by Richard Lovegrove

More than 120 years ago, then-Virginia Polytechnic Institute President John McLaren McBryde coined the university's motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).

No record remains detailing why McBryde chose that short Latin phrase, but since that time, countless Hokies have put the motto into practice — serving through the military, civic organizations, charities, religious affiliations, or businesses. Graduating students carry that spirit to their jobs and communities.

But during the past decade, the commitment among students, alumni, faculty and staff members, family, and friends to truly help and engage with people and communities in need seems to have grown exponentially, spurred on in large part by the strengthened sense of Hokie Spirit that arose in response to the tragedy of April 16.

"There's more recognition among students that the motto is really core to the university," said Gary Kirk (MPIA '00, Ph.D. '04), director of VT Engage: The Community Learning Collaborative. "I think you would be hard-pressed to find another institution where students feel such a strong connection to the university's motto."

"I think that since April 16, for students graduating from Virginia Tech, service is an everyday thing," said Debbie Flippo (marketing management '83), former president of the Denver Alumni Chapter and now a member of the Virginia Tech Alumni Association board. "I think they carry it with them."

"I like to think that in some small way that (doing good for others) is how the spirit of those lost that day continues to live on through the Hokie Nation," said Tara Reel, graduate student representative to the Board of Visitors who served as a volunteer on the Day of Remembrance Student Planning Committee this year.

Service in remembrance

Shortly after April 16, students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends, looking for a useful way to channel their confusion and grief, realized that tributes to and biographies of many of the fallen highlighted their dedication to public service.

To continue their legacy, plans underway before April 16 for a volunteerism event evolved into a service project aimed at honoring the 32. And then those plans became something even bigger following suggestions by the family of one of the students lost in the tragedy, according to John Dooley, then vice president for outreach and international affairs and now chief executive officer of the Virginia Tech Foundation.

"They (the family) came to us and said, 'We would like to, in a special way, help you focus and affirm the contributions of the people who lost their lives,' " Dooley told the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors' Academic Affairs Committee in August 2007 in announcing what would become VT-ENGAGE, an umbrella organization that would help galvanize Hokies across the nation to become more involved in community service. "Let's bring hope and meaning to what we're about. … "I think we're sending a very dramatic message to the world."

"The germ of VT-ENGAGE was trying to come up with an idea where people could work together and honor those we lost … taking action in a positive way," said Karen Gilbert, first director of VT-ENGAGE and now back at Tech for her Ph.D. in higher education after leaving Blacksburg for a few years.

Gilbert had been working in communications for the College of Engineering before April 16, but she quickly found another calling. "I was just interested in helping people heal and recover. I thought it was the best possible idea in response to the tragedy.

"I think Ut Prosim was brought to the forefront, and I think it has more personal meaning to people. … VT-ENGAGE helped solidify Ut Prosim as a living model for the entire university community and alumni chapters," Gilbert said.

Something more engaging

By 2008, VT-ENGAGE merged with the old Service-Learning Center to form the Center for Student Engagement and Community Partnerships, now known as VT Engage: The Community Learning Collaborative.

The new VT Engage focuses on working to determine what the partner really needs and how students can make a long-term sustainable investment to help solve a problem.

"As a major university — as a land-grant — it's our place to use the human and intellectual capital of the university to partner with communities. … We don't arrive and try to tell a community what we think they should do," said Kirk, the current director.

Get on the Bus, one of the many service-learning programs offered by VT Engage, offers "low barrier" half-day and full-day volunteering opportunities. "You don't have to be a volunteerism expert and give a thousand hours," said Lindsey Gleason, communication and administrative coordinator for VT Engage.

Those Get on the Bus events are followed by reflection activities led by STEP UP (Students Together Engaging in & Practicing Ut Prosim) student leaders.

Alumni step up

Alumni quickly got on board with the idea of volunteerism to honor the memory of the 32 lives lost. In the past three years, at least 20 chapters have held runs/walks and five have sponsored memorial blood drives. Others have taken on everything from Adopt-A-Highway cleanups to work with homeless shelters.

The Shenandoah (Virginia) Chapter has organized a blood drive every year since shortly after April 16, 2007, collecting more than 1,000 pints over the years and becoming one of the area's largest drives, according to Victoria Culbreth (animal science '93), secretary of the chapter.

Within a year, the chapter also built a memorial garden in Sherando Park in Stephens City, Virginia, a project led by Bruce Wilson (agricultural economics '86). Frederick County Parks and Recreation donated the use of an 8,000-square-foot parcel of land, many companies contributed materials and services, an engineering firm designed the garden for free, and landscape crews helped install the flora. The garden includes a large "VT" and 32 pieces of Hokie Stone.

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  • Memorial Garden in Sherando Park in Stephens City, Virginia, built by the Shenandoah Chapter.

    Memorial Garden in Sherando Park in Stephens City, Virginia, built by the Shenandoah Chapter.

  • Memorial Garden in Sherando Park in Stephens City, Virginia, built by the Shenandoah Chapter.

    Memorial Garden in Sherando Park in Stephens City, Virginia, built by the Shenandoah Chapter.

  • Memorial Garden in Sherando Park in Stephens City, Virginia, built by the Shenandoah Chapter.

    A candlelight service was organized by the Shenandoah Chapter.

