Virginia Tech Magazine
Making an Impact
Summer 2009

When one thinks of generous alumni who support their alma mater, it's not often that recent graduates come to mind.

In general, newer alums cannot afford to donate as much as those further along in their careers. And with so much of their lives ahead of them, their thoughts of leaving a legacy are likely to be far off.

Young alumni gathered at the Comm250 fundraising brunch in February 2009
Young alumni gathered at the Comm250 fundraising brunch in February, including (from left to right): Peggy Fox '86, Derek O'Mara '01, Stacy Zelenski O'Mara '01, Leslie Howard '01, Hoda Kotb '86, and Katie Pond '01.
On the other hand, the tremendous energy of young alumni can be of great benefit to any institution, and Virginia Tech is no exception. One department that realizes this and is capitalizing on it is the Department of Communication in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

Department officials saw the need for unrestricted funds to allow them to take advantage of unexpected opportunities or to respond to challenges that may arise. An endowment for that purpose is the ideal solution, and the communication department is reaching out to its young alumni to help create one.

Virginia Tech issued its first communication degrees in the 1970s, so the department does not have the many decades of graduates to draw on for support as do many other departments, explains Associate Professor Rachel Holloway, whose seven-year tenure as department head ends in July.

"The first graduating class was small, no more than 10 people," Holloway says. "The number of alumni from those early years, people who are really in the peak of their careers, is not that large. However, now we graduate nearly 200 students each year. We have a huge number of more recent alums."

To get those younger alumni involved, the department launched an initiative called Comm250 with the goal of raising $150,000 toward an endowment. An anonymous donor has agreed to match gifts dollar for dollar up to $25,000. Officials are trying to get 100 young alumni to give at least $250 apiece in order to realize that match.

The endowment will be named for Holloway, who says she was "stunned and honored" when she learned her name was chosen. Money from the endowment, she says, could help the department attract guest speakers, send students to present their research at conferences, or be used to replace vital equipment should it break.

Justin Howard (graphic design '01) says Holloway is a good person to name an endowment for because so many students--including those from other majors--have taken her courses. He and his wife, Leslie Howard (communication '01), assumed leadership roles in the fundraising effort, along with Gina Lodato (communication '06).

Leslie Howard's father, Jerry Hulick (political science '73), a generous supporter of the university who is on the board of the Virginia Tech Foundation and the National Campaign Steering Committee of the Campaign for Virginia Tech: Invent the Future, served on the Comm250 planning team. His daughter and son-in-law share his enthusiasm for giving back to the school. But both say that given where they are in their careers, they realize that the most significant contribution they can make now is their time and energy in mobilizing other young alumni.

Leslie is director of meetings and events for United Fresh Produce Association, and her husband is creative director of the marketing department at TNS, a global leader in custom market research. The couple also owns a boutique event-design company called Nicole Kingsbury. They put their professional skills to use to benefit the Comm250 initiative by designing a promotional website and invitations for a champagne brunch held in February.

Dozens of alumni and friends of the communication department gathered at Top of the Town in Arlington, Va., for the brunch. Leslie served as chairperson for the event, which was emceed by Hoda Kotb (communication '86), an anchor of NBC's Today Show, and Peggy Fox (communication ‘86), an anchor/reporter for Gannett Co. Inc.'s WUSA 9 in Washington, D.C.

Lodato, who works in the advertising sales department of The Washington Post, also helped to publicize the event through e-mail, phone calls, and Facebook, and she coordinated the event's silent auction. Lodato says that her involvement with the brunch led her to make her first donation to Virginia Tech.

"I really felt like I helped this department in a great way through this event, and I never would have thought I could do something like that because I'm not super wealthy or anything," she says. "But because I was able to give back in this way, it was very rewarding."

Becky Brittain (communication, political science '97) was among the many alumni from Northern Virginia who attended the brunch. A CNN producer for coverage of the White House, Brittain says that she enjoyed the opportunity not only to support the department from which she graduated, but to meet other Hokies in her field as well.

