Five students and one faculty member were honored at the recent Aspire! Award celebration on Oct. 20 at The Inn at Virginia Tech and Skelton Conference Center. Student Affairs developed the initiative to acknowledge the continuous, intentional service of Hokies within their communities. 

Established in 2011, the Aspirations for Student Learning further Student Affair’s culture of life-long learning by encouraging community members to embody the five aspirations through interpersonal awareness, intentional actions, and self-reflection. 

The recipients are:

Sofia Martinez (at right) receives her Commit to Unwavering Curiosity Aspire! Award from Assistant Vice President for Administration Martha Glass. Photo by Max Catalano for Virginia Tech.

Sofia Martinez, Commit to Unwavering Curiosity

By exploring new ideas and cultures, and by asking how we can better listen and share our perspectives, Martinez shows unwavering curiosity in action.

“Curiosity is the willingness and desire to explore the unknown and to pave a new way of thinking or doing,” said Martinez. “If you never ask, apply, or inquire, the answer will always be no. So, if you have the opportunity, go for it.”

Her curiosity and love for learning about new cultures leads her to travel often, immersing herself in the culture and language of the Czech Republic while she studied psychology, neuroscience, finance, and history at Masaryk University. A senior in psychology and economics in the College of Science, Martinez also has applied her curiosity to contribute to the student experience and expand her knowledge and expertise by joining the Internship EXP program through Career and Professional Development.

She has:

  • Researched on campus how students currently participate in the assessment process
  • Sought opportunities to support other event planning, coordination and marketing projects
  • Created the Student Assessment Roundtable Experience, which incorporates inclusive practices

She is now exploring graduate programs that have a strong focus on data analytics, so she can drive public policy toward positive environmental change.

Vanessa Barsoom (at left) receives her Aspire! Award for Pursue Self-Understanding and Integrity from Dean of Students Mark Sikes. Photo by Max Catalano for Virginia Tech.

Vanessa Barsoom, Pursue Self-Understanding and Integrity

“Vanessa Barsoom is a bright shining light,” said her nominator, “prominent even among other shining lights.”

As a sophomore, Barsoom was selected as a cadet training assistant. Fewer than 10 percent of the top-performing cadets entering sophomore year are selected for the position, but her attitude, effort, performance, and balance led to her selection as one of only 29 to wear the red T-shirt during the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets' New Cadet Week.  

Barsoom ended her junior year earning a Space Force Guardian role, a leap into her dream of service into the U.S. Space Force. Recently, she:

  • Was selected for cadet cadre at the U.S. Air Force Academy Preparatory School and chosen as cadet deputy group commander
  • Led 56 peers and 230 U.S. Air Force Preparatory School cadets through rigorous basic military training
  • Ranked No. 1 of 57 cadets at the end of her training

A senior in industrial and systems engineering in the College of Engineering, she is a leader in Air Force ROTC and a consistent top performer in the Corps of Cadets. Barsoom plans to commission as a second lieutenant in the Space Force and serve her country as an intelligence officer.

Caleb Dankwa (at left) receives his Prepare for a Life of Courageous Leadership Aspire! Award from Vice President of Student Affairs Frances Keene. Photo by Max Catalano for Virginia Tech.

Caleb Dankwa, Prepare for a Life of Courageous Leadership

A couple of years ago, after a shooting in downtown Blacksburg, Dankwa – like others in the area – ran away from the scene. However, Dankwa decided to return to the scene to assist the wounded, unaware if the shooter was still there. He gathered his friends and began administering first aid to a fellow cadet who was wounded and to others.

“He was more concerned about his fellow people than his personal safety,” said his nominator. “Caleb Dankwa epitomizes courageous leadership.” 

His nominator recruited him to be a fall company leader in the Corps of Cadets – a highly visible role responsible for leading 90 cadets. Dankwa turned down this opportunity to instead invest his time as the corps’ Black Cadet Organization (BCO) president. 

“While I would be honored to be a company commander and I believe I could positively impact the company, if I really invest myself into the BCO, I can change people’s lives. … I believe the BCO can make a generational impact on individual cadets and the corps," he said. 

Dankwa’s goals for the BCO include:

  • Increased recruiting o fBlack high school students to the corps
  • Increased retention of Black cadets in the corps
  • A focus on mentorship from Black corps alumni and other Black leaders to help guide and mentor the BCO

Dankwa said, “Courageous leadership is about having the bravery to do what is right and necessary for the greater good, even in the face of adversity or personal risk. It starts with ethical decisions.”

A senior in international relations in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, Caleb is passionate about personal fitness and service, and is proud of his heritage. He comes to Virginia Tech from Accra, Ghana, by way of Washington, D.C.

