Virginia Tech Magazine
Virginia Tech

Million-dollar relay
Tech cultivates world's top collegiate cancer fundraiser


It's no surprise that the world's top collegiate Relay For Life (RFL) emerged at a university dedicated to service: Hokies want to change the world, and very few are willing to wait until graduation to start.

Having raised more than $1 million for the American Cancer Society (ACS) over the past two years, Virginia Tech students are hoping to make the 10th annual relay on campus, in April 2011, even bigger.

Edward Spencer, vice president for student affairs and a cancer survivor, delivered the opening remarks at the 2010 relay events in April. After leading the crowd in cheering, "We're beating cancer!" he thanked the event's participants for their spirit of service and for caring about others' survival. His speech's conclusion with the beloved "Go Hokies!" chant spoke to the enthusiasm for helping others that has long driven the student body at Virginia Tech.

The ACS's biggest fundraising event, RFL is also one of the biggest service events on Tech's campus, drawing more than 6,000 students and raising $578,000 in 2010 and $507,000 in 2009. RFL stands alongside other projects, such as Fall Day of Service, The Big Event, and VT-ENGAGE, as a tribute to Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), the university's motto—and a way of life for many students and alumni.

In 2001, when Virginia Tech first became involved with RFL, the event was run by the Student Government Association and was held on the Johnson-Miller Track; the fundraising total was $25,000. Now, RFL blankets the Drillfield each April, and the planning organization operates year-round as its own registered student organization. In 2009 and 2010, Tech students raised more money for cancer research than any other university relay.

Josh Burnheimer (financial planning '08), assistant director of alumni relations and 2008 RFL director, points to an interesting philanthropic challenge on campus: "It is funny to think that one of the problems we have on this campus is convincing people to donate to your service project ... because there are so many other great causes to support. That is a great problem to have, considering the impact Hokies are having on the world through numerous service projects."

Having adopted its motto in 1896, Virginia Tech has long placed service at the core of its mission. In fact, wearing Chicago maroon and orange, identifying as Hokies, and serving others can easily be termed the "Tech triumvirate." Spencer attributes this commitment to service to Virginia Tech's legacy as a land-grant university. "We are 'the people's school,' committed to serving and providing for all the people," he said.

Jim Dubinsky, director of the Center for Student Engagement and Community Partnerships (CSECP), praises the student-led and student-run projects on campus. He recognizes "the passion and commitment of many people—faculty, staff, students, and community partners—who truly understand the concept of engagement and who have embraced ... [it] as a way of being."

Emily Feeney (communication '11) is the 2011 RFL director, and her work exemplifies the spirit that Tech instills in students. Once appointed to her position in May 2010, her work began. Even while studying abroad in Spain over the summer, she e-mailed other members of the executive committee, searched for bands for the event, and began fundraising and planning. Other members of the executive committee are committing just as much time, calling the chance to serve with RFL a blessing.

They also call it a part of the Tech experience. "Other universities don't encourage their students to be selfless and want to do something more with their college career than just take classes," Feeney said. "Tech does."

Relay For Life at Virginia Tech
Kathryn LeBoeuf, the ACS community manager who works most closely with Tech's RFL, recognizes the impact that the university motto has on students. "Their passion is contagious and constantly inspires me to do more and try harder, but it's not just me. It's everyone around them. ... That motto brings them back to the heart of Virginia Tech."

In the university's darkest days after April 16, 2007, the spirit of Ut Prosim held Tech together, serving as both a heart and a backbone for students. Instead of turning inward to mourn, many students reached out. They held the already planned RFL just three days later, celebrating life and hope in honor of those lost, including Caitlin Hammaren, who was the event's top fundraiser that year.

"Our response to tragedy is service and giving back," Feeney said. VT-ENGAGE, a service organization created to honor the victims through volunteerism, challenges students, faculty, and alumni to achieve 600,000 total hours of service a year. April has been designated Ut Prosim Month, featuring both RFL and The Big Event, which collectively involve more than 12,000 students.

