While taking in the spectacular view at McAfee Knob during her first year at Virginia Tech, Lanxing Fu '12 found her place.

"My family wasn't outdoorsy," said Fu. "It wasn't until I came to Virginia Tech and made friends with people who wanted to show me the land and share that experience with me that I became taken with nature. This area is unlike anywhere I had lived — the mountains are just incredible. I was in awe of everything I witnessed. I felt humbled and small, in a good way, and connected to something bigger than myself in a really good way."

Fu related several stories of such discovery — new places, community, creativity, collaboration, and compassion — during her commencement address to the College of Architecture, Arts, and Design's Class of 2023. Now a theater artist in New York City, Fu traced the steps of her career through fear and failure, accomplishments and awards, and colleagues and communities. Her mission now is to help others turn toward the natural world and be less extractive in relationships with each other.

From Herndon, Virginia, Fu took a big step out of her comfort zone when she found herself on the challenging trail to McAfee Knob.

"I didn't tell anyone it was my first hike," Fu said. "The people I went with were experienced hikers, and they wanted to be at the top at sunset. Just halfway up the trail, I was already struggling. Then they said we would not make it and we'd have to run. Run? This was the most I had walked uphill in my entire life. Now I was supposed to run? Eventually, I did make it to the top and took it all in."

That view of the Blue Ridge Mountains gave Fu an entirely new perspective.

"After that, I tried to explore the area as much as possible," Fu said. "I went on many hikes and spent a lot of time on the river. We would find a little spot to pull over, swim, or hang out. I had a car, so I would drive further south and to south-southwest Virginia, like the Grayson Highlands State Park, and find places to hike and camp there."

Fu also had several professors who encouraged their students to sit beneath trees in reflection, using the time to think about their relationship with nature. Fu found the large campus had its benefits, but she also enjoyed having her small, close-knit community. The friend group who shared their love of the land also encouraged her to get involved with environmental groups on campus. She took part in protests related to environmental justice and mountaintop removal in the area.

In addition to double-majoring in theatre arts and humanities, science, and environment, Fu added a minor in civic agriculture and participated in the 21st Century Studies program, with immersive experiences in all. She worked for a local farm as part of her capstone project in civic agriculture, and she was introduced to international travel through a service project in Nicaragua during her first year. The 21st Century Studies program helped her add stamps to her passport — she visited Morocco, Spain, and Sri Lanka on one memorable voyage, one of many "study away" trips she would take between semesters.

"My time at Virginia Tech was full of experiences like that," Fu said. "I was always encouraged to try things, and if I wanted to do something, I was told, 'Do it. Make it happen.'"

Opportunities were plentiful, and Fu took advantage of many, especially in the theatre department.

"I think that I'm lucky to have gone to Virginia Tech because, from my first semester, I was allowed to be part of productions, even performing in shows, and all of the classes were very hands-on — that's what is unique about Virginia Tech," Fu explained. "By the time I graduated, I had worked on something every semester. We could try and maybe fail, or try and get better, instead of waiting and waiting and waiting until we were 'senior enough' to try."

Fu's Virginia Tech experience helped her combine her theatre background with other social justice initiatives. Fu joined the ensemble of students in "Building Home," a thesis project conceived by then-graduate student Jon Catherwood-Ginn. The ensemble was part of a commission from the New River Valley Planning District and under the guidance of Bob Leonard, a professor in the School of Performing Arts who coordinates the Master of Fine Arts in directing and public dialogue.

The ensemble worked with disenfranchised communities in the New River Valley to help share stories and perspectives, shedding light on the community's needs. Plays were performed for policymakers, giving these marginalized community members a voice in the process.

"Every creative process I have been a part of has transformed me, and this ensemble experience had an incredible influence on me," Fu said. "It showed me that anyone can use their art or the way they create to champion something that will be helpful for others."

Since 2015, Fu has served as the co-director of the New York City-based Superhero Clubhouse, an interdisciplinary ensemble practicing theatre as "a collaborative resilience in for climate and environmental justice." Other recent projects on her lengthy resume include an eco-playwrighting program as part of the award-winning Big Green Theater in the New York City public schools in Brooklyn and Queens and teaching an undergraduate theatre course at Columbia University in spring 2023.

A 2019 invitation to the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis posed a new challenge for Fu. She was asked to create a play based on the climate research of Fabian Wagner, a senior research scientist at the institute. Fu wrote "Piece of Cake," which traverses a century of humans' changing relationship to resources through an absurd, limitless feast.

When Fu showed Wagner the first draft of the piece, she was a little nervous, as she explained in her address to the graduates in Lane Stadium. Wagner replied that he wished he could include the questions the play posed in his reports. "Artists show things," Wagner told her. "How things really are."

"Architects, artists, designers — we have the immense power and responsibility of constructing the skeleton of human society," Fu said in her commencement address. "Stories, tools, spaces — physical, metaphysical, and virtual — these are the bones of our culture."

Stories and storytelling have been the backbone of Fu's life on and around the stage. A performer, playwright, producer, director, artist, educator, and most of all, a creator, she emphasized her mission in the commencement address, telling the graduates and guests, "What we create ... will guide us toward a regenerative relationship with nature and offer pathways for more people to embrace vulnerability, compassion, and honesty as guiding principles."

Watch the archive video of the College of Architecture, Arts, and Design 2023 commencement ceremony here.

Written by Rose Carter