Hires mark new growth for InclusiveVT

Nicole Pitterson was struck by a familiar feeling when she spotted the Jamaican section in a local grocery store, shortly after arriving at Virginia Tech.

sylvester johnson
Sylvester Johnson serves as the director of the newly established Center for the Humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

“I’ve never lived anywhere before where in the regular grocery store I could find things that I grew up with,” said the Jamaican native and assistant professor in the Department of Engineering Education in the College of Engineering.

Just weeks into her first semester at Tech, Pitterson said the moment summed up the culture she’d found at the university.

“It’s like, the feeling you belong, but also, we want people to be different. We want you to bring what’s you,” Pitterson said.

Pitterson is one of 15 faculty hires from underrepresented communities to join Virginia Tech this school year, which is more than double the number from each of the five previous years.

The growth comes during a year in which the university has enacted several hiring initiatives aimed at realizing its commitment to InclusiveVT, supporting the campuswide mission of doubling the underrepresented student population by 2022, and promoting the connection between diversity and excellence. Senior faculty members lead the Advance InclusiveVT efforts that support best recruiting practices, unconscious bias training for all search committees, and the Future Faculty Development program, which began in 2011 and brings underrepresented graduate students within two years of completing their Ph.D. to campus.

“There is an abundance of qualified, diverse candidates, both newly minted doctoral students and senior faculty. These new initiatives will provide opportunities for them to engage with Virginia Tech in order to experience the vibrancy and innovation that characterizes our university,” said Menah Pratt-Clarke, vice president for strategic affairs and vice provost for inclusion and diversity.

“We believe these will be selling points to candidates who might not otherwise consider applying to Virginia Tech,” she said.

The recent hiring of Patrice Dickerson, currently the assistant executive dean for strategic recruitment and diversity at The Ohio State University, reflects the new focus on faculty diversity.  She will be joining Virginia Tech in October as the  director of faculty diversity recruitment in the Office for Inclusion and Diversity. There will also be trained diversity advocates on all search committees and additional support of the Future Faculty Development program.

The character of the university has won over candidates like Pitterson, who said she knew little of Virginia Tech prior to being nominated for the Future Faculty Development program. It only took one visit to campus, however, for her to be impressed by the environment.

“I’d been in different parts of Virginia, but I’d never been to Blacksburg,” she said. “There’s a different culture here. I feel like people here are just genuinely nice and helpful and friendly.”

Sylvester Johnson, who was hired in June as the director of newly established Center for the Humanities — which is in the creation stage — said it was Virginia Tech’s vision for the future that brought him to Blacksburg.

Johnson said he’d long known of the university’s legacy for research, but it wasn’t until an associate called him about the job opening that he became familiar with its plan for the future. He said his eyes were first opened to it by reading President Tim Sands’ 2016 State of the University address, which referenced the vision aimed for the year 2047, “Envisioning Virginia Tech – Beyond Boundaries.”

Forethought that far into the future, combined with the universitywide commitment to cross-disciplinary research, convinced Johnson to leave Northwestern University, where he had been for six years and claim his new position. He believes Virginia Tech now has the opportunity to reshape the entire direction of humanities research.

“It’s the difference between having some excitement, having some interest, and having to live in the margins, versus this is the central vision for this university,” he said. “It seemed like a game-changing opportunity.”

Johnson’s recruitment highlights one of the best practices when it comes to increasing diversity in the workplace, said Michel Pleimling, director of inclusion and diversity in the College of Science.

“The best way to hire people from underrepresented groups is from a direct contact,” Pleimling said.

A member of the Advance InclusiveVT team, Pleimling also stressed that departments have to create job advertisements aimed at attracting a broad pool of candidates and then help chosen candidates see their potential at the university.

“The best selling point is showing how people fit into the department,” Pleimling said.

College of Science Dean Sally Morton said broadening the candidate pool was critical in developing and inspiring future leaders and problem solvers at Virginia Tech.

“It’s important for all our students to see themselves in the faculty, not only themselves, but also those different from themselves,” Morton said.

She added that she also believed casting a wider net for new hires would increase the overall caliber of her college.

“I always say, diversity makes science strong. People who come from different backgrounds have different ideas and that’s a pool of talent we need to bring here,” she said.

The thought was echoed by Azim Eskandarian, head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and a member of the Advance InclusiveVT team.

“Diversity truly helps the nature of your business. It helps the growth of the department and with problem-solving,” Eskandarian said.

Fellow engineer Pitterson agreed. She said that while diversity wasn’t a particular area of her research, it has huge implications for the work she plans to do at Virginia Tech.

“Not until you engage with someone that’s left-handed do you realize everything was designed for right-handed people,” she said. “I think learning how to solve real-world problems means being a part of the real world and having people who represent what the real world means.”

Written by Travis Williams

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