Tara Fortune, Jeryl Payne, Kaye Pereras, Emily Haynes Cooper: Champions Against Adversity

Hokies always remember their first time on Virginia Tech’s campus. Whether it be a the sun illuminating the limestone buildings or the students shuffling across the Drillfield in a cold winter wind, Virginia Tech’s campus leaves a strong first impression. Various paths led Tara Fortune, Jeryl Payne, Catherine (Kay) Perez, Emily Haynes Cooper to Virginia Tech’s campus as incoming freshmen; nevertheless, they entered their freshman year as strangers, but left as family.

“But then when I came on the campus I was like this is home, so I came and I have been Hokie like for real, I mean like ever since.”Jeryl Payne

When these women arrived to campus on move-in day, they recognized that they were joining a small minority of non-white students in their new home. As minorities, life in Blacksburg challenged these women. Sitting in a lecture hall of white-washed faces, Tara, Jeryl, Kay, and Emily didn’t allow their environment to deprive them of the education that they deserved. Throughout their time on campus, these women built their own communities within Virginia Tech’s expansive student body — finding their niche, finding their family.

“I just loved the way the people treated me and they just kind of took me in and they welcomed me and I was like, “Mom, this is where I want to go.”Tara Fortune

Attending Virginia Tech in the mid-nineties, these women bore witness to historical moments in Blacksburg: the Rodney King rallies, the OJ Simpson trial, and the KKK marching down Main Street. These moments left a lasting impression on Tara, Jeryl, Kay, and Emily–forever impacting the university and its students. Nevertheless, these instances of hatred and exclusion did not cripple students, but empowered them to fight for the changing landscape of Blacksburg, Virginia.

“…so it’s crazy because now when you look at those things on TV it kind of hasn’t changed. You know there is still some things that now going to a predominantly white institution I think minority students still have to be careful of you know, their race is still something…And so you know, it’s like what are you going to do about it? What did we want to do about it? How are we going to be better? And we did have some stuff that actually happened during our time here that impacted who we were.”Kay Perez

Virginia Tech pushed these women to not only become champions of academics but to fight for greater diversity on Virginia Tech’s campus. While Virginia Tech has made strides to diversify campus, greater changes should be made to attract, retain, and support minority students and staff members. Despite Virginia Tech’s large size, Tara, Jeryl, Kay, and Emily remind us that this university is supposed to not only educate students, but also nurture them through this difficult transition in their lives regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.

“…in spite of everything socially that happened we graduated. I will tell you that that for each one of us is a very proud moment for all of us to make it through and to be able to tell people we are Hokie alumni and we are very proud. We are very proud. I think that we can all say this, we would not trade the experiences that we had here for the world. We loved the years that we had…”Kay Perez

As lifelong Hokies, Tara, Jeryl, Kay, and Emily proudly wear maroon and orange despite their challenges as students and alumnae. Virginia Tech presented these women with opportunities to raise their voice against hatred and exclusion; and they, to this day, hope to better their Blacksburg home for all students to come. Throughout their four years, they not only found their place on campus, but their place within each other. As lifelong friends, these women were irrevocably bonded during their time at Virginia Tech– as friends, as family, as fighters, as Hokies.

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Date Posted: November 8, 2016

Editor: Shannon Larkin & Jessie Rogers

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