Aug. 23, 2017

Service on Solar Eclipse Day, and Learning of Advocacy in West Virginia

Spreading Light, Starting New: Orientation’s Final Day


Batten’s incoming and returning students worked on community service projects on the final day of Batten’s 2017 orientation program on Monday, August 21. Incoming students also heard from a committed advocate and recent graduate, Natalie Roper.

Roper spoke in the morning before students headed out for a “Batten Builds” service day, “bringing light to the Charlottesville community” on the afternoon of the solar eclipse. Teams of nearly 200 Batten students, faculty members, and staff provided service at 13 worksites, including Riverview Park in Charlottesville.

Batten Builds service projects included work at Charlottesville’s Riverview Park, where students cleaned and replaced kiosk signs, removed invasive plants, and installed additional bilingual safety signs to help prevent accidents in the Rivanna River.

Katie Kozlowski, left, and Olivia Davis, improving a kiosk display

Other projects included extensive indoor and outdoor cleanup at Camp Holiday Trials, landscaping and indoor bingo playing at The Cedars Golden Living Center retirement home, and assistance at the Charlottesville downtown branch of the James Madison Regional Library.

Ben Woodard and Emily Drake, calling out bingo numbers at The Cedars

At the library, students helped with the distribution of hundreds of solar eclipse viewing glasses, baked cookies with children, helped children make pinhole projectors for viewing the shadow of the eclipse, and helped cleanup afterwards. (Library photos by Scott Adams)


Roper, the keynote speaker for undergraduate orientation, told more than 90 new students to surround themselves with mentors and friends, and to build a team of supporters they can turn to at any time.

“You are being trained to be the doers,” said Roper, a 2014 graduate from Batten’s Master of Public Policy program, who urged students to press forward no matter what the challenges are.

“The best advice I can give you — to not be terrified to go out and do it — is to surround yourself with a team of mentors,” said Roper, who offered examples from her advocacy work.

“When looking at a big problem that needs tackling, my first step is always surrounding myself with experts who can serve as mentors. I have someone I call for advice on nonprofit management, on policy, on just about anything. Building out my team of mentors has given me the confidence I need to start doing even when it seems scary.”

Roper’s first challenge a few months out of Batten was to become the first executive director of Generation West Virginia (GWV), an organization dedicated to attracting, retaining, and advancing young talent in West Virginia.

Roper told students that her organization’s mission is both to encourage young West Virginians to remain in the state, and also to bring new people into a region that has experienced significant decline in its industrial base over recent decades, particularly when it comes to extractive industries like coal mining.

A strong narrative that advances the story of their organization’s mission is critical to drawing people into the work, she said.

“When you tell your story, you become a model, and you create roadmaps that other people and places can follow and learn from. It becomes not just about you and your work, but how other people can take that model and apply it to problems in their communities.”

Harnessing strong data is part of the answer, she said, citing the use of statistics to help sway the West Virginia legislature and the governor to approve new legislation to expand access to high-speed Internet in the state. “How do you use the power of data to amplify your voice?” she asked.

Trust the data you have, she said. “There is power in finding the right numbers.”

She cited other examples: data about the number of college graduates and others in West Virginia who leave the state, and data showing the details of the state’s overall population decline.

She also cited the example of Detroit, using data showing improvements in employment and increased population to identify best practices from other places, and to bring program models back to West Virginia.

“There is very often a singular narrative that is told about West Virginia, but it is only a part of the story. Among the challenges we face as a state, I also see a resounding narrative of resiliency and community-led change.

“In confronting options for action, there is always the choice to do nothing. But even as overwhelming as it might seem at the time, don’t choose this option. Get out there, and do the work that is needed.”

She added, “I really believe that you need to take the big vision you believe in and continue to break it down into clearly defined problems and possible solutions. Then, trust yourself.  Go out and do it.”

While at UVA, Roper earned her undergraduate degree in Government and American Politics. As an undergraduate, she was selected to be an Echols Scholar and a member of the Raven Society. She also received the 2014 Pilot Award, selected by her classmates for her citizenship, leadership, and contribution to Batten.

Roper has been recognized as a 2016 “Wonder Woman” by the magazine WV Living. She is a 2015 recipient of the WV Woman “Rising Star” award and is a graduate of the 2015 Leadership West Virginia class.