How Virginia Tech is Reshaping Collegiate Recreation and Wellness Integration

Virginia Tech

Once complete in 2021, Virginia Tech’s (VT) renovated and expanded War Memorial Hall will set an exciting new standard for recreation and wellness integration on college campuses. The project unites VT’s School of Education, Department of Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise (HNFE), Hokie Wellness, collegiate recreation, and human performance under a singular roof to best help students lead healthy lives.

One of the most significant buildings on VT’s campus, War Memorial Hall was originally constructed in 1926, and outside of an addition in 1975, it has not benefitted from comprehensive renovations, upgrades or improvements. The new effort to renovate and expand War Memorial Hall – along with pieces of nearby McComas Hall – will set VT up to offer students remarkably unified health and wellness programming long into the future.

In addition to uniting departments, adding key new spaces, and enhancing programmatic opportunities, the project will also evolve War Memorial Hall from a seemingly impenetrable, massive Hokie Stone box, into a dynamically open and transparent building that engages the campus community. Moving forward, War Memorial Hall will stand as an inviting and energetic focal point for the campus.

As anticipation builds for the project, I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Ali Cross, Virginia Tech’s recreational sports director, and Chris Wise, VT’s assistant vice president for student affairs, to capture their personal thoughts about the building, its goals, and its unique features.

Matthew Dates: VT’s focus on integrated health and wellness stems back to at least 2005. In your words, how will the War Memorial Hall updates amplify this integrated approach?

Ali Cross: We’ve done a really strong job of empowering physical and mental health over time, but I think the exciting new opportunities this building introduces come with the connectivity to academics. We can develop partnerships with academic advisors, and already departments like our Master’s of Public Health and our veterinary school have reached out about collaboration. The new War Memorial Hall is going to amplify health and wellness in our academic units, and as they learn more about what we can do, the synergies and programs that develop will help students and staff in new ways. That’s one of the most exciting benefits of this project.

Chris Wise: I’d agree and add that it’s not just academics. Once this renewed building opens its doors, we’re also going to be establishing a new live-learn community (LLC) focused on wellbeing in the residential hall next to War Memorial. The residence hall where this LLC exists is literally footsteps from War Memorial Hall; you can spill out between the two buildings and always be connected. I think it’s going to be one of the most unique LLC environments in the country, and it demonstrates how partnership with other departments can equate to better health outcomes for our students. We’re going to find so many more opportunities as this building develops and opens.

MD: War Memorial Hall will expand cardio and fitness training areas, but what are unique or novel features of the building design that most excites you both?

AC: I’m thrilled that Hokie Wellness, a program focused on providing prevention services, education, outreach, and resources to our employees and students will now have a dedicated space customized for them. To date, they’ve existed in more of a corporate, HR-like setting. In the renewed building, their space is designed for them. They’ll have a kitchen, meditation rooms and touch-down counseling spaces calibrated to help them amplify their mission and reach.

CW: There’s two I want to mention. First, the new human performance lab. I think that will be a stand-out feature and really contribute to accelerating campus collaboration that elevates student experience. It will give students the opportunity to understand the wellness from a scientific perspective, improving their ability to attain health and wellness no matter what point they are starting from. Second, the new entrance link that really opens this building up to natural light and the campus. We think we can use it as a testing area for new student wellness ideas and offerings. It’s really unique to have a location where we can pilot leading-edge health and wellness trends and determine which make the most success to integrate into the center for the future.

MD: Any other design elements that stand out to the two of you?

AC: There are so many things we could talk about. We’ve made a point to include gathering spaces that encourage students to socialize and build community. We’re creating weights and cardio space that can be sectioned off so students who know each other can come together to workout. These spaces are different than just general multipurpose spaces, as they’re designed to be divided up for structured group exercise. We also have a recovery room for those battling alcohol or drug addiction, furthering our 360-degree view of wellness and enabling us to help all students.

CW: The redesigned War Memorial Hall is planning to have a multi-gender toilet room and the opportunity for gender neutral locker rooms. We’ve never done that before on campus, and I think it’s going to be a big step to further encouraging diversity and inclusion in our recreation programs. We want our under-represented and minority populations to feel welcome and part of our healthy campus culture. None of us are truly well if our entire community isn’t well. It’s a bold step but an important step for Virginia Tech. I think it will knock down barriers and set a new direction for the campus.

MD: You’ve referenced the ability to pilot new health and wellness programs in this building. Are there any trends you could see impacting your recreation programming in the future?

CW: Technology is always a potential disruptor, but I think more specifically, eSports is a trend our profession must watch closely. I think there’s a notion that it’s a fad, or that because it’s rooted in video games, it’s not good for health and wellness – but I don’t think we can take that approach. Esports are not going away. Millions of young people play them; there are arenas being built just for eSports.

The more we can do to embrace them, and their potential to bring new students into our recreation and wellness programming, the better. Maybe somebody who comes in for eSports in the future will see the climbing wall and think, “I’d like to do that.” So yes, I think eSports will impact campus recreation and wellness at Virginia Tech and most other institutions in the future. Let’s make the most of it.

MD: Let’s pretend we’re talking again in five years after the project has opened. What are goals you hope the design has achieved?

AC: So often, when we talk to folks about VT, they talk about the great food on campus. I’d love if five years from now, students are coming here because they’ve heard about how much we do to empower healthy and active students. We have a great facility, our students have awesome health outcomes and student health is thriving. That’s my goal: to make student health and wellness an even stronger differentiator.

CW: I second that, and I’d just add that I hope our efforts change attitudes about the importance of wellness for students, faculty and staff. People need to prioritize their mental health, their diet, address substance abuse and/or loneliness. With this new facility, we’ll offer remarkable holistic health opportunities, with as many people as possible taking advantage.

 By Matthew Dates. He is a project manager and structural engineer for CannonDesign. He is managing the War Memorial Hall project, focused on advancing health and wellness for Virginia Tech’s campus community.

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