Addressing a racial history

Blacksburg, Va., May 1 – Fraction House: The newly named structure stands near Solitude and the Duck Pond. It is part of the land purchased from Colonel Robert Preston to establish Virginia Mechanical and Agricultural College in 1872. Photo: Lizzy Street

by Lizzy Street & Mike Liu–

In early April, Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors voted to rename the former slave cabin next to Solitude. It is now called the Fraction House in honor of a family who was enslaved at Solitude Plantation. Despite the renaming, members of the Virginia Tech community find that Tech’s addressing of its racial history is inadequate.

Virginia Tech historian Peter Wallenstein says that this honoring, which includes a plaque on the building, is overly brief.

“You want a more extended narrative,” said Wallenstein. “There’s really not much there about the house or the people whose name it now carries.”

Some students expressed disappointment that the event was not more widely publicized.

“It’s kind of troubling that something like this has been pushed to the side as far as educating our students about it,” said Virginia Tech student Tyler Frazier. “I feel like Virginia Tech as a school – if they’re taking steps to acknowledge the history . . . they should tell us about it.”

When asked how well Virginia Tech notifies its students of the school’s racial history and plans for making amends, Wallenstein questioned, “Does it?”

In the weeks before and after the renaming, Virginia Tech social media accounts posted about drones, athletics and the otter at the Duck Pond. Information about the Fraction House has not been posted anywhere easily found by students. The Fraction House is not included in the list of buildings at Virginia Tech, and it is not referenced in the page for Solitude.

Frazier says that he would like to see Solitude torn down because it would show “true commitment” to standing against Virginia Tech’s past.

The racial history does not include only the school’s relationship with plantation land; according to Virginia Tech’s Special Collections, a black man named Floyd Meade and his trained turkey acted as the school’s first mascot. Wallenstein says this was likely racially exploitative at the time.

Although the onus is often placed on Tech’s administration, students can play an important role in advocating for change.

“Develop a campaign . . . and suddenly it gets attention,” said Wallenstein. “That’s the way things happen.”

Creating the magic

Blacksburg, Va., April 22 – Tattoo: Master Electrician Erika Koekkoek’s tattoo references the “magic” that technicians create. The tattoo says, “It’s still magic even if you know how it’s done,” and features tools often used to do the job. Photo: Lizzy Street

by Lizzy Street–

While actors have their time in the limelight performing for an attentive audience, there are other workers whom the audience rarely sees.

In Squires Studio Theatre at Virginia Tech, they work behind the curtains, under the stage floor and 30 feet above the actors’ heads to make sure the show goes on. These technicians and designers use their skills in lighting, costuming, sound, carpentry and more to create a world that captivates the audience. But the cost is visibility.

“People who typically work behind the scenes are very much people who work thankless jobs,” said Chris Russo, Technical Supervisor for Virginia Tech’s School of Performing Arts. “It does take the right kind of person to understand that you may never get the same kind of appreciation [as actors] for what you’ve been doing for the production.”

According to end-of-season statistics assembled by The Broadway League, over 13 million people, the highest number ever recorded, attended Broadway shows in the 2017 to 2018 season. Though theater’s popularity grows, a number of technicians and designers still feel unseen by audiences – but Russo says that is how it should be.

“Part of the illusion is presenting something to an audience so that they are taken out of reality and taken into another world,” said Russo. “That means, yes, some people behind the scenes have to be in black, and they can’t be seen.”

The technicians themselves may not be seen, but their work is an integral part of creating an immersive experience for the audience. Erika Koekkoek, Master Electrician for the School of Performing Arts’ production of “As You Like It,” refers to such work as “[creating] the magic.”

“As a technician, I can make it snow on stage. I can make a sunset on stage,” said Koekkoek. “I can do so many things that help add to the magic of live theatre, and it awes me every time I do it.”

A study from Data USA says that the theater workforce has a growth rate of 2.1 percent. Despite this growth, a Georgetown University study identifies theater arts as one of the lowest-paying college majors, with a median annual income of $45,000, according to U.S. Census data.

Prospects for backstage workers aren’t all bad, though. A Forbes article recognized two electricians and a carpenter at Carnegie Hall who each made approximately $400,000 in one year.

High salaries are not typical for backstage work, but technicians and designers are not deterred. Though the behind-the-scenes workers themselves will stay out of the limelight, Russo says that he takes pride in his work and the process of creating the final product.

“Take the journey, get to the destination and say, ‘What’s the next challenge?’” said Russo. “And that’s the fun – that’s the joy of my job.”


Climate change, allergies

Roanoke, Va., March 21 – Flowering Tree: The spring allergy season is caused primarily by pollen released from blooming trees. This tree is one of the first types to be in full bloom this season, indicating the start of spring allergies. Photo: Lizzy Street

by Lizzy Street–-

March’s flowering trees may be pretty, but they mark the beginning of the spring allergy season by releasing types of pollen that are especially irritating to those who are allergic. According to an article in the Washington Post, Virginia’s allergy season has worsened in recent years and will continue to do so: it will start earlier, last longer and be more intense.

A climate change study conducted in 2018 by the Natural Resources Defense Council attributes this early start to rising temperatures in the state, which are boosting plant growth and pollen production.

