Two mountains and a marathon hike stood between him and his future.

The 16-year-old laced his boots, picked up his stick, and started hiking.

The year: 1872.

A new military institute called the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College had announced plans to open in Blacksburg.

In response, William Addison Caldwell and his brother left the family farm and marched 26 miles through Virginia wilderness. Caldwell followed the path all the way to campus and registered for classes.

The school, now known as Virginia Tech, had its first student.

Caldwell and his fellow freshmen enrolled in staple courses such as math and agriculture. But the first-ever curriculum at Virginia Tech also focused on another set of disciplines crucial to society’s advancement.

The humanities.

Now, 150 years later, the humanities continue to serve as a bedrock of Virginia Tech’s growth, mission, and impact on the world.

As part of the university’s Sesquicentennial Celebration, the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences will host the first-ever Virginia Tech Humanities Week Feb. 7–11.

The free, weeklong series will spotlight the importance of the humanities in addressing global issues historically and in the future.

Virginia Tech students, alumni, faculty, and staff — along with local residents, prospective students, and the general public — are welcome to attend.

Programming is scheduled to include in-person opportunities such as presentations and workshops. Many of the events will also be livestreamed and available to watch through advance registration through this link.

“Our goal is to showcase the wide variety of work being done in the humanities here at Virginia Tech and demonstrate how deeply the humanities enrich our world,” said Matthew Gabriele, chair of the Virginia Tech Humanities Week Steering Committee.

The celebration will include the Nikki Giovanni Celebration of Poetry on Feb. 8.

A tribute to the written word, the event will feature acclaimed poet Nikki Giovanni, University Distinguished Professor of English at Virginia Tech. Giovanni will announce the winners of the Giovanni-Steger Poetry Prize, an annual poetry contest open to undergraduates across the university. Winning students will read their words as part of the event.

On Feb. 10, philosopher and ethicist Kwame Anthony Appiah will deliver the keynote address for Humanities Week. Appiah earned the National Humanities Medal in 2011 for “seeking eternal truths in the contemporary world,” according to the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Appiah serves as a professor of philosophy and law at New York University and authors “The Ethicist” column for the New York Times.

The full slate of Humanities Week events is scheduled as follows:

Feb. 7, 4–5:30 p.m.: Fall Beans, Shucky Beans, Soup Beans: Perspectives in Song and Story

Feb. 7, 6–7 p.m.: Disability Culture at Virginia Tech

Feb. 7, 7–8 p.m.: Ever-Elusive Literacy: It Hugs Us, Then Runs, Hides, and Jumps Out to Shock Us (Lecture by literary scholar Trudier Harris)

Feb. 8, 5–6 p.m.: Nikki Giovanni Celebration of Poetry

Feb. 9, 5–6 p.m.: Pop-Up Reading Group 1

Feb. 9, 6–7 p.m.: Ethics Bowl Demonstration

Feb. 10, 7—8 p.m.: Living Well: The Humanities as a Preparation for Life (Keynote by ethicist Kwame Anthony Appiah)

Feb. 11, 4–5 p.m.: Visualizing Virginia Tech History

Feb. 11, 5–6 p.m.: Pop-Up Reading Group 2

Feb. 11, 6–7:30 p.m.: Researching the Holocaust as It Unfolded

Humanities Week came to fruition following collaboration among leaders in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

Gabriele, who serves as chair of the Department of Religion and Culture, met last fall with Center for Humanities Director Sylvester Johnson and fellow department chairs in the college to discuss a report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The report focused on the state of the humanities in education and offered examples of how universities could best highlight disciplines in the field.

The meeting sparked an idea: dedicate a full week to celebrate and demonstrate the importance of the humanities at Virginia Tech.

Laura Belmonte, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, met with the team and voiced enthusiastic support for the idea. She suggested launching Humanities Week in February, the month in which the college planned to commemorate Virginia Tech’s Sesquicentennial Celebration and the college’s historical contributions to the university.

“The College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences places humanity at the core of everything we do.” said Belmonte. “From inculcating foundational skills in critical analysis and communication to imparting a deep understand of ethics, history, languages, literature, religion, and philosophy, the humanities play an essential role in helping us understand ourselves and our world.”

The Humanities Week Steering Committee requested proposals for programming from faculty, staff, alumni, and undergraduate and graduate students. After receiving 35 submissions, the committee selected seven to complement the Giovanni-Steger Poetry Prize event and the keynote address.

“We were fortunate to receive a huge number of wonderful proposals and select seven representing an array of outstanding work in the humanities,” said Gabriele. “The committee was thrilled by the thoughtfulness of these proposals and the opportunity to share these experiences with the Virginia Tech community and beyond.”

Members of the university community can benefit from Humanities Week programming in several ways. For students, the events emphasize the growing need for the humanities across a variety of professions.

“Study after study points to how careers based on humanities degrees are valued in a range of fields, such as the technology industry along with nonprofits and public service realms,” said Gabriele.

For alumni, Gabriele said Humanities Week offers an opportunity to reconnect with the college and the university. He also hopes the events inspire engagement with the Blacksburg community.

“Ultimately, Humanities Week offers an opportunity to enrich, inform, and better understand why the humanities matter from historical, global, and individual perspectives,” said Gabriele. “We’re thrilled to host this inaugural celebration and look forward to welcoming all of our guests.”

Written by Andrew Adkins