For Virginia Tech’s Department of English, one of the best days of the year is the day of the Undergraduate Research Conference.
More than 45 students from across the university shared their research with faculty, parents, English department alumni, and fellow students during the event on March 25, 2011. The presentations covered subjects from Charles Dickens to Robert Frost, African-American literature to popular culture, document design to poetry.
Research, often understood to be a solitary endeavor, finds its fullest expression when discoveries are shared with others and opened up for discussion and collaboration. That’s why research conferences such as this one help undergraduate students discover and develop their voices.
One participant, Jessie Cohen, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English in May 2011, came to Virginia Tech with a plan to major in biology. But she made the jump to English her sophomore year when she realized she spent more time reading the work of Nobel Prize-winning author Derek Walcott than she did her biology textbooks.
Initially nervous about being an English major at a large technical school with comparatively little funding for the English department, Cohen said she found that the professors in the department surpassed her expectations. “To put it simply, my teachers are superheroes,” she said. “Not only have they taught me how to think and write critically about literature, but also, through their generous support and encouragement, they’ve helped me to recognize my own potential as a student and future teacher.”
She traveled to the University of Miami to present her paper — about the implications of female sexual expression and repression in The Bluest Eye and Sula, both by Toni Morrison — at the Atlantic Coast Conference Meeting of the Minds Conference, held April 15-17, 2011. The annual conference allows universities in the conference the opportunity to highlight the research excellence demonstrated by their undergraduates and for students to share their work with peers.
Joining her at the Meeting of the Minds was English major Emily Love, who also presented at the department’s conference. Her paper touched on gender roles in Victorian society and how those values were expressed by Charles Dickens. Love, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English in May 2011, said one of the great things about Virginia Tech is that research can be part of any major.
Rachel Holloway, associate dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, was the keynote speaker at the conference. She noted that research is transformative for students, and she asked the participants to reflect on both the process of research and the presentation of that research. “The culmination of research,” Holloway said, “is the opportunity to share it with others and answer questions about it.”
The Department of English uses gifts from alumni and friends to produce the Undergraduate Research Conference, as well as to help students such as Cohen and Love travel to national conferences.
Modest gifts can make a real difference to students who are able to expand their academic horizons because of such generosity, Holloway said. "Without such funding, opportunities for students to present their research would be in short supply," she said. "It is these kinds of opportunities that help make the Virginia Tech experience truly special."
If you’d like to help students travel to conferences, present their research, travel abroad, or enhance to their Virginia Tech experience in some other way, contact the Office of University Development at 540-231-2801 or 800-533-1144 or visit www.givingto.vt.edu.
Ample opportunity and support for undergraduate research sets Virginia Tech apart as an educational institution, and provides our students with the means to set themselves apart as experienced and competitive scholars.
Look through previous Spotlight stories