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Character Clearinghouse

Florida State University

VT Engage, 2013 Good Practice Recipient

Clearinghouse is pleased to announce that VT Engage: The Community Learning Collaborative at Virginia Tech University has won the Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values Best Practices Award. This award recognizes a program or practice that has contributed significantly to the field of college student character and values development.


Gary Kirk, Director

Jake Grohs, Associate Director for Student Engagement




1. You describe your organization as one that offers programs “that develop character and commitment to the common good” ( gobbler connect). How does your organization make connections to character development? Upon what theories are your practices grounded?

JG: One of our three core values as an organization is Social & Ethical Reflexivity:

We promote programs and opportunities that encourage participants to think about how their perspectives, biases, and values influence the work that they do. By recognizing the position of “self” in service, our philosophy of service strives to deconstruct hegemony and holds social justice as a central tenet of community engagement. (Mission)

Reflection on experience and exploring the broader context of any particular service-learning activity or course is a foundational element of everything we do. In this context, effective reflection involves exploring not only how experiences connect to overarching social issues but also how one’s own personal experiences and passions connect to it.

For theoretical framework, we hold Parker Palmer’s Habits of the Heart (2011), Baxter Magolda’s Self-authorship theory (2001), and Peter Block’s ideas of community and citizenship (1998, 2009) to be some guiding concepts.

2. Do you see yourself working in service-oriented programs for an extended time?

JG: I do. I feel that civic engagement and civic learning outcomes are critically important, especially in considering the discussion about the purpose, identity, and future of higher education. By working in these areas, I hope to help faculty, students, and the institution embrace the role of education in shaping the world in which we live—and that we as educators have an inherent obligation to handle that responsibility with great care regardless of one’s field or specific job duties.

3. What are “Get on the Bus”events, and how do students and community benefit from these events?

GK: For students who are new to service, VT Engage offers its Get on the Bus program, a flash service experience that takes up to 36 students to a local or regional nonprofit partner site for a half-day of work and discussion. Recent flash service sites have focused on (a) food security—Feeding America (Salem) and Plenty! of Floyd, (b) sustainability—the Dining Services Garden (Kentland Farms), and (c) environment—the Mountain Lake Conservancy (Pembroke). After several hours of volunteer labor, students participate in a facilitated discussion that ties the day’s work to their own academic studies and to the character competencies that VT Engage seeks to impact (e.g., cultural competency, community orientation). Flash service provides an opportunity for students to gauge their interest in service. It lowers entry barriers and creates clear pathways to enter into longer-term relationships with community agencies or to take on leadership roles in other VT Engage programs.

4. Please describe the criteria for selection of students who are awarded the John E. Dooley Student Engagement Grant (JEDSEG).

GK: The primary criteria for judging applications to the JEDSEG award are (1) alignment of the proposed project with our core values (Social & Ethical Reflexivity, Authentic Community Investment, and Responsible Action Grounded in Scholarship); (2) a convincing, feasible plan to make a positive impact in partner communities and/or organizations; and (3) a realistic plan for assessing the project.

5. What opportunities does the Engagement Showcase offer students?

GK: At Virginia Tech, April is Ut Prosim Month, a celebration of the university’s motto, which means “That I May Serve.” One of the hallmark events during this month is the Engagement Showcase, a poster session highlighting student engagement projects. This event draws attention to students, faculty, and community partners who have been outstanding vanguards for engagement work at Virginia Tech. It provides a forum for disseminating information about the truly inspiring work that our students undertake in tandem with their studies to an audience of faculty, staff, administrators, and community members.

Eric Kaufman and Jake Grohs

Eric Kaufman and Jake Grohs

6. How does student engagement in the Coalition for Refugee Resettlement (CRR) serve the greater good in Virginia Tech’s community?

GK: The Coalition for Refugee Resettlement (CRR) project started as a grant-funded, center-led initiative several years ago. The project has evolved over time and, recently, has become a student-led, center-affiliated initiative. Students involved in CRR have made significant contributions to Roanoke, a community in which Virginia Tech has a large presence, by providing tutoring to children of refugees, English language and citizenship classes to adult refugees, and assisting refugees in seeking social services and navigating their new community in the absence of a pre-existing social network. While the refugee community has benefited in numerous ways from these interactions, students have also gained exposure to new cultural perspectives, learned skillsets related to teaching and learning, developed leadership competencies ranging from coordination and planning to fundraising and grant writing, and been given the opportunity to build a long-term relationship between two dynamic groups.

7. What is SERVE and what is the role of student reflection in the program?

JG: The Students Engaging and Responding through Volunteer Experiences Living Learning Community (SERVE LLC) is a program where students explore, enact, and embrace the university’s motto of Ut Prosim – “That I May Serve.” Students take a common service-learning course series, participate in civic and social activities together, and build a service-focused community in a residence hall setting. The SERVE LLC is a signature program of VT Engage: The Community Learning Collaborative at Virginia Tech.

Student reflection is a consistent element throughout all programming—written or video reflection is a primary means of assessment in the LDRS course series, group reflection occurs in the context of every service experience, and there are opportunities in the hall for both structured and unstructured reflection.

8. Please give some examples of service immersion trips and the many levels of student involvement in this initiative.

JG: Service immersion trips are student-led weekend or weeklong experiences that range from regional to international. Past examples include Exploring Urban Homelessness in Charlotte, NC; Home Repair in Mullens, WV; Public Health in Charlestown, WV; Refugee Resettlement in Roanoke, VA; and Public Health in Hato Mayor, Dominican Republic. All of these trips are facilitated by two student co-leaders with extensive coaching/mentoring by VT Engage faculty and student staff.

