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Virginia Tech isn’t home for everyone

  • 12 min to read
Virginia Tech isn’t home for everyone

“For my entire life, I just knew Virginia Tech was home,” junior Juan Pacheco described his family’s long history with Virginia Tech, stating that his mom and most of her sisters are all Hokies. “As long as I’ve had an understanding of words, I knew I was a Hokie and I knew I was going to go here.” It’s what brought him from Columbia, South Carolina, to study psychology with a minor in diversity and community engagement.  

“Every home has dysfunction,” Pacheco said, “but most homes don’t cause anxiety, worry, fear or an environment that is not conducive to growth.” It was during his freshman year that he realized that “This Is Home” doesn’t apply to a wide swath of Virginia Tech students, including himself. Pacheco described the moment during his freshman year in 2016, as the only Latino student on his hall, where someone posted a photo of Donald Trump on his door. He reminded me that the fall of 2016 was a scary time for minority students on campus, where a number of targeted attacks against marginalized students increased as the nation prepared for Trump to assume the Oval Office.

Pacheco added, “I remember that students were being called slurs out of pickup trucks and I remember getting sexual assault email after sexual assault email.”

“This Is Home,” the marketing ploy enticing students to come to Virginia Tech, is a genius move. Many prospective college students are nervous about leaving the life they knew behind to begin a journey elsewhere without proximity to parents, long-standing friends and the comforts of the place they called home for years. The security of knowing that there is a home to be found here in the New River Valley is reassuring for many students.

“Virginia Tech isn’t the place we all thought it was at one point,” Pacheco added.  

For an alarming number of us, we face experiences that bring the realization that this place is not, has never been, and will never feel like home for us.

Twitter recently erupted with stories of women, racial and religious minorities, members of the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities sharing experiences where they first realized that Virginia Tech was not home for them. Their stories were moving, heartbreaking and reaffirming. In all the emotions I felt reading these stories, after my four years here at Tech, surprise was certainly not among them.

“It wouldn’t have been as devastating to me if Virginia Tech didn’t go out of its way to create the facade that it was a more accepting place than it is,” Pacheco said.

Virginia Tech was founded as an all-male, all-military institution and holds firmly onto this tradition. Tech admitted its first female students in 1921 as civilians who were only permitted to take day classes, meaning they did not live on campus. In 1964, enrollment in the Corps became optional and although the civilian population skyrocketed, the university remained predominantly male and predominantly white.

As this remains true to this day, a lack of substantial change to the institution’s decision-making structures and the lackluster efforts to increase diversity without substantive initiatives to make the university more inclusive and supportive to its women, students of color, LGBTQ+ students, religious minorities and students with disabilities has reinforced the university’s role as a haven for some, but a constant struggle reinforced by consistently delivered traumas for others.

Tech is proud to be the first predominantly white institution in the former Confederacy to admit black students. The university is also proud to host the first Corps of Cadets in the nation to admit women, even beating out the prestigious service academies. But the university only pays lip service to ideas of diversity and inclusion, and while many students feel comfortable calling this place home, others are quite uncomfortable simply crossing the street on the way to class based on how they look, worship, dress or otherwise present.

So many students spoke up on Twitter about being accosted out of the windows of pickup trucks. This is the horrific, nightmare-ending version of TLC’s “No Scrubs” where we’re somewhat relieved that the scrub sitting on the passenger side of their best friend’s ride wasn’t in the driver’s seat as an unsuspecting student crossed the road. Students from many different backgrounds spoke about being called racial slurs, homophobic insults or worse. When I had originally read these stories, I was saddened, but grateful that I hadn’t experienced that kind of blatant vitriol lobbed out of a pickup truck — until it happened to me on Main Street four days later.

Many people believe that racism disappeared in this country after segregation was outlawed in the 1960s, but that assertion is completely untrue. Many applaud Virginia Tech for being the first white college in the south to graduate a black student, Charlie Yates, in 1958. However, the story of Irving Peddrew, the university’s first black student admitted in 1953 who ultimately left after his third year, raises doubts about Tech’s lauded progressivity.

Peddrew claimed that during his time at Tech in the 1950s, he felt psychologically isolated. Although that was 66 years ago and some progress may have been made since, his sentiments do still resonate with students today. “Here I was in a racist town in Southwest Virginia and for the first year I was by myself,” he recalled. He was not permitted to live on-campus. He couldn’t eat in the dining hall on campus. In town, he wasn’t allowed to hang out with white students at the soda fountain. Nevertheless, he told his hometown newspaper, the Daily Press, that he never ran into anyone on campus that he perceived as bigoted, was never called names and that no Tech student had “said anything ugly to him.”

However, many minority students at Virginia Tech today cannot say that they came here and left unscathed by moments marked with racial epithets or outward discrimination. While Peddrew’s description of his time at Tech doesn’t sound like the stories of the Little Rock Nine, who had to be escorted to school by members of the U.S. National Guard through virulent crowds who literally spat at them, he ultimately left the university after his junior year.

