Maya Mahdi Wins Aspire! Award in Practice Civility

Discussion Colloquium

The Kellogg Center for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics is pleased to announce that PPE major, Maya Mahdi, has won the 2022 Virginia Tech Aspire! Award in the category Practice Civility.

Maya, can you tell us a little about the Aspire! Awards and how individuals are selected?

Aspire! Awards recognize students, faculty, and staff who exemplify the Student Affairs’ Student Learning. Five students – one representing each Aspiration – are awarded. The Aspirations are: commit to unwavering curiosity, pursue self-understanding and integrity, practice civility, prepare for a life of courageous leadership, and embrace Ut Prosim as a way of life. Students are nominated to receive an award and nominators are asked to describe why the student should be recognized as exemplifying this Aspiration. 

What “Aspiration” were you awarded, and can you provide information on why you were awarded this particular one?

I was recognized for embodying the Aspiration to Practice Civility. I was nominated by Jes Davis – the Assistant Director for Leadership and Civic Engagement at VT Engage: The Center of Leadership and Service Learning. My journey started in the fall of 2020 during the Presidential election cycle. I was hired by Campus Vote Project as the WorkElections Fellow and recruited over 350 students to be poll workers. I was also a StepUp student leader at VT Engage. Despite the challenges COVID-19 presented to students, I was inspired by how motivated students were to be civically engaged. However, I noticed that students were unequipped with the knowledge and resources to do so. I was then hired by VT Engage in February of 2021 and worked with Jes to develop, launch, and lead Hokies Vote Caucus. Hokies Vote Caucus is a nonpartisan voting rights and civic engagement student program at VT Engaged aimed at institutionalizing voter and civic engagement at Virginia Tech. Hokies Vote Caucus is open to all majors and no previous experience is required. Virginia is a special state because it has elections every year. Therefore, we work hard to make sure students are registered and equipped with all the information they need to be active participants in democracy. We do voter registration and education tabling and presentations year-round to keep students engaged. Most recently, we partnered with Students for Sustainable Practice to host a pop-up thrift shop in honor of Earth Week with voter registration and education information. We raised over $200 for the Montgomery County Animal Shelter while raising awareness about the upcoming 2022 Midterm elections and helping students register to vote.  

Beyond voting, Hokies Vote Caucus encourages dialogue across differences. As Drs. Robert George and Cornel West expressed in their talk “I See You: Navigating Free Speech and Civil Discourse,” encouraging students with differing opinions to have genuine conversations that lead to understanding will propel our democracy and society. Thus, Hokies Vote Caucus hosts deliberative dialogues in collaboration with student organizations to promote civil discourse. We create a safe space for students with differing viewpoints to talk about important issues like policing, climate choices, and elections. We have partnered with the NAACP and Students for Racial Justice.

In what ways has Virginia Tech inspired you to live a life of “curiosity, integrity, innovation, leadership, success, fulfillment, and embodying the university motto, Ut Prosim, as a way of life”?

Ut Prosim “That I May Serve” has been my way of life since I was young. My first experience with community service was in middle school. My parents are Syrian immigrants so my family and I would volunteer for Free Syria to raise money for Syrian refugees and to build schools for Syrian children. I quickly learned the value of community service and continued service at the Vienna Arabic Learning School in high school. Once I got to Virginia Tech, I looked for ways to volunteer and work with children and became a mentor in College Mentors for Kids. Then COVID-19 hit and in-person service was lost. It quickly became clear to me that communities know what they need better than any outsider, so my new mission became equipping communities with resources and knowledge to create the change they want to see. This was my primary aim in creating Hokies Vote Caucus. Hokies Vote Caucus serves as an information hub and support group for students and organizations on and off campus to increase and institutionalize civic engagement. Through Hokies Vote Caucus, I have learned so much about the issues that communities within Virginia Tech face like food insecurity, physical inaccessibility, lack of mental health resources, and more. I have also learned, despite all these roadblocks, students dream big and stop at nothing to make the change they want to see. I take inspiration from all the student leaders and dedication I see, hear about, and experience on campus. Whenever I feel burnt out or defeated, this fact gives me hope for our future and reminds me that we are not alone. Living a life of “curiosity, integrity, innovation, leadership, success, fulfillment, and embodying the university motto, Ut Prosim, as a way of life” is about connecting with the people and community around you. We have the power to change when we support, serve, and listen to each other.

“The Aspirations are indicative of Virginia Tech’s desire for developing technical expertise in students, as well as nurturing in them a care for humanity, justice, and improving world conditions for all, in the spirit of Ut Prosim.” Given the nature of your major in philosophy, politics, and economics (PPE) and its purpose to understand social phenomena from several complementary disciplinary directions and analytical frameworks, would you say that the PPE program has helped nurture your care for humanity, justice, and improving world conditions for all?

My work outside of my major has only solidified my love for the study and the intersection of the three disciplines – philosophy, politics, and economics. It is not a triplet of disciplines you hear together often, but it makes perfect sense. Philosophy is about asking the right questions which is a difficult but important skill. Asking the right questions is especially important in deliberative dialogues. When polarizing topics enter the conversation, people talk themselves into their opinions instead of asking genuine, curious questions in pursuit of understanding. This pursuit of understanding is founded on mutual care for humanity. In addition, when training members of Hokies Vote Caucus to host deliberative dialogues, I find it difficult to verbalize the art of asking questions. It is a difficult thing to teach and it can only be taught through practice. Political science provides the technical expertise I need working in voting rights. Understanding the history and structure of democracy – as well as other governmental structures – is crucial in educating other students and understanding conceptions of justice. Economics adds another lens through which to view the problems of the world and presents its own set of unique solutions to the problems we face. For example, taking the course Poverty and Welfare was a beautiful intersection of political science and economics. Poverty and unemployment have been the center of policy debate for decades, but it is an inherently economic problem. To understand poverty alleviation, you must understand the economical foundations of the problem. Conclusively, PPE has equipped me with the ability to view a problem from many different viewpoints and given me the skills to develop integrated solutions.  

To learn more about the PPE major, please follow this link.

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