Virginia Tech Magazine
Alumni Shorts
Summer 2008
Dreaming big

Each spring, Virginia Tech hosts the Big Event to allow students to thank the community that serves as their second home. Jobs range from yard work and painting to cleaning windows and performing minor repairs. The project's success has been reflected in its growth. In 2002, 475 students completed 60 jobs; in 2008, more than 3,500 students participated in more than 500 service projects in the New River Valley. But the Big Event is not about the numbers--it's about heart and vision, as shown by the continued dedication of one the event's founders, Christina McClung (resource management '03).

The inspiration for the project came from Texas A&M students, who began holding their Big Event in the early 1980s. In spring 2000, officers in Virginia Tech's Student Government Association (SGA)--including McClung--began discussing ways to encourage students to give back to the local community. "Little did we know," McClung recalls, "that it would take two years of organization to pull off the first Big Event."

Held on April 1, 2002, the first Big Event faced a few challenges. For one, it had snowed the night before, and the Drillfield was covered with a quarter-inch of ice and snow.

Christina McClung '03 and John Van Der Hyde
Christina McClung '03 and John Van Der Hyde, the managing partner of the Virginia Group of Northwestern Mutual.

Still, McClung says, "Volunteers streamed in mid-morning, Dr. Steger welcomed the volunteers, and Andrew Shue of "Melrose Place" fame gave a compelling address on service. We sent the student work groups out to their jobs, and the rest is history." During the past seven years, more than 13,000 students have completed more than 1,600 service projects in the New River Valley.

Now director of recruiting and selection for The Virginia Group of Northwestern Mutual Financial Network in Richmond, Va., McClung says that planning the Big Event showed her that she could dream big--and share that passion with others. "I help people discover where they want to go and what career will bring them the most happiness. Dreams are just goals with deadlines."

Her employer, in turn, has supported the Big Event the past three years both financially and through volunteerism and is the project's sole sponsor. "Our company mission is to help people achieve their goals, which is directly aligned with the mission of the Big Event, making this sponsorship a perfect marriage."

Speaking of marriage, Christina McClung's stint in the SGA introduced her to her future husband, Aaron McClung (history, political science '00), the association's president from 1999-2000.

Meeting her future spouse wasn't, however, the only boon from McClung’s SGA experience. "I learned so many wonderful lessons about leadership, persistence, and never giving up on a dream," she says. "The Big Event is just one way for students to give back. I believe this sense of service is a part of what defines the Hokie Nation."

Rim Shot

Jan McInnis '82
Jan McInnis '82

Jan McInnis (communication '82) is a California-based comedienne on the corporate circuit--yes, the corporate circuit--which even she admits is "a weird career." But don't you believe it.

In a late-2006 article on clean comedy, the Wall Street Journal featured McInnis as one of the top convention comedians in the business. With an act that she says "focuses on office humor and humor about my family, plus just day-to-day stuff," McInnis has performed across the country for audiences as small as 16 to as large as 3,000--and for more than a dozen years.

Once the trajectory of McInnis's path into corporate comedy is understood, what we can now call her "long, weird career" makes perfect sense. In a nutshell, Tech student takes lots of marketing, writing, and psychology classes, plays drums in the Marching Virginians, and works the overnight shift at WUVT, where she finds "a lot of freedom to chat--pretty much to myself--which is great practice for being on stage with lights so bright that you can't see the audience."

The classes and college experience, McInnis says, helped her land good jobs, and she worked 15 years in marketing before moving into comedy.

"The jobs helped me collect material, which is now in my act," she explains. She also uses the technical skills learned in Tech's communication department to do most of her own editing and filming, which is incredibly useful in the profession.

"What I love most about doing comedy for companies and associations," McInnis says, "is that I get a chance to learn about all these different industries." She's done hundreds of shows for "everything from the mushroom growers association and the alfalfa seed growers to Merrill Lynch, Pep Boys, women's groups, educational groups, financial groups, construction groups, and medical groups."

Talk about tough audiences.

Undaunted, McInnis writes customized material for her performances, which requires interviewing group members to learn about the business, sometimes even touring the facilities. "I've toured a women's prison in Kansas, where the prisoners train seeing-eye dogs," she says, "and the Federal Reserve in Atlanta, and many, many other cool places.

"Most people think you have to be famous to make a good living in comedy," McInnis adds, "but what you really need is just to find your niche and do well there."

Now what's so weird about that?

To catch McInnis in action, go to

Planting the seeds of kindness

In 2002, Jeannette and Dean Packard of Tuscon, Ariz., lost their 3-year-old son, Ben, to sudden illness. As time passed, the Packards found therapy in crafting small clay flowers with bells attached, ornaments they called "Ben's Bells." Inspired by the kindness of friends who had helped them cope with their loss, the Packards hung hundreds of the bells in Tuscon on the one-year anniversary of Ben's death. On each was a note asking the finder to pass on an act of kindness.

Five years later, the nonprofit project is thriving, and people can nominate "bellees," individuals or communities who could benefit from compassion. This April, the Virginia Tech community was a bellee, and Ben's Bells were placed around campus, including on the playground of the Virginia Tech Child Development Center for Learning & Research (CDCLR).

Upon finding the bell, the children and teachers were "so excited," recalls center teacher Kristin Dietz (human development '03)--an excitement that led to inspiration. "We decided that we would like to have the children share 'random acts of kindness' with others," explains Dietz.

Kristin Dietz '03 (left) and Alexa Fraley '05
Kristin Dietz '03 and Alexa Fraley '05

She and other teachers--including Alexa Fraley (human development '05) and CDCLR Assistant Director Karen Gallagher (family and child development '95; M.A.Ed. '04)--came up with "Finding Flowers at VT," a project between the CDCLR and the university's Adult Day Services (ADS).

The children hand-painted 32 pots in honor of those lost on April 16, and the adults from ADS helped the children to plant flowers in the pots. On April 25, the children and their families placed the pots around campus and Blacksburg. A tag in each pot described the project and included contact information for the CDCLR. "We hoped that the people who found the pots would send notes that we could share with the children and adults who made them," says Dietz.

Their hopes came true. Several letters came in, many from people who received one same pot that had been passed around, and all of them inspired by the project. The first letter came from Jud Dunlevy, Virginia Tech's starting place kicker, who found his next to the pond in Foxridge. Another pot made several rounds before ending up in the children's section of the Blacksburg Public Library. And at least one provided comfort. "I brought it home to water it and to contemplate whom I might leave it with next," wrote the recipient. "I have decided to leave it tomorrow with a friend who lost her husband to cancer last year. Thanks for sharing random acts of kindness!"

It's a lesson that we could all learn from.

To learn more about Ben's Bells, go to

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