Whole People – Virginia Tech edition

I spent the last two days as a guest at Virginia Tech. On Thursday, I spoke about my current scholarly project on stories of material exchange in the Venetian mythographic tradition. The audience was mixed, with undergrads, faculty from Tech and other area schools, and even a few people from the community. They stayed awake and seemed interested, then asked both complimentary and challenging questions, just as one would want. I hope I offered some new ideas and some interesting examples, and I know I learned new things both in writing the talk and the many fruitful conversations that followed.

Yesterday, though, I experienced something entirely new to me. Virginia Tech has created several “residential colleges” in which students share communal space and participate in a number of different kinds of activities intended to build community. One of the more innovative aspects (at least in my experience) is the “faculty principal” program, in which faculty members live in (splendid!) apartments in the midst of the dorm, with their families and/or pets, and participate in community life. I know other universities do this, some famously, but I haven’t seen it in operation, especially at a big public university.

I was here and the guest/speaker at a weekly tea in the faculty principal’s apartment. The tea and snacks were splendid. The turnout of mostly first and second year students high (I did mention there were snacks, right?), and I spoke about my public writing. I talked about the complexities of finding a public voice and a platform to speak, as well as the issues on which I write most often – gender, disability, parenting, and the influence of history on everyday life.

But what I really talked about was this: First, the importance of a liberal arts and science education in preparing you to play the cards you are dealt. Life is unpredictable. Education gives you specific skills but also, ideally, intellectual flexibility to adapt. That was certainly true for me when the nurse midwife first said the words, “Down syndrome.” Second, if you know something, if you understand something, find a way to share that. Take an informed position and seek out areas for discussion (which is not the same thing as internet comment wars), whether in formal publications or just around the dinner table.

Then came a long discussion – perhaps 45 minutes of it? The time flew by. Students asked hard questions – not aggressive, just really trying to get at the core issues related to my remarks. One woman asked about feminism versus equality (she was on the side of equality). I was ready for that. Another asked about the word “disability” versus, say, differently-abled or other neologism. I wasn’t ready for that actually, as no one has ever asked be that specific question before. We talked about special education labeling and race, issues relating to adults with disability, and ways of being an activist. I was so impressed by these thoughtful young men and women and their willingness to take a few hours out of their Friday afternoon to sit around a (giant) living room and talk.

Which leads me to my final point. In these residential colleges, Virginia Tech is trying to create an environment which nurtures the non-classroom components of a college education. We know these things happen – it’s not just the coursework, but the community building, the conversations between study sessions, the relationships (romantic and otherwise), and all the other ways we encounter ideas and peoples as students. What I admire so much about this program is that Tech (as they call call it there) is trying to be intentional about these things, rather than just hoping they happen on their own.

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