However, Dr. Laura Dziadzio, an allergist-immunologist at Carilion Clinic, says that she has not noticed changes in Virginia’s spring allergy season during her time as an allergist.

“Typically, things are worse in April, and that’s pretty consistent,” said Dziadzio. “This year, I think it’s probably going to be . . . typical.”

Allergy differences across Virginia may be caused by a wide variety of allergens, but geography also plays a role. According to Dziadzio, communities located in valleys can have particularly bad allergy seasons.

“With the Roanoke Valley, I’m told we’re the worst because the valley does trap some of the allergens,” said Dziadzio. “[Being in a valley] may make it a little bit worse — the gravity.”

Residents of the New River Valley have noticed similar trends.

“I definitely do notice a difference when I’m [in Northern Virginia] and when I’m here,” said Kristal Melendez, a Virginia Tech student with seasonal allergies. “I feel like the air here is . . . stuffier. It’s worse when I’m here.”

For those with seasonal allergies, reactions to pollen can include a runny nose, red and itchy eyes, congestion and sneezing. People with asthma may experience flares in symptoms. As the allergy season progresses and possibly changes, Dziadzio suggests using either prescription or over-the-counter medications, including nasal sprays, eye drops and antihistamines. She also says that if medicines alone do not help, allergy shots may be beneficial.

As someone who has dealt with seasonal allergies for years, Melendez suggests seeking further treatment than going to a family physician.

“I would stress the importance of trying to get to an allergist and finding exactly what it is [you’re] allergic to,” said Melendez. “I think the knowledge of actually going might help being able to better target what it is.”

Additionally, an article from Mayo Clinic recommends some non-medicinal measures to take, such as showering after being outside, drying sheets and towels indoors, wearing pollen masks while outdoors and checking local media for pollen forecasts.


Image linked to full version of infographic on

Saving Virginia from wildfires

Blacksburg, Va., Feb. 24 – Fire Laws Brochure: The Virginia Department of Forestry offers brochures outlining the state’s fire laws. The brochure also includes a list of fire safety tips. Photo: Lizzy Street

by Lizzy Street—

Between Feb. 15 and April 30 of each year, the Virginia Department of Forestry places a ban on open-air burning before 4 p.m. Since its implementation in 1950, the 4 p.m. burning law and its affiliated laws have made significant changes in the state’s yearly destruction from wildfires.

According to Deputy Regional Forester Chris Thomsen, Virginia experienced about 20,000 fires and 250,000 acres of destruction every year before the laws were in place.

“We must’ve looked a little like California,” said Thomsen. “Today, we have about 2,000 fires for maybe 20,000 acres, so it’s gone down considerably, and this law is certainly a huge part of that.”

Thomsen says that the enforcement period is so important because of the season’s weather conditions: low humidity, high winds and rising temperatures — all of which can contribute to the start and spread of wildfires. An article in Scientific American suggests that climate change and warming temperatures are perhaps creating an even longer fire season in the United States, increasing possible risks.

The Virginia Department of Forestry website identifies debris burning as the number one cause of wildfires in the state. This type of burning is prevalent in rural areas, like parts of Southwest Virginia.

“When you don’t have curbside pickup of trash or when you have to pay a little extra — as they do in rural counties — it’s much easier to have the 50-gallon barrel in your backyard and just throw your trash in,” Thomsen said.

Though convenient, this type of burning can be hazardous if the laws are violated.

Forest wardens like Johnathan Vest, who works for Giles and Montgomery Counties, find the laws to be most effective for educating the public about safe practices, rather than being “hammer and nail enforcement [tools].”

“Our biggest advantage of the burn laws is, without a doubt, the hope of educating folks to do things properly,” said Vest.

This education has proven effective over the years. Thomsen, with 37 years on the job, notes that the restrictions outlined in the laws “cut down on fires significantly.” As a result, Virginia now has one of the lowest per-acre protection costs in the Southeast — all while saving lives, properties and forestland.

Chris Thomsen
Deputy Regional Forester, Chris Thomsen
Johnathan Vest
Forest Warden and Natural Resource Specialist Three for Giles and Montgomery Counties, Johnathan Vest


LIFE/STYLE: “Staycationing” on the rise

by Lizzy Street, Ian Gruber, Nguyen Phan –

Photo by ruich_whx on / CC BY-NC-ND

Chronic stress, fatigue and lowered worker productivity — according to Psychology Today, that’s what can happen to the human body when one doesn’t take time off for a vacation.

For many adults, taking an occasional vacation is necessary to keep the balance of work and life in check. For college students, however, planning a vacation can be stressful, especially with tight budgets and busy schedules. The younger generation is discovering the benefits of a “staycation,” or a vacation in one’s own town.

“Staycationing” is on the rise, and it has many advantages for finances and health — both mental and physical. For college students especially, staying at home is much more economical than going abroad. On average, Americans spend between 10 and 15 percent of their annual income on vacation, in which they spend 44 percent on transportation costs. By choosing to staycation, students can save money that would have been used on tickets, gas and accommodations. This reduction in travel time also opens up free time for more activities and stress relief.

Even though staycations have several worthwhile benefits, they also come with unexpected costs. According to NBC News, traveling for vacation has unique advantages that staycations do not share, including a lowered risk of heart attacks, heart disease and depression.