I take issue with some parts of the Daily Press article, particularly the line that explains how Peddrew came to be the trailblazer and lone black student among a university of over 3,000 students. Black students weren’t allowed to attend white schools unless the curriculum they sought wasn’t available at black schools. Because engineering was not offered at Virginia State University, the commonwealth’s only public post-secondary institution for black students, Peddrew was admitted to Virginia Tech. The article says “engineering was not offered at Virginia State. So Virginia Tech let Peddrew in” and continues to praise the university for “making history a year before Brown vs. Board of Education forced public schools to integrate.”

Virginia Tech is the gracious hero in this narrative, the purported trailblazer and pioneer who bent itself over backwards to allow a young black man from Chesapeake to study toward a degree in engineering and in fact, execute its land-grant mission. Any time I have chosen to openly criticize the university, I was quickly scolded by my white peers that I should be “lucky that Virginia Tech let me in” as if I didn’t earn my spot here just like everyone else. Simply opening the door is only half the battle.

Microaggressions targeting black students across this campus overwhelmingly imply that we aren’t talented enough to get here on our own accord and that we rely on affirmative action or sports to secure our spots here. Or they posit that racism is long dead and people of color should really get over it.

It’s hard to get over something staring you in the face on a daily basis. Or something that makes you so afraid to step foot outside that you stop regularly attending class.

In December 2014, popular anonymous app Yik Yak hosted some incredibly racist and incendiary content targeting black students. In March 2017, more than 100 leaflets bearing swastikas were left scattered across the lawn of the Chabad Librescu Jewish Student Center. The leaflets were littered there during a Saturday afternoon worship service, where Jewish students ultimately found the hateful leaflets upon leaving the service.

In Fall 2017, a self-described white supremacist TA thrusted Virginia Tech into national news after the university failed to take proper action in response to the TA’s threats against student Tori Coan. After Coan sought to bring attention to the TA’s proud white supremacist and anti-semitic views, the TA posted Coan’s personal contact information on the internet, imploring his followers to “f*** her up” and “destroy her.”

President Tim Sands, a fervent preacher of Tech’s Principles of Community, used his platform in response to that situation to affirm the Principles and defend free speech in the same breath. In response to the Jewish Student Center incident, Sands claimed that the university has the ability to take action through the student code of conduct and other principles that we live by which “have teeth in them.” However, the Principles of Community in practice are completely unenforceable; they are about as useful as a toothbrush in a surgical operating room during open-heart surgery.

The university provided a home to harbor white supremacy, which would be surprising if the university’s existence wasn’t itself entrenched in white supremacy. After all, the purpose of segregated universities was to provide a quality education to some and actively exclude others from that experience, forcing them to replicate that experience elsewhere and with fewer resources. State-supported universities should be representative of their state populations. Virginia Tech hosts an incredibly dismal 4% black student population in a state with a 20% black population. Virginia Tech’s female population is 43% while the state has more women than men. A representative sample of Tech doesn’t even look like the state it relies on.

After the TA was removed from teaching following the scandal, New River Against Fascism reported that the university continued to provide him with employment (which generally comes with a sizeable tuition remission and stipend, though I cannot comment on the specifics of his offer).

The TA was responsible for studying banned books and free speech. I’m unwell to think of all the non-racist, non-anti-semitic and deserving graduate students in the English department who do not have assistantships, or those who ultimately turned down Tech because they were unable to afford it. However, the university seemed more concerned with avoiding a lawsuit than protecting students’ safety on campus. It pains me to say that Coan wasn’t the only woman on campus who the university failed to protect.   

The black student experience wasn’t what began the discussion on Twitter. The discussion began after student Rachel Bailey tweeted:

Women were demonized when they first came to campus in the 1920s as day students. The 1922 edition of The Bugle includes a poem written by some of our very own Techmen and dare I say, it’s about as unseasoned as Owens Hall’s lauded chicken parmesan. The poem announces the arrival of women, claiming that they have “caused a wretched condition” and that women should be extradited or else they will “murder our very tradition.” We could only hope those 10 women would murder the tradition of misogyny, since Tech seemed to be roaring with it. Through a lack of resources to support sexual assault survivors on campus and the proliferation of a culture that excuses biased attacks on women, the institution itself has assumed the role of protecting misogyny since the roaring twenties.

“I was terrified, I felt hunted,” stated Virginia Tech alumna Nancy Kelly, one of the organizers of the original Denim Day in 1979. Reflecting on why she hadn’t returned to Blacksburg in nearly 40 years, Kelly stated: “Blacksburg held nothing for me. I felt we were treated badly and it was a very hard place to live.”

Kelly detailed a targeted attack where a passenger in a vehicle on Drillfield Drive lobbed a brick at her, sped off, then got out of the car to chase her. She evaded her attackers by hiding behind a bush — for hours. Beyond the attacks from students, there were no allies in upper administration. Kelly discussed the moment when she was reprimanded by the Dean of Students, James Dean, in response to organizing Denim Day: “You have embarrassed our university throughout the state. I want to be very clear. You will never do this again.” She recalled in a recent interview with Joe Forte of Special Collections that many gay and lesbian students had similar experiences with targeted attacks and lack of support, though no one even felt comfortable speaking up.   

