Cara Patrick had the typical thoughts and worries of any freshman running through her mind during her first week at Virginia Tech. As a natural introvert, Patrick, a public relations major, was nervous, wondering how she would fit in and make new friends in her classes. 

That was until she entered COMM 1004: First-Semester Experience, a required course for all incoming first-year students in the School of Communication. In the fall of 2016, Buddy Howell created the Hokie Undergraduate Groups (H.U.G.) program for the course. Each incoming class is divided into small groups of 10 to 13 students and assigned a H.U.G. leader. 

The H.U.G. format in COMM 1004 has been the launching pad for countless students just like Patrick over the past five years to discover their purpose and help ease the transition into college.

“Having that experience one of the first days of classes at Virginia Tech was awesome,” Patrick said. “Having someone who had only 10 to 12 people to take care of say, ‘I’m going to invest in you. I want to make sure you have a great experience in this school.’ That was very important to me.”

It wasn’t always this way, though. Howell, an advanced instructor in the School of Communication, realized there was something missing from the course when he began teaching it in 2013. He recognized his lecture-style format was a disservice to the students. Now, Howell uses guest speakers and student panels to showcase the variety of opportunities available at Virginia Tech.

“I knew the class just wasn’t meeting their needs,” Howell said. “They have all these other lecture-style courses. I felt the class wasn’t meeting their needs relationally.”

The H.U.G. program created a dramatic change in the course. H.U.G. leaders — students who had previously taken the class — help build community and create a smaller, more intimate setting inside the classroom where freshmen can flourish.

“You’re going to listen to a sophomore who was just a year ago sitting right where you’re sitting,” Howell said. “They know what you’re feeling and what your anxieties are. You develop a different sort of bond with the peer who leads your group than you do with a faculty member who is standing in front of the room and giving you information.”

“It’s often pretty intimidating to talk to professors, especially as a freshman,” added Tyler Harris, a multimedia journalism major who’s been a H.U.G. leader the past two years. “You don’t know exactly what you’re doing. Having a peer be an extra resource is pretty useful.”

During the course, one of the first items that Howell displays on a PowerPoint slide is the HokieBird with wings outstretched for a hug. It’s indicative of the softening and welcoming sense that Howell prescribes in his teaching, and it becomes fleshed out through the H.U.G. leaders, developing a model of success for freshmen.

The human touch and welcoming atmosphere found in COMM 1004 was never needed more than this past fall, Howell said, when the COVID-19 pandemic completely altered the college experience for incoming freshmen. Many students were left struggling to build connections and navigate difficulties in this new virtual world. 

With the help of Howell and the H.U.G. leaders, many of these students were able to locate what they had been missing. In this hybrid class, time was allotted at the end of each session for the H.U.G.s to meet socially distanced in-person or in breakout rooms and go over highs and lows of the past week. H.U.G. leaders held “office hours” when course request time came around, and they grabbed a bite to eat with their group throughout the semester, cultivating community even in the most challenging times.

It all goes back to Howell’s original teaching philosophy.

“The old saying is people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” Howell said. “When you really care about people, they know it and they appreciate it, especially when you’re that scared, wide-eyed first-year college student.

“The fact that the H.U.G. leaders have been through a year or two of college and they said, ‘We’re here and we’re going to go through this together,’ I think that’s what made all the difference.”

The H.U.G. leaders receive nurturance of their own. During their weekly meetings, Howell insists on hearing an update about what is happening in each H.U.G. leader’s life before they can move on to business. 

Patrick caught wind of this tradition before she even became a H.U.G. leader this past fall.

“When he emailed to tell me, ‘I think you’d be great. I trust you’ — that was valuable to me and made me feel wanted as a H.U.G. leader,” Patrick said. “He is so invested in all his students in the first-year experience class, but he’s also invested in us. His investment in us helps us to invest in our fellow students.”

“Buddy is the greatest,” Harris said. “He’s always uplifting and very engaging. He gave us a lot of leeway with what we could do and how we interacted with our students. He actively cares about us and wants to know about us. That goes a long way.”

Howell’s work has not gone unnoticed. In December 2020, he was recognized by the Office of First-year Experiences and the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning with the Excellence in Teaching First-Year Seminars Award for his work in COMM 1004. Last month, Howell represented Virginia Tech at the Annual Conference on the First Year Experience.

Sticking true to his form, Howell put all praise aside and credited the key cogs in the machine that is COMM 1004: the H.U.G. leaders.

“If it were just me talking in front of a bunch of first-year students, there would be nothing award-worthy about that,” Howell said. “The recognition speaks to the success of the work of the H.U.G. leaders in making this an excellent program. I wish there were an award for them.”

Written by Cory Van Dyke

H.U.G. Leaders
Buddy Howell alongside the group of H.U.G. leaders from the fall of 2019. Photo courtesy of Buddy Howell.