Brittain said it was the first Virginia Tech event of its type to which she had been invited and while she had donated to the university before, helping the Comm250 initiative felt different.

"This was more personal to me since it was more targeted toward my age group," she said. "That made it a little more special."

Craig Nesbit (communication '81) was not at the event but has been pleased to see the Comm250 initiative develop. He is vice president of communications for Exelon Generation, a Chicago-based energy company that is the nation's largest operator of nuclear power stations. Along with his wife, Susan, Nesbit is a major supporter of the communication department.

"I think it's good to keep the younger graduates engaged," he says. "I left Virginia Tech in 1981, and I didn't really become involved with the department until the last five, six, or seven years. I think if somebody had reached out to me a long time ago I would have."

Now that he is involved, Nesbit knows firsthand that donors are an important resource for departments to draw on to better serve their students. In 2006, he and his wife provided financial support for then-senior Nicole Eley's (communication '06) trip to Peru to film a promotional video for the nonprofit Cardiostart International, which provides free heart surgery and related medical care to people in underserved regions of the world.

"It's terribly important that students take what they learn and do something outside of the classroom," Nesbit says, referring to projects like Eley's, which are often only possible through private support. "Those are the things that will set you apart from your peers. There are thousands of communication graduates and not anywhere near that number of jobs available, so you have to set yourself apart."

To learn more about the Comm250 initiative and The Rachel Holloway Endowment for Communication, please visit or contact Jocelyn Sanders at 540/231-2893 or

Wayne Robinson '81
Wayne Robinson '81
Wayne Robinson (finance '81) appreciates that his degree from the Pamplin College of Business prepared him to succeed as a recruiter for a major steel company. And he's grateful to the athletics department for the scholarship that paved the way for him to play in the National Basketball Association and in Europe.

But when Robinson decided to make a major gift, he chose to support a university-wide initiative.

"I felt a need to cast a broader net, if you will, across different areas," explains Robinson. To do that, he created a named scholarship that is part of the Presidential Scholars Initiative. That initiative helps talented, low-income students from Virginia who have shown the persistence and commitment to academic excellence that it takes to overcome difficult life situations.

Robinson understands the importance of having an inclusive university, and he is helping to ensure that Virginia Tech is one through this initiative. Supporting such programs is an effective, though sometimes overlooked, way to make a difference in higher education.

When people consider making a gift to their alma mater, they are likely to think first of the department in which they majored or perhaps the college that housed that department. But there are many other areas of a university that play a vital role in the lives of its students.

For example, alumni who wish to support the academic vitality of their alma mater can endow a fellowship at their former college. But they can also achieve their goal by donating to the Virginia Tech Graduate School, which supports all our advanced degree candidates. When Jim (accounting '71) and Ellen Wade (human nutrition and foods '76, '81) wanted to express their gratitude for the benefits their Virginia Tech degrees afforded them, they created a graduate studies fellowship.

Alumni also can endow a scholarship in the Honors Program to help attract such outstanding students as engineering science and mechanics major John Helveston. While looking to persuade top applicants to attend Virginia Tech instead of one of the many the other schools that would love to have them, Honors Program officials are able to offer scholarships, such as the one funded by Wayne (mechanical engineering '50) and Claire Horton. Last year, thanks to the Hortons, Helveston traveled to China, where he had an internship with one of General Electric's wind turbine teams.

No matter what their major, alumni who want to make a gift to support academics probably spent a good deal of time in Newman Library. So they would without question be interested in the important role that donors play in the library's efforts to meet the needs of today's students and faculty members. Library officials are able to add hundreds of titles each year and respond to emerging needs because of the support of alumni such as David (aerospace and ocean engineering '81) and Beth Erb, who have established endowments to support University Libraries.

Alumni who give to Virginia Tech often say their lives were changed by their time here. No doubt much of that change came in the classrooms of a particular college. But the classroom is only part of the unique experience offered here.

The overall environment of our institution--its academic rigor, its scholarly resources, and its welcoming and diverse student body--contributes a great deal to the learning process and is equally important to support.

ALBERT RABOTEAU is a writer for University Development.

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