“There was no one to tell. No forms to fill out. You wouldn’t go to the police. You wouldn’t go to anyone because you would be subject to more (attacks).”

The Title IX 2017-2018 Annual Report claims that the university has seen a 14% increase in reporting from the year prior. An increase in reporting shows that victims are more willing than before to seek support after their experiences with sexual and gender-based violence, though the university should be moving forward to aggressively reduce the number of actual cases of sexual violence and harassment to zero. The report states that the office received 214 reports last academic year, with 88 of them categorized as sexual assault. Of the 37 cases of misconduct referred by Title IX to the office for student conduct, 19 students were found to be responsible for conduct violations, 16 were found not responsible, and four cases from the 2017-2018 academic year were still pending in January 2019 — eight months after the end of the academic year.   

There were so many brave and incredible students at the Walk Out for Victims of Sexual Assault on April 30 who spoke about their incredibly dismaying experiences with the Title IX office after reporting their sexual assaults. It’s this culture of inactivity and inadequacy that excuses sexual assault and reinforces the many reasons 90% of sexual assault victims on college campuses don’t come forward.

To those students who are told that coming forward will ruin the perpetrator’s life and future, as if their lives have no comparative value; to those students who are re-traumatized after proceedings drag out longer than a year; to the students who face their assailants on campus and know that they will one day graduate after committing the most heinous crimes: Tech is not home.

Tech reinforces old structures and continues to fail its students. The institutional theory of political science attempts to define what is impossible by using the structure of the institution to explain its constraints and failures. Virginia Tech senior administration officials rely on the university’s limitations in order to tell students why they can’t make this university safer for them. Events like the Walk Out are a reminder that students and others have a voice that they are willing and ready to use, but so many of us have already been doing the hard work of trying to make change and our pleas for a better university fall on deaf ears, repeating the same tune without substantive action.

“I miss being ignorant,” Pacheco said. “I miss being able to believe that my school was above all else. I remember when that was a core belief of mine. I knew that my school wasn’t 100% perfect, but I thought it was damn near close … I didn’t know how many times I was going to have my heart broken again before I finally realized that that can’t be a belief of mine anymore.

“That’s what so many marginalized students have to go through. A lot of us are jealous of our peers, we want to be able to be ignorant, we want to be able to go out and have a good time (without the added pressures caused by marginalized identities),” Pacheco said.

Some people’s words are worth more than others. “This Is Home” is a refrain that resounds with many students and therefore, drowns out the issues that many of us face on a daily basis. Pushing this rosy depiction of the university, like The Princeton Review’s “Their Students Love These Colleges,” is dangerous as the university portrays itself as a welcoming place, yet so many of its students suffer.

“I have never felt so far from home” claimed senior Harmony Wall. She recalled many experiences at Virginia Tech where she said, “my brown skin put me second.”

Many believe that Blacksburg is this mountain paradise far removed from issues like rape culture, anti-semitism and racism. However, biased incidents happen here too. For many students outside of the marginalized community, witnessing these moments shatters their perceptions of what this place is and who is welcome here and who is not. While students in the majority may dismiss these concerns, instances of sexual assault, racial profiling, religious bias and lack of accommodation for students with disabilities significantly impact students’ mental well-being and introduce significant barriers to graduation.

“Making your support system other students that go through the same thing so much to the point that they themselves have burnout or forcing an abysmal amount of minority faculty to respond to the problems of hundreds of students is woefully inadequate,” Pacheco said. The university “(forces) a small amount of people to existentialize off of the byproducts of white supremacy.

“Where you create a pseudo-culture where anything remotely (negative) said about Virginia Tech hurts people to the point that their whole core belief is off, they get so angry.”

Nothing is worth loving beyond critique, and many people are blind to the problems faced by students here. “I felt the same way once, but I didn’t have the pleasure of being able to fight it because of what I experienced,” Pacheco said.

But many students will never have the pleasure of shaking the feeling of isolation they experience while here in the valley.

“It doesn’t feel like home for me because to me it’s hard not to feel isolated at Tech,” Wall said. Irving Peddrew ultimately left the university after his junior year, citing life in Blacksburg as isolating in many ways. “I was overwhelmed,” said Nancy Kelly of her time at Virginia Tech “and I felt very isolated.” Isolation is a key refrain in the stories of marginalized students.

“Home is not what I would call it, it’s just a place for my degree,” Wall said. Virginia Tech students deserve a university that intentionally strives to create a place where all students are welcome, accepted and celebrated. That’s a process that starts before students get here on campus and it doesn’t end. Invoking a quote from Virginia Tech alumnus George Spurlock first published in The Virginia Tech (the Collegiate Times’ former name): “I’m proud of my Blackness and the sooner you understand what it means, the better established we will both be.” Wall implores the university, especially the student body, to do better to reach a point of understanding with students across varied experiences, “think about how we can make it home for everybody else.”

Pacheco found reassurance in recalling a conversation with Kimberly Williams, assistant director of the Black Cultural Center: “This is your valley too."

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