Cara Newbill (at left) receives her Aspire! Award for Practice Civility from Chief of Staff Chelsea Haines. Photo by Max Catalano for Virginia Tech.

Cara Newbill, Practice Civility

Cara Newbill was one of the first girls to join Scouts BSA, formerly the Boy Scouts of America, when it opened to girls in 2019. She navigated becoming a girl leader in what had been an all-boy environment with a long-standing tradition of male leadership. She worked to build bridges between the groups and build trust between individuals.

“In tough conversations, it’s best to remember that there is still good out there. Listening to and getting to know a person shows a level of respect needed when getting along with other people. My grandma used to find the smallest joys in the world, and I loved that way of being, so I try to bring it into every conversation I have,” said Newbill.

In her Scouts BSA leadership roles, she has: 

  • Modeled civil behavior for other members and leaders
  • Modeled how to manage boundaries in a male-dominated organization without magnifying conflicts when a peer expressed frustration with misguided gender expectations
  • Co-designed a meeting structure with equitable leadership and representation among boys and girls

She has been a voice for girls within the organization, creating positive relationships and using teaching to affect culture change. Through her work with children, she again exemplifies civility, leading them with empathy and respect. 

A junior in environmental conservation and society in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, Newbill aspires to work in the National Park Service after graduation, teaching others about the wonders of the world. 

Faiza Bari (at left) receives her Aspire! Award for Embrace Ut Prosim as a Way of Life from Assistant Vice President of Experience VT James Bridgeforth. Photo by Max Catalano for Virginia Tech.

Faiza Bari, Embrace Ut Prosim as a Way of Life

“Pushing boundaries to help others, Faiza Bari sees causes that require attention, and she acts,” said her nominator.

A sophomore majoring in business information technology in the Pamplin College of Business and a pre-medical student, Bari serves as a board member for Pamplin Leadership Development Team. She has committed herself to helping communities in Blacksburg and beyond. She serves in the Association of Muslim Volunteers (AMV), continuing a journey in service that began with the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership, where she provides weekly child care to ensure families can attend English classes.

While sitting for families, she noted their need for supplies for the month of Ramadan. She organized students to collect donations, buy food to start and break the fast each day of the month, and hand-deliver each care package to the families. 

Beyond this initiative, she:

  • Continues to help resettling families with childcare, creating a program to provide home safety supplies for families and age-appropriate toys for their small children.
  • Contributes to other projects through her work with the AMV.
  • Assists in organizing donations for students and the elderly, including setting up meals for members of the Blacksburg community during Ramadan and fundraising for causes all around the world.

“The support I feel from the members and incredible alumni of AMV has allowed me to become the best version of myself,” said Bari. “One thing I’ve learned through my experience here is that if you want to see a change, you need to take the initiative yourself.”

Bari plans to attend medical school to expand her service to others, exemplifying Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) and giving back to the community.

Assistant Director of Cook Connect Services at Cook Counseling Center Jenny Dye (at left) receives her Commit to Unwavering Curiosity Aspire! Award from Assistant Vice President of Housing, Dining, and Student Centers Ted Faulkner. Photo by Max Catalano for Virginia Tech.

Jenny Dye, Commit to Unwavering Curiosity

With curiosity committed to a data-driven approach, Jenny Dye has helped Cook Counseling Center continually improve its ability to provide the best services possible to students.

Dye has served in her role as assistant director of Cook Connect Services at Cook Counseling Center since the service began in the fall of 2020. With this new approach, students seeking services at the center attend an initial Cook Connect appointment to identify their needs and the resources required to most effectively meet those needs.

Looking for ways to connect students sooner, she:

  • Often sacrificed her own time to help them access the best services for their needs
  • Channeled her curiosity to lead the center to a successful data-driven approach now used by Cook Connect Services
  • Examines the numbers and demographics, ensuring that underrepresented and minoritized students are able to access the services they need at Cook Counseling Center and across campus

“I love being able to meet students where they are, hear their stories, and help them look for internal strengths and resources,” said Dye. “I love being able to hold some of the challenges they’ve experiences with them and help them find options to start feeling better.”

Dye considered the barriers students may be experiencing while trying to get connected and developed a process that is intentional about supporting them.

When asked what lessons from her curiosity might help others, Dye said, “We can do hard things, and doing hard things may look messy and chaotic. I would want others to have a more have a more realistic look about what getting through challenges looks like. … Being curious means having an expectation that there is something to learn or understand. It’s about being open to seeing things in a new way and holding space for growth."

Nominations can be submitted at any time for students, faculty or staff members who exemplify the Aspirations of Student Learning. The next Aspire! Award celebration will be hosted at The Inn at Virginia Tech on Dec. 1.

Written by Tayten Allison