  • Charlotte Chapter candlelight service

    The Charlotte Chapter hosted a candlelight service.

  • New England Chapter remembrance event

    The New England Chapter during their remembrance event on the Boston Common.

"This community came together in the true spirit of Ut Prosim, and it didn't end that day," Culbreth said. "The garden is used by those visiting the park, and the gazebo area provides an area for individuals wanting to set up tables when enjoying their kids' sporting events in the park."

The Shenandoah Chapter's Big Event is a cleanup day at the garden. And this year's events included a remembrance ceremony for the entire community.

"This ceremony is meant to remember those who lost their lives that day, but also show the perseverance of the Hokie Spirit, [and to] embrace the line, 'We will remember. We are strong. We are Virginia Tech,'" Culbreth said.

In Wilmington, Delaware, the First State Chapter, under president Steve Cason (mechanical engineering '89) and Hal Schneikert (industrial engineering '65), who is on the board of the local Habitat for Humanity, had already been involved in helping build houses as a service project, but Schneikert saw a way to add extra meaning.

"When we looked at what we wanted to do in recognition of the tragedy … we thought we could move this work to April," Schneikert said. "We would have something tangible; we'd have helped build a house that would provide shelter for a family for decades."

According to Cason, First State has always emphasized service, including work for the Ronald McDonald House, Special Olympics, and making personalized stockings for soldiers. But there's something particularly meaningful about the Habitat day in April.

"We get a little better participation after we changed the event," Schneikert said. "We certainly get a broader group of people … We have people come out who we never see otherwise."

The Denver Chapter has also always been mindful of service, sponsoring blood drives, adopting a family for Christmas, supporting the Food Bank of the Rockies, and providing for the Denver Rescue Mission. Ernie Flippo, Debbie's husband, was once named the Virginia Tech Alumni Association volunteer of the year even though he didn't go to Tech.

Fredericksburg Chapter

The Fredericksburg Chapter served the Easter meal at a local homeless shelter.

The Denver Chapter draws many young alumni, so quite a few were within one degree of separation from somebody who was killed or wounded, said Debbie Flippo. In 2008 and 2009, some Denver Hokies participated in a blood drive, and in 2010, eight members of the chapter put on Hokie T-shirts and ran an informal 3.2-mile course. In 2011, Flippo said, 70 alumni showed up to find their way around a course drawn up using a pedometer; and every year since then, Denver Hokies have gathered to run or walk and then enjoy a cookout — sometimes in the snow.

"Obviously, we're there to remember those who aren't with us any longer," Flippo said. "It's meant to be a tribute, but it's also meant to be a celebration of life" among Hokies who gather to support each other through shared experience and camaraderie.

Students remembering

On campus, students put in countless hours on all kinds of projects, including planning for the events attended by thousands to remember April 16.

Samantha Drury (political science, economics '18) and Jordan Schoeneberger (applied economic management '18), were the director and assistant director, respectively, of this year's community picnic, an event requiring complicated coordination and wrangling food for up to 10,000 people.

2017 community picnic

Student volunteers served lunch during the 2017 community picnic.

Drury's father graduated from Tech in 1989, and while she remembers seeing how heartbroken her father was, she didn't really understand until she attended her first vigil as a freshman.

"I was overcome with sadness and heartache listening to the names being read," Drury said. "However, throughout that week of my freshman year, there were also moments that I was touched by the warmth, love, and respect that Hokies (both current and former) show each other."

The pride Drury saw that day helped motivate her throughout the picnic-planning process with its hundreds of emails and phone calls. "It has been one of the most eye-opening and humbling experiences of my life to be involved in planning the Day of Remembrance," she said. "This event is not about me; it is about the Virginia Tech community and the 32 beautiful lives of the Hokies that we will always remember. One of my favorite quotes is by Maya Angelou who once said, 'I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.' Fifty years from now in 2067, my involvement in this picnic will be long forgotten, but I hope that the effects of these Remembrance events will make a lasting and positive impact on the Hokie Nation."

Schoeneberger is the assistant director of community initiatives with the SGA. She joined the FEMA Corps of the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps for a gap year before coming to Tech. That exposure to hunger, poverty, and inequalities in the U.S. was the catalyst for her involvement in SGA, the SERVE Living-Learning Community, and, eventually, the picnic. And the skills she learned planning community volunteer days have come in handy.

"Despite being 11 when this tragedy occurred, I remember seeing news clips of campus on that day almost 10 years ago," Schoeneberger said. "When applying for colleges three years ago, those were the images that went through my mind. Not specifically from the tragedy, but everything I heard of Virginia Tech and the community from that day forward was positive.

"I'm here because of a blind faith in the community that is stronger despite tragedy, a willingness to serve, and the fact that Blacksburg has always felt like home."

Tara Reel, the graduate student representative on the Board of Visitors, was driven to serve partly by the fact that she was grieving the loss of her brother when the tragedy happened.

"What I have learned is that while we may lose people, they are never truly gone from our hearts as we keep them alive through remembrance," Reel said. "It is why I wanted to be a part of this event. I am humbled to be a part of honoring the lives they lived and being part of the commemoration of their spirits."

And Karen Gilbert, who returned to Virginia Tech for her Ph.D. after a few years away? Her dissertation is on campus-community partnerships.

"It remains a focus of my interest," Gilbert said.