Two of the three undergraduates who won Virginia Tech’s Common Book Project essay contest are majors in the Department of Communication.

The contest, titled “My Virginia Tech Values: An Essay Event,” asked students to submit essays around a prompt: What does it mean to you to live a life of service and how do you make life choices that embody this value?

The contest winners are:

  • Nicole Guilbault of Sterling, Virginia, a first-year student majoring in business information technology in the Pamplin College of Business;
  • Lillian Phan of Chantilly, Virginia, a first-year student majoring in communication studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences; and
  • Madeline Yaskowski of Leesburg, Virginia, a first-year student majoring in public relations and German in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

The prompt was inspired by the university’s Common Book for 2015-17, The Heart and the Fist, by Eric Greitens. The book details his life of service through academics as a Rhodes and Truman Scholar, as well as roles with humanitarian organizations and service as a U.S. Navy SEAL. After his military service, Greitens founded The Mission Continues, a nonprofit that challenges veterans to serve in communities across the U.S.

Contest submissions were not supposed to be a book report on the Common Book, but rather an essay that used the Common Book as an inspiration to showcase how the writer also demonstrates service.

“The theme this year connected to the values of the Common Book, which also resonate with the culture of Virginia Tech, embodied in our motto of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve),” said Jennifer Culhane, director of first-year academic initiatives in the Office of First-Year Experiences. “As a member of the judging committee, it was inspiring to see the varied ways that students truly live that motto.”

Guilbuilt related her experience teaching swimming lessons to an eight-year-old boy with autism to an experience the Common Book author had in Rwanda, helping a boy with an infected wound who had been ignored by others. “While this may seem like a small instance of service,” she wrote, “it made a world of difference to the little boy, just as learning to swim had for Jacob. Random acts of kindness are some of the greatest examples of public service and can constitute change in a community.”

Yaskowski’s essay looked at the culture of service at Virginia Tech and how students extend beyond some of the university’s well-known service events, such as Relay for Life and The Big Event. “Kindness has a domino effect: Once you act kind to others, they will pay it forward and it will never end,” she wrote. “Kindness — an extension of integrity — is easy to do and can create waves in the world.”

Phan described how she and a friend created a nonprofit and distributed school supplies to students at an impoverished school in India one summer. “I have always had the opportunity and resources to strive in school, but I did not realize how privileged I was until meeting children who did not even have the opportunity — the chance,” she wrote. “These children are dedicated to their education and to making a person out of themselves. Some of them just needed the supplies and others needed the love and encouragement.”

The winning essays are available to read on the Common Book Project website. The winners were recognized at the Board of Visitors President’s Luncheon on April 5.

Written by Alison Matthiessen