BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech is welcoming students back to campus beginning this weekend as the university hopes to “return to normal” after the pandemic upended the past year.
Nearly 10,000 students will move into dorms, including the university’s newest Creativity and Innovation District residence hall—which sits where the former University Club was located. The new dorm supports living-learning communities, which help connect mostly first-year students and peers with similar interests through activities so they can have a more integrated educational experience.
More than 600 students will live in the new, six-story residence hall, and it’ll be made up of three living-learning communities that emphasize creativity and artistic development, design and construction, or entrepreneurship. They’ll be able to participate in critiques of their artwork or business ideas, listen to visiting speakers, or go on field trips in the community.
“I like that it has more like-minded students and opportunities,” said Alexander Harmening, 18, of Greensboro, North Carolina, who moved into the building during the week.
Grant Hamming, program director for the Rhizome living-learning community about construction and planning, is preparing a host of activities, such as inviting students to visit a farm in Floyd County and come to the farmer’s market to learn about food stamps.
“There is power in learning outside of the classroom,” Hamming said.
Living-learning communities, while growing in popularity on college campuses in the past several years, are not new. Virginia Tech has 15 living-learning communities.
The residence hall anchors the Creativity and Innovation District that is made up of a handful of surrounding buildings, including the Moss Arts Center, the School of Visual Arts, the School of Performing Arts and Newman Library.
The Creativity and Innovation District residence hall has more features than the typical dormitory. There are outdoor learning classrooms, a performance hall and study rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows.
The university is hoping that the living-learning communities can be especially beneficial to students returning to campus after a challenging year living through the pandemic. For the last year, Virginia Tech offered a mix of remote and in-person learning, but through heavy planning and other measures, like requiring students to be vaccinated to live and learn on campus, the university is aiming to provide a traditional educational experience.
“The foundation of a residential college is traditions,” said Sean Grube, director of Housing and Residence Life. “Students crave mentorship, and that is something they didn’t get during the pandemic.”
Tim Baird is eager to offer that mentorship, and he’s ready to have the door to his home open to students who need to talk to someone about struggling with a class or going through a breakup. He’s an associate professor of geography, and he’s living in an apartment in the residence hall with his wife, three children and dog.
“The pandemic was transformative for us as a family,” Baird said. “We got closer, and we had secure jobs. But I’m sensitive that some people had crushing experiences. Disruption can cut you off at the knees, but it can be formative and push you forward. Let the pandemic and college change you in a positive way.”
With the more contagious delta variant spreading, Baird said some activities might have to be tweaked, like holding events outside rather than inside. He plans to have people who live and work in the region come and speak and would like to host dinner events to talk with students and help them connect what they’re learning with the real world.
“If you love learning, you’ll learn,” Baird said. “So how do you teach that? How do you teach them to learn something? It can’t just be me talking at them, it’s got to be relational.”