The SOAR Success Stories feature series spotlights the unique experience of minority and underrepresented students who have utilized coaching, resources, or advocacy from the SOAR program. These stories seek to capture the successes and ambitions of undergraduate students as they journey through life at Virginia Tech.
Introducing Niyah Cooke
Niyah Cooke, an animal and poultry sciences major, may be new to campus, but drive and engagement led the freshman undergraduate straight to the head of the pack for one award at the 2020 Black Excellence Gala, hosted by the Black Student Alliance. She proudly took home the “Hit the Ground Running” award – an acknowledgement of the mountainous effort she has put into a first academic year.
Cooke serves as the co-director of Culture Dance Crew, with an emphasis on hip-hop; as administrative chair for late-night programming with Black Student Alliance; as a member of Student African American Sisterhood, aimed to enhance the academic success and unification of black and brown women; as a member of Textures Natural Hair Organization, a student group leveraging the awareness and empowerment of those with natural hair; and as one of the founding members and secretary for a newly university-recognized student group: Transmute – an organization striving to strengthen the black community through professional development, networking, and... post-graduation opportunities.
Cooke even manages to uphold ut prosim through her outreach and recruitment service as a scholar in The Yates Society, which offers her and other scholars the opportunity to share reflections on university life with prospective college students in high school. Cooke notes that she often extends anecdotes with the students at Richmond Technical that draw from lessons she learned the hard way: study diligently and seek office hours of faculty.
“My first semester was an eye-opener,” Cooke admonishingly recalls. “In high school, I didn’t have to grind too hard. It just came naturally; but college is different. The lectures, the amount of work, the style… it’s all stuff you need to balance; and you must be willing to ask the questions. You need to communicate.”
This year, Cooke lived on campus in Peddrew-Yates Hall within the Ujima living learning community, which aims to develop members’ understanding of African-American experiences in society, and foster collective work and responsibility. To Cooke, Ujima “feels like home” and offers life at Virginia Tech a balance to an otherwise different experience for the Richmond, Virginia, native.
Cooke acknowledges, “Where I’m from, our community is mostly comprised of black folk. Studying at a predominantly-white institution, its not uncommon for me to be the only black person in the classroom – especially in my major. But if you put yourself out there, you’ll find your people. Ujima has certainly been one of those places where I have found community.”
Indeed, the residence community has been a positive component of Cooke’s experience, even introducing her to one of her favorite people she has met on campus thus far: her suitemate, Kara Crudup. While sharing the same major as Cooke, Crudup has an emphasis on working with exotic animals -- a focus Cooke notes interests her, even though she is still deciding what path in animal care she will take.
These days, Cooke notes having to practice self-efficiency and motivation to balance a transition to the online learning environment. In her spare time, she enjoys dancing, drawing, and spending time with her two dogs.
Introducing Lilya Fenjiro
“When I was in high school, Virginia Tech was always where I wanted to go; but academically, I didn’t believe I was ready; and so, I didn’t.” Lilya Fenjiro, a northern Virginia native, recalls making the decision to enroll in a university out of state. She spent her freshman year home sick, struggling to find community and make friends at a predominately white institution, and ultimately dissatisfied with her decision. Still, Fenjiro put in the work to build a strong academic case for why she belonged in Hokie nation; and that she did.
Now, a sophomore multimedia journalism major, Fenjiro says Virginia Tech “certainly feels like home”.
“If you pay attention, there are resources everywhere at VT. In the most mature and adult sense of this statement, being here ‘feels like... someone is always holding your hand’. You feel supported in what you are doing,” boasts Fenjiro.
Conversely to her freshman experience at another institution, Fenjiro says she hasn’t had trouble finding a diverse community of friends. The half Korean, half Moroccan, aspiring writer and editor, says that even her study groups consist of peers from all walks of life. The camaraderie, she admits, was a refreshing change.
Fenjiro, while a self-professed introvert, says she wants her career to focus on connecting people through compelling storytelling. She examines a current trend in disparaging views of social media; but she adds, “some people have it wrong.”
“Similar to projects like Humans of New York, I want to tell stories about personal experience. I want to be able to impact and transform people’s way of thinking through my writing,” hopes Fenjiro.
During this transition to an online learning environment, amidst COVID-19 impact, Fenjiro says she has everything she needs at home; though, she misses the feel of learning inside the classroom.
“I even have a preference for my classes that are being conducted live online,” Fenjiro adds. “I don’t know. Something about the pre-recorded lectures feels even more like a departure from being among other people in the same space wanting to learn.”
When on-campus studying returns, Fenjiro looks forward to continuing to be challenged academically. Her media writing professor, Dr. Natalia Mielczarek, is one of her favorite people at Virginia Tech, for that very reason.
“She’s strict and I’m scared of her,” Fenjiro jokes, “but I like her because she holds me accountable and is clearly brilliant. I can tell that I’m going to become a better writer through this class and with her. Ultimately, that’s my aim.”
Introducing Tori Love
“The first semester was difficult, but I feel like I acclimated quickly. By the third week, I was able to make my way around pretty easily, which is surprising because I have no sense of direction,” jests Tori Love, a junior animal and poultry sciences major. Despite a challenging first semester, Love notes that she visited three other campuses during her search for a fitting college, as a high school senior; and for her, Virginia Tech felt the most comfortable and ultimately the right place to be....
Certainly, the Blackstone, Virginia, native was already upholding ut prosim through practice; so, Hokie life is befitting. Through faith-based camps, Love has contributed to six service projects, including building a wheelchair ramp and repairing a roof.
“I’m grateful to have been a part of these church projects,” Love shares. “It’s rewarding, and it’s incredible to see the process of your work.”
Other ways Love flexes service is through an area near to her heart: rescuing and fostering companion animals. While the aspiring veterinarian has seven pets of her own – three dogs, three cats, and one fish – she says that breaks from school present an opportune time to open her space to more, in-need animals.
During the academic season, Love lives on-campus in Pritchard Hall and participates in the Thrive living learning community, which focuses on leveraging personal strengths. While she admits its difficult being away from her animals for a bulk of the semester, she is also learning to use her “empathy” strength in dynamic ways and was even introduced to one of her favorite people she has met at Virginia Tech so far: her resident advisor, Michaela Smith.
Smith is just one in a small circle of friends Love says is “near to [her], and mean a lot”. Love, a black, Puerto Rican, and white mixed student, says her friend group on campus is diverse. When not spending time with friends, she enjoys photography, hiking, and reading.
While Love confesses, she is “just going with the flow” of the transition to online learning this semester, due to the COVID-19 impact on campuses, the change of environment grants the perk of being near her animals. One animal among the bunch, her mixed-breed dog, Koda, benefited from Love being home to celebrate his birthday – an opportunity Love notes she is thankful for.