The Virginia Tech Innovation Campus reached two big milestones this semester with the arrival of Vice President and Executive Director Lance Collins and the launch of its inaugural class of students.

University leaders have been working toward both of these goals since the Innovation Campus was announced in November 2018 as part of the state’s successful effort to attract Amazon to Northern Virginia. What they could not have predicted was how the spread of COVID-19 would shape both of these events.

“This is a semester like no other, with new challenges and opportunities to make a difference in the world. You are part of something historic, the first class of Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus,” Virginia Tech President Tim Sands said in a video message welcoming the students.

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When COVID-19 escalated in early March, Collins had recently been named as the Innovation Campus’s inaugural executive director. Rather than preparing for his move to Alexandria, he found himself scrambling at Cornell University, where he was wrapping up a decade-long stint as dean of its College of Engineering.

While it made for a busier spring that he anticipated, Collins finished at Cornell and moved to Alexandria this summer. He’s living just a few blocks from where the Innovation Campus will eventually be located in North Potomac Yard.

Now, as he begins to lead Virginia Tech’s newest campus, Collins feels that the university’s mission in the world has become even more relevant and urgent than it was just a few months ago.

“Virginia Tech’s dedication to service and its emphasis on interdisciplinary teams put it in an ideal position to adapt to changing conditions and to build upon the lessons that we’re learning during the process,” Collins said. “While our new campus in Alexandria won’t open until 2024, we aren’t waiting to have an impact.”

Collins started at Virginia Tech just a few days before the first Innovation Campus Class 79 students based in the Washington, D.C., region pursuing master’s degrees in computer science and computer engineering — started their fall semester.

“These students will help build the foundation of the Innovation Campus as we expand programs and develop a new curriculum,” Collins said. “I look forward to working with them to create a new type of graduate program with a strong emphasis on engagement with companies and federal agencies.”

The first Innovation Campus cohort includes 26 students enrolled in Virginia Tech’s new Master of Engineering in computer science program – the first degree designed specifically for the Innovation Campus. The other three Innovation Campus degree programs are Master of Science in computer science, Master of Science in computer engineering, and Master of Engineering in computer engineering.

Virginia Tech has a long history of graduate education in the Washington, D.C., region, including graduate students in computer science and computer engineering. The Innovation Campus is part of the university’s commitment to help double the commonwealth’s tech-talent pipeline in the coming decades by increasing the number of graduate students in computer science and computer engineering from roughly 100 students to more than 700 students in the next decade.

Overall, Virginia Tech’s graduate student enrollment in computer science and computer engineering is up more than 20 percent this semester compared to last year.

“We are really excited to grow these programs and are encouraged by the increased level of interest and enrollment, despite the uncertainties created by COVID-19,” said Julia Ross, the Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean of Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering.

Virginia Tech’s recruiting tactics to drive enrollment in computer science and computer engineering include scholarships to Virginia-based students, articulation agreements with other universities, and adding online courses and skills-based modules to help students fulfill prerequisites for graduate study. The university is also offering a 4+1 master of engineering program that allows undergraduate Virginia Tech students to take credits that count toward a master’s degree in their senior year, and then complete a master’s degree in just one additional year of full-time study.

Virginia Tech Innovation Campus classes are online this semester because of the pandemic. Faculty offices and course instruction for the Innovation Campus students will operate out of Virginia Tech’s existing location in Falls Church while the new campus is being built in Alexandria.

This month, Virginia Tech will launch start-up space at 3000 Potomac Avenue (National Industries for the Blind building). The new space – adjacent to the future campus location in North Potomac Yard – will house Collins’ office and feature a café-style area for student workgroups, seminars, and community engagement.

The Innovation Campus will make its home in the first phase of a new mixed-use development and innovation district in North Potomac Yard that JBG SMITH is developing near the future Potomac Yard Metrorail Station.

Approvals in June from the Alexandria City Council cleared the way for the construction of roads, utilities, and other infrastructure to begin later this year. The university expects to break ground on the first academic building in 2021 and welcome students, faculty, and staff into the completed building in fall 2024.

“While I’m just getting started in my new role, Virginia Tech has had a strong team of leaders moving this campus forward for nearly two years,” Collins said. “I’m excited to capitalize on the momentum they created.”