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New Major Brings Together the Humanities and Public Service

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Melissa Velez Nazario holds her t-shirt from the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, where she completed an internship for her Humanities for Public Service major.
Melissa Velez Nazario holds her t-shirt from the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, where she completed an internship for her Humanities for Public Service major.

At Virginia Tech, a day rarely passes without the university’s motto — Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) — coming up in conversation. But seeing the idea in action at the student level is the inspiration behind a new major in humanities for public service.

As the faculty principal for the Residential College of West Ambler Johnston several years ago, Matthew Gabriele noticed that his youthful neighbors strived to live up to the motto. Over time, as a professor and now chair of the Department of Religion and Culture, he finds that a majority of Virginia Tech students have embraced incorporating service in their lives.

After much discussion with his colleagues in the department about this phenomenon, Ut Prosim has become the stimulus for the new major, which started in Fall 2019.

“We had just launched our first major in religion and culture, and our faculty collectively saw how students wanted to use their degrees for good in the world,” Gabriele said. “For example, we’ve had three of our alumni join the Peace Corps just in the last couple of years! So, the idea just clicked at one faculty meeting that we could give Virginia Tech students the intellectual architecture to help them carry Ut Prosim out into the world.”

Students who major in humanities for public service could expect to take courses in Appalachian Studies, world religions, the creative process, race and gender in religion and culture, multicultural communication, and popular culture theory. Service-learning or internships are also a requirement.

“My internship at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage,” said Melissa Velez Nazario, a senior who recently declared her major as to humanities for public service, “gave me an in-depth understanding of how organizations such as these operate and how people in the public humanities deal with the hurdles of reaching out to the public.”

As she helped with the 2019 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Velez learned how both the festival and the institution affected visitors. The festival’s theme centered on the social power of music with a focus on the history of go-go music in Washington, D.C.

“During the festival, I saw how locals came together,” she said. “They learned about go-go music history before sharing their own experiences with each other. The Smithsonian makes public education its goal, but this also has the added benefit of bringing communities together in a space that fosters open-mindedness and empathy.”

The humanities for public service major prepares students for careers in local, national, and global public service. It also offers guidance on providing service to communities in thoughtful and meaningful ways.

“Our core courses ask students to tear apart the categories of ‘religion’ and ‘culture’ and explore how different peoples in different times and in different places have made sense of the world,” Gabriele said. “We encourage students to ask questions about why things have changed over time and why life is different in the here and now.”

The upper-level courses in the major focus more narrowly, allowing students to specialize and to gain expertise in an area. Then the internship begins to put all they have learned into practice.

To smooth the way, faculty mentors help guide individual students through the process.

“We are a small department,” Gabriele said, “with faculty who will know your name in their classes, who will mentor you as an individual as you select your career path, and who will take you seriously as a thinking person who can adapt to a rapidly changing world.”

Written and photographed by Leslie King