a land-grant university. The college administrators created amazing programs, engaged their faculty and graduate students during the summer, and continued – without complaint — to adjust their program, as the size increased from 75 to 100, to 150, to 250 total students who came through BCI as juniors and seniors this summer.  Thank you to the deans of each college, the colleagues in VT Engage who spoke about social justice and activism, and the leadership in information technology (who promised students jobs in IT if they come to VT)!

And, so, on the eve of the anniversary of the death of my mother, Mildred, who died 6 years ago on August 6, I, for the first time, am not filled with sorrow, but joy and gratitude.  Her strength and her journey from picking cotton to becoming a college professor, (A Black Woman’s Journey (https://amazon.com/Womans-Journey-Picking-College-Professor/dp/1433149737 ) provides a constant reminder of the importance of creating opportunities for the most vulnerable of us in society, those of us who have tremendous potential, and those of us who can be lights of inspiration to others in the world.  That is why I do what I do at Virginia Tech.  It is because I believe this is a place for the most vulnerable in society to actualize their potential for greatness. It is the Ut Prosim Difference!


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