Virginia Tech’s newest faculty principal emphasizes a holistic approach to help students thrive
It is not a job for everyone, but for those who believe that the care of students is essential to thriving in higher education, being a live-in faculty principal in a residential college may be the experience of a lifetime.
“The faculty principal position gives me the opportunity to fulfill a personal desire to connect with students beyond the classroom and lab spaces and contribute to their holistic development as scholars, innovators, citizens, and whole humans,” said Natalie E. Cook, assistant professor of public health in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. “This is why I said ‘yes’ to this role. I hope to challenge students to care about something beyond themselves and their majors, and to collaborate beyond boundaries to help make positive changes in the Hokie spirit of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).”
Cook is the newest of Virginia Tech’s faculty principals, now numbering four. She serves in the Honors Residential Commons (HRC) located in East Ambler Johnston Hall. As faculty principal, Cook and her family live among the students who reside in East Ambler Johnston.
“The buzzing energy and inviting welcome from HRC community members has been heartwarming,” Cook said. “What a unique experience for my children. I trust that this will be an enriching experience for them as well as for the HRC students. As the HRC motto goes, ‘In fellowship, all things grow.’”
The motto of the Honors Residential Commons, “In fellowship, all things grow,” conveys the sense of both community and personal development characteristic of Living-Learning Programs at Virginia Tech.
“People flourish when we’re committed to one another,” said Frank Shushok Jr., vice president for student affairs. “Community is the foundation of our residential colleges and our individual and collective growth is the shared aspiration. From the beginning, the Honors Residential Commons was designed to nurture the best in all those involved, always bolstered through relationships.”
Inclusion and belonging are a key part of Cook’s approach.
“I see my role as providing the leadership and scaffolding necessary to foster a thriving living and learning community where all members feel a sense of belonging, agency, and connection, regardless of their major, background, identity, or hometown," Cook said. "My vision is to inspire HRC students to consider new perspectives, to expand their thinking, to question their assumptions, and to pursue personal, cultural, and intellectual humility. I want them to make meaning of and feel empowered in their learning.”
Shushok said, “The faculty principal plays a key role in sustaining the intellectual and social and culture of the community, keeping everyone pointed in the direction of learning, friendship, and engagement in the larger Virginia Tech community. Because faculty become part of the daily fabric, barriers come down, especially since a 'grade' doesn’t mediate the relationship like it can in the classroom setting. In a residential college, faculty learn as much from students as students do from faculty.
“Like our all our residential colleges, mentorship is a hallmark of the experience. Because the Honors Residential Commons has first-, second-, third-, and fourth-year students, as well as graduate students and faculty, those new to the community are quickly embraced and supported in their transition to Virginia Tech. Students relish the opportunity to ‘pay forward’ the care they receive in the HRC. Everyone ends up learning from and mentoring each other,” Shushok said.
Cook said this will be a year of transition, not only as the community navigates readjustment to the social, in-person world, but also with new leadership in the HRC. “I am really looking forward to this being a year of restoration — a year of connection and healing,” said Cook. “The pandemic has taken a toll on all of us and although it is not completely over, we are in a place where we can safely relish in each other’s company.”
Cook succeeds Pablo Tarazaga as the fifth faculty principal for the Honors Residential Commons. Tarazaga, former associate professor of mechanical engineering in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction, now at Texas A&M, held the position for four years.
The Honors Residential Commons is one of three residential colleges on Virginia Tech’s campus. There are 17 additional living-learning communities. Virginia Tech boasts the largest full-time residential student population in Virginia, and the residential experience created through Living-Learning Programs makes the university’s approach to life on campus unique.
To learn more about Virginia Tech’s Living-Learning Programs visit https://llp.vt.edu/.