RFL participants tout "the relay mindset" as a perfect companion to Ut Prosim; service is never far from their minds. On Wednesdays throughout the year, students wear shirts to show their support for the cause, with many displaying a bold slogan: "Fight like a Hokie."

Two Hokies who have fought hard for RFL, Kristin Canavera (Ph.D. child clinical psychology '11) and Alice Wagner (psychology '09), have witnessed cancer up close and have personally learned what it means to serve.

As a first-year graduate student, Canavera received shocking news right before Christmas 2008 that her father, David, had been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer. She moved back home to be his primary caregiver, managing his pain medications and sleeping in hospitals. "We felt like there was nothing we could do other than try to comfort him because there are currently no effective treatments for pancreatic cancer ... but I couldn't sit back and do nothing," she said. Her father's battle with cancer lasted only four-and-a-half months.

Canavera's response to a dismal situation was to find hope by helping others. She joined RFL and in her first year raised nearly $12,000 as a tribute to her father. Now, she is serving a third and final year as a member of the RFL executive committee, as well as organizing the first Cancer Research Symposium, which will take place on campus the week after the 2011 relay to highlight cancer research at Tech. She is also a nationally ranked RFL fundraiser, a designation bestowed upon the top fundraisers across the country.

Canavera sees her service work not only as deeply personal but also as an important part of what she learned at Tech. "My education here has trained me well in research and clinical skills within the clinical psychology Ph.D. program, but perhaps the most valuable lesson I have learned and will also take with me has been my experience of [following] through on Ut Prosim," she said.

Wagner also has seen firsthand what it means to "fight like a Hokie." She began her involvement in RFL as a freshman with her Alpha Phi sorority sisters, but the cause hit home when her mother was diagnosed with stage IV nonsmall-cell lung cancer just seven days before Wagner began her sophomore year. Over the next three years, Wagner's involvement with RFL intensified, from a participant to a committee member and finally to co-director her senior year. Because of the students' efforts along with Spencer's, the event was moved to the Drillfield, reminding people that service is at the heart of campus.

Wagner, whose mother walked in the Survivor's Lap each year and inspired her daughter to keep serving, described the importance of RFL and its emotional impact on her family.

"[My mother] fought hard enough that she and my dad were able to come up to Virginia Tech Relay For Life and walk in the Survivor's Lap. ... It was an incredibly emotional experience to join her on the track as her caregiver."

Wagner's mother outlived her three- to four-month prognosis because of her tenacity and clinical trials resulting from cancer research funding. Though her mother died in April 2010, Wagner said that her mother's relentlessness is still her inspiration to continue the fight.

"Without the Virginia Tech Relay For Life and the incredibly service-driven students at our great university, I don't think my mom would have been able to see me walk across the stage at graduation," Wagner said, adding "[I am] forever thankful for the impact that Hokies made on my life."

Wagner continues to follow the spirit of service fostered at Tech; she joined Teach For America after graduation and is teaching third grade in Nashville, Tenn., while continuing her work with ACS as a mentor to RFL chairpersons at Southeastern Conference schools.

Other Tech RFL alumni have taken to heart their service while in college and have continued after graduation. Burnheimer, who along with his younger brother helped enhance Radford University's RFL program, is still involved with ACS at the national and local levels.

Tech alumni continuously prove that Ut Prosim is not simply a university motto but a life motto that students carry with them long after leaving campus.

"When dedicated Hokies put their minds to something," Burnheimer said, "it not only will be completed but will be better and bigger than anyone imagined."

Hillary May (English '12) is a Virginia Tech Magazine intern.


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Winter 2010-11
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The spirt of Ut Prosim
"Other universities don't encourage their students to be selfless and want to do something more with their college career than just take classes. Tech does."
EMILY FEENEY (communication '11)
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Relay For Life at Virginia Tech
Relay For Life at Virginia Tech