Curiosity and unicycles make for an award-winning graduate student
Sabrina Sturgeon wins a 2020–21 Aspire! Award.
The coffee cup was empty. Sabrina Sturgeon, a Virginia Tech Aspire! Award winner, stood up, stepped away from her computer, and strapped on her bike helmet. Gathering three small balls and her long-distance unicycle, she left the comforts of her room in East Campbell Hall.
As she rode one wheel onto the Drillfield, she wondered whether her coordination between juggling and riding was improving. In fact, Sturgeon was curious about many things: how to improve life for others, happenings in higher education, and equity among graduate students.
And it was this curiosity that caused Sturgeon, a School of Education graduate student in higher education and student affairs, to win one of the five Aspire! Awards for 2020–21.
These Virginia Tech awards recognize students, faculty, and staff who exemplify one of the five key aspirations for learning as defined by Student Affairs. Recipients demonstrate the pursuit of self-understanding and integrity; practice civility; prepare for a life of courageous leadership; embrace Virginia Tech’s motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), as a way of life; or, as in Sturgeon’s case, commit to unwavering curiosity.
Stephen Henninger, assistant director of housing and residence life, nominated her for this honor. He met her through her position as an assistant residential learning coordinator co-supervising 850 students in a living-learning community.
“I nominated Sabrina because she is immensely curious,” Henninger said. “Sabrina and I would grab coffee or lunch when we were in person to check in and see how she was adjusting to our department. Ultimately, Sabrina and I would talk about everything and anything. Whether we talked about the nature of democracy, capitalism, or philosophy, Sabrina would seek out new perspectives, information, and ideas. Curiosity is what we hope everyone — students, faculty, and staff — live out. Sabrina is not only a role model for that but also challenges others to live it out, too.”
Sturgeon does this in several ways. She was a conduct hearing officer for the university, interned with Assessment and Professional Development, and serves as president of the Higher Education Advisory Council, which advocates for the needs of higher education graduate students on campus. She also co-taught a three-credit course in the principles of peer leadership.
But her curiosity has also led Sturgeon to learn more about higher education administration. Her desire to understand how universities function caused her to take on a student leadership role within the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors. Many students have found that experiential learning is an import aspect of their college career, but Sturgeon said that being on the board is a perfect classroom for her aspirations for working in higher-education administration.
“It’s interesting,” she said. “It’s not what I expected, but at the same time it’s opened so many doors. It’s incredible to learn the university’s perspective, be able to be part of conversations with campus leaders, and learn the thought process behind the announcements coming out. I’ve learned so much about Virginia Tech and how universities operate through my time on the board. And I just feel very blessed to have that opportunity.”
For the native of Evansville, Indiana, higher education was not always her goal. It took her six changes of major at the University of Southern Indiana to land on communication studies, which she chose for its flexibility for career paths. But what she gained there was a passion for working at a university, both through extracurricular programs and as a residential assistant.
“I remember when I first had the idea of going into higher education student affairs,” she said, “I thought I wanted to be a university president — that’s kind of the goal. Much of what interests me in higher education lies within our governance and policy.”
Although she sees ways in which the higher education model can improve, Sturgeon believes the field offers many opportunities for growth.
“I want to look at how we can take a system that needs some fixing,” she said, “and make it serve people better by looking at it from the top down and put new systems in place that work better for people.”
While her career plans after graduating in May 2021 are still vague, she is exploring staying at Virginia Tech if the opportunity arises or possibly moving to Washington, D.C.
“I see the passion for innovation and growth here,” she said, “and that ignites me. I love that. But Washington, D.C., is a city that invigorates me, too. It seems so fascinating. I would love to be there because I think that’s the heart of where a lot of policy and high-level changes happen in our country.”
Originally, Sturgeon had another plan after graduation. She hoped to bicycle across the globe. But since the COVID-19 pandemic, she may postpone that dream for a few years. This, however, does not mean she has given up on unicycling. In fact, she is honing this goal. She wants to break the world record for long-distance unicycling while juggling. Though she has only been cycling for a year and is a novice juggler, she has put in hundreds of miles on her four unicycles. Two are basic unicycles, one is for traveling long distances, and one is a five-foot giraffe circus unicycle, which is used by entertainers.
But as she works up to juggling and cycling over 18 miles to break the current record, she is no less engaged with her various roles at Virginia Tech. She is still drinking coffee and having deep discussions with Henninger. Her curiosity propels her, she said.
“We discuss the nature of democracy in our country,” she said, “and what role higher education has in business. We like to explore all these interesting ideas and worldviews, and we do it while upholding the aspiration of civility. And I think that really encompasses what curiosity is to me — the open exploration of ideas and the never-ending pursuit of knowledge.”
— Written by Leslie King