Last semester, Virginia Tech students — including two seniors pursuing a capstone project, Dahlia Alrawi and Murad Qureishy — met virtually twice a week with older adults from Warm Hearth Village in Blacksburg and a pair of siblings in their 70s from New Jersey and Narrows, Virginia. Each session lasted two hours — first with a coffee hour where students provided a discussion prompt, followed by an hour of playing Jeopardy, Wordle, or Family Feud. 

“I was really drawn to Building Bridges. There are a lot of service learning opportunities in this program, but I love working with the elderly,” said Alrawi, who graduated in May with degrees in human development and Arabic. “They have so much to offer, so many stories to tell that they don’t often have the opportunity to share. So I jumped at the opportunity to work with older adults.”

Building Bridges was launched in 2020 as a service learning opportunity in a First-Year Experiences course in the Department of Human Development and Family Science in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. The program, created during the pandemic to combat isolation and loneliness, connects undergraduates with older adults using Zoom meetings.

The three residents who participated last semester, two women and one man, were between their late 70s and early 90s. The residents at Warm Hearth Village, a retirement community 4 miles south of the Blacksburg campus, attended the online meet-ups using student laptops and tablets provided by Virginia Tech’s Center for Gerontology.

“We bring first-year students and graduating seniors together with the older adults to break down barriers and promote intergenerational communication, which is ultimately the goal of the program,” said Matthew Komelski, advanced instructor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science. “The program is intended to reduce isolation among seniors, but also we’re preparing our students to communicate across generations because many of them will be going into careers in medicine or physical or occupational therapy.

“If our students are uncomfortable communicating with people several generations older, it’s a barrier to service and providing care,” said Komelski. “So this program is really serving two populations, which is why it’s called Building Bridges.”

The program, now in its third year, was created out of necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic by Bethany Tsiaras, a human development major in Komelski’s senior capstone course. 

As a first-year student, Tsiaras began working at Warm Hearth Village through an introductory course in human development taught by Komelski, work she chose to continue through her sophomore and junior years. Then during her senior year, while taking virtual classes from her family’s home in Massachusetts, Tsiaras missed her visits to the senior community and worried how the residents were being affected by the pandemic. 

In response, Tsiaras and Komelski developed the idea of connecting seniors with first-year students through Zoom, launching Building Bridges.

With the program in place, Tsiaras went on a local television show in her hometown to invite people to participate. Eventually, through a network of personal and university connections, the virtual get-togethers would include people from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Massachusetts, along with several locations in Virginia, including Warm Hearth Village. 

“I’m 100 percent sure this program changed the direction of my education. My first, initial interactions with older adults were so meaningful. I realized I loved service but I didn’t know it could become a career,” said Tsiaras '21, who now serves as the director of Wesleyan Engaged, which focuses on civic engagement and service learning at Virginia Wesleyan University in Virginia Beach.

“The creation of Building Bridges was the first time I thought, ‘Wow, I can take what I learned in the classroom and create something in the real world,’” she said. 

For David Jones, a life-enrichment coordinator at Warm Hearth Village, the program has clear benefits for his clients.

“One of the participants was receiving nursing care and was unable to leave her room but was mentally very sharp,” said Jones. “When I heard about Building Bridges, I thought the program would be perfect for her. The time our residents have spent with the students from Building Bridges has been invaluable.”

For people working in geriatric care, recent research from the pandemic has only reinforced their understanding that social isolation creates bad outcomes for the elderly, ranging from a “failure to thrive” to increased mortality rates. 

“We often think of loneliness in an emotional context, but it can cause damage to neurons in ways that hamper cognition," said Komelski. “There are also correlations between loneliness and cardiovascular disease.”

The benefits of Building Bridges, however, are not limited to just the older adults in the program.

“This provides our senior students the experience of planning, delivering, and evaluating a real-world program,” said Komelski. “It’s really ambitious. They’re aren’t many courses at the university that will take students through all those steps but our seniors can do it — they’re so capable.”

The program is part of the adaptive brain and behavior minor, which Komelski also leads. The most popular minor in the Pathways General Education program, it enrolled 212 students during the spring semester, most of whom were pursuing careers in education, social work, counseling, or health care.

For the students who served in Building Bridges, many would like to join a Zoom meeting after graduation and see how the program has progressed. 

“I’ve been able to see the impact this program has made on the community both during and after COVID,” said Emily Rice '23 and a peer mentor during the course last semester. “I hope after we graduate this program will take off into something much bigger because I’ve  seen the impact it has on the older adults that participate with the program.”

Written by Will Rizzo