9. Please describe any international service trips that you have sponsored.

JG: We have sponsored two student-led international service immersion trips to the Dominican Republic working with Community Service Alliance (CSA). One was focused on public health with families with HIV/AIDS while the other involved working with at-risk youth to develop leadership competencies while also learning basic public health and computer skills training. The trips were for one week each and were led by two students who had been mentored both pre and post-trip (check out the student-run blog here).

We also have co-led an interfaith international service immersion experience for 10 days working with CSA in the Dominican Republic as part of a Virginia Tech response to the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge (see here for a story on this project).

10. What are some of the greatest challenges you have encountered as a leader in VT Engage and how have you worked to make these positive opportunities for growth?

JG: Two challenges tumble out pretty quickly for me—(1) the cycle of critically questioning “are we doing any good?” and (2) garnering resources and support for our programs.

The first challenge is one that our office wrestles with a lot together. The notion of service is both beautifully innocent and marred by ignorance. By facilitating some of the activities we do, we often perpetuate some archaic paradigms (that we have all the answers, that our way of life or education, etc., is somehow better than those we are “helping”) in a hope that we can grow to be less judgmental, more inclusive, and critically reflective humans hoping to be a part of a more just, more human world. But, as we remember that we are playing very small roles in a much larger, complex system, it is easy to become bogged down by challenges, or to be frozen by the possibility of a misstep (click here for more details). I think the key for me personally has been in openly questioning the “good” in our work so that we can hopefully stay as true to our values as possible, and also in trying to identify for myself what I see to be “signs of success” even if they are tough to systematically assess. By identifying and noticing these “little wins,” I can maintain hope while still being critically reflective. I was hoping for a much more coherent explanation of that—but I think I’m still trying to sort it all out.

The second challenge is one I’m sure many of you have faced before, but for me it has been a first time. Quality work takes resources. This was something I have always known, but for the most part, I had been on the more rewarding aspect of this—the “aha moments,” the powerful reflections, the deep experiences in community. However, as I and others have worked to grow some of our programs, that has involved more time with challenging issues like resources and institutionalization than a series of awe-inspiring aha-moments about service or leadership or life. While I have grieved this shift at times because it doesn’t always feel as personally fulfilling—I deeply value the work and have begun to understand that now I can be most effective in struggling to find adequate resources—resources that enable others to facilitate and experience those moments that are full of learning and insight about the world in which we live. Guess we never stop growing up and learning, eh?

11. Your program is now an award-winning program. How has winning the Institute’s Best Practices Award influenced your program and your work?

JG: The vast majority of our program is student-led and the biggest influence of winning this award for our community has been in encouraging and validating that student work. While we as a program and an institution value the work in both word and deed, the external recognition has really helped students understand that they are uniquely contributing to something pretty special—and to keep at it!

12. In college life today students are encouraged to join many activities and options at a time of considerable personal freedom. Do you think that a college can encourage students too much to be involved in co-curricular activities? Why or why not? Do you think there should be more efforts in connecting student activities to their academic experiences? Why or why not?

JG: Like many things—some sort of balance is likely the best approach. I think there certainly is a danger of valuing breadth over depth and perpetuating a culture of action and busyness without learning to be present, to reflect, or to prioritize people more than things or achievements. With that said, there is no clear formula on this.

With respect to connection to academics, I think we should always invite in reflective conversation about how individuals are piecing together their experiences. I think the divide between academic, social, and civic realms are often much blurrier lines than we sometimes portray and so I am very supportive of initiatives (some ePortfolios, for example) that invite interconnection and complexity.

13. Some critics think that students should stick to work that relates only to their academic education. In other words, it is the not the business of higher education, at least public universities, to teach students to be virtuous citizens. How would you respond to these comments?

JG: For me, this is one of those “The Emperor’s New Clothes” kinds of situations. I can understand how people sometimes get nervous when we talk about “teaching students to be virtuous citizens”—in part because, for some, citizenship implies some sort of political beliefs, and perhaps for others, because it implies teaching some “standard” value system (whose values?). However, In my opinion, higher education itself, and especially residential institutions, are teaching “citizenship” daily whether we intend to or not. For example, how a professor handles difference helps to challenge or reinforce how a student treats difference in the future. This is particularly salient given the power dynamics often implicit in schooling (the teacher has all the answers, “answers” cannot be challenged). So, if we are all intentionally or unintentionally teaching each other “citizenship” in all of our interactions (in classrooms, offices, residence halls, etc.), I would much prefer we open up the conversation, embrace this responsibility, and critically reflect as we carefully move forward rather than pretend it doesn’t happen or that it is the business of someone else.


Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2001). Making their own way: Narratives for transforming higher education to promote self-development. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Block, P. (1998). From leadership to citizenship. In L.C. Spears (Eds.), Insights on leadership: Service, stewardship, spirit, and servant-leadership. New York: Wiley.

Block, P. (2009). Community: The structure of belonging. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler

Palmer, P. J. (2011). Higher education and habits of the heart: Restoring democracy’s infrastructure.Journal of College and Character, 12(3), 1–6. doi: 10.2202/1940-1639.1823

VT Engage: The Community Learning Collaborative (2012). Mission, vision, and core values. Retrieved from


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Character Clearinghouse is an online center of information about research, curricula, and practices relating to the moral development of college students and features resources such as program descriptions, interviews, and other types of articles. […] Find out more »