Emily Barritt orchestrates a day 15 years in the making

For one day last April, nearly 50 musicians took to the sidewalks on Virginia Tech’s campus to perform open-air, mini-concerts. It was a day 15 years in the works, and yet, without Emily Barritt and her enthusiasm, it may not have happened.

Along with a small team, Barritt, a sophomore Honors student, McNamara Scholarship recipient, and neuroscience and chemistry double major, helped orchestrate the event. But the idea came from an unlikely source: an introductory Honors chemistry class.

Nearly 15 years ago, Virginia Tech chemistry professor Gordon Yee brought the idea for Music Day with him from the University of Colorado. When he brought it up during the class’ optional Monday problem solving sessions, Barritt jumped in to help make the day happen, using her organizational skills, her connections from her work as a Moss Arts Center ambassador, and her own talents as a musician: she plays the saxophone, clarinet, flute, cello, piano, steel drum, and — her specialty — the bassoon. “You learn one, you learn 'em all," she said.

Barritt has a tendency to get involved and to quietly assume leadership, says Eric Kaufman, faculty principal in the Honors Residential Commons (HRC) and a close mentor to Barritt. It’s part of the reason she was awarded the Michael Muldoon Award, given to one standout, engaged, freshman HRC fellow at the living-learning community’s end-of-the-year banquet.

“It is this individual’s quiet involvement that might be most impressive,” Kaufman said in the award speech. “She helped with a variety of tasks throughout the year, receiving little recognition along the way.”

Kaufman applauded her involvement in Music Day and her consistency. He noted that she wasn’t only involved in the more exciting events, but also in the “mundane meetings like those to review amendments to the HRC Charter.”

Barritt even encouraged Yee, her chemistry professor, to get involved with the Honors Residential Commons. He applied for and was brought in as a senior fellow, becoming a mentor not just to Barritt but others in the HRC as well.

Emily Barritt in her dorm room looking at her laptop

"When there's something good in my life, or I see something that makes me happy, I want to share it with people,” Barritt said.

Yee, who also serves as director of undergraduate studies, was an influential force in Barritt’s life: he helped guide her as she reconsidered her studies.

"I was kind of floating for awhile, and then Dr. Yee really was the one who encouraged me,” she said. “He was like, 'there's the Venn Diagram of things you enjoy, things you're good at, things you get paid for.'"

For Barritt, that Venn Diagram is overflowing.

She enjoys archery, weightlifting, and being an integral part of the HRC — this year, she’s an apartment fellow and the director of academic enrichment for the Commons Council. She also enjoys learning in general; being in school gives her the particular satisfaction of exploring as many different fields as possible. For now, those fields include STEM education, performing arts, and politics. In the future, she’s considering a master's degree in business administration.

One of the many things she’s good at, as Music Day proves, is making things happen: she’s a doer, someone who enjoys organizing and turning ideas into reality. While she can appreciate research, she says she enjoys being hands-on and proactive; it’s one of the reasons she spent the past summer interning with Congressman Richard Hanna of New York, where she sat in on briefings, wrote letters to constituents, and gave tours of Congressional offices.

And in the Venn Diagram circle of things she might get paid for? She’s still not sure, and though she’s in no rush to figure it out — “I definitely came [to college] to figure out what I wanted to do,” she said — she’d love to perhaps work in some capacity with nonprofit arts centers, like she does volunteering back home in Virginia Beach with the Virginia Arts Festival.

“She is slowly figuring out who she is and this started by changing her major to chemistry and neuroscience from engineering,” Yee said. “That said, she has so many interests and talents that I think she feels a little overwhelmed by all of the choices. That's a good problem to have, I think.”

Barritt’s exploratory approach to life is in large part due to the loss of her mother to cancer during the summer before her senior year of high school. Because of it, she said she matured quickly, and it taught her what’s important, with family as her highest priority.

“It's definitely turned me into the person that I am,” she said. “It kind of plays into like, life's short, and so I'm doing the things that I want to do.”

But Barritt isn’t going it alone. She credits the Honors College and its staff with encouraging her to freely explore any and all opportunities that may interest her during her time at Virginia Tech.

“You’re witnessing me, Emily Barritt, high school valedictorian, and an academic leader, with no sense of who I am,” Emily said in a speech she gave at the 2016 Honors College Convocation. “Am I chemist, a neuroscientist, a misguided musician, policy junkie, a wanna-be Olympic archer? I don't know, but Tech’s Honors college is allowing me the opportunity to figure it out.

“The Honors College is allowing me to realize who I am,” she said.

But Barritt deserves more credit than she may let on: according to Kaufman, she’s the type of student to continually seek out guidance on her own.

“I believe Emily has maturity and self-awareness beyond what is typical for undergraduate students,” Kaufman said. “She has a drive to achieve, but she also has patience and humbleness. Those qualities are evident in the time she invests in learning from mentors, including both faculty and peers.”

Barritt still has her sophomore, junior, and senior years to go, but with all she’s accomplished so far, those who know her best are certain she has plenty to look forward to in the years to come.

“I can't predict her future,” Yee said, “but I don't think there's anything that she can't do.”

Written by Erica Corder