Behind the Lens: The Humans Who Started Humans of Virginia Tech

In Featured, Variety by

An in-depth look at the organization’s founders and major contributors, who share their vulnerabilities, dreams, passions, and hopes for the future of HOVT.
Interviews By Stephanie Kapllani, Variety Editor Contact the Editor
Photos By Scott Beaubien, Visuals Photographer Contact the Photographer

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A photo of the Humans of Virginia Tech team.

The Humans of Virginia Tech team poses for a photo outside of War Memorial Chapel.

Humans of Virginia Tech, inspired by Brandon Stanton’s popular street photography blog called Humans of New York, was started here in 2013 by former Tech student, Jae Lee. A team of photographers, videographers, and graphic designers work together to capture the stories of the diverse Hokie community. But instead of being behind the lens, this time we turned the camera (and the questions) onto some of the people responsible for the local social media phenomenon that has amassed over 15,000 followers and counting online.

A photo of Jae Lee.

Photo courtesy of Jae Lee.

Jae Lee

Former Virginia Tech Student
Founder of Humans of Virginia Tech

What were some of the challenges you experienced while starting Humans of Virginia Tech?

“I started with people I knew: my friends, acquaintances, professors… it was hard going up to people with a camera and asking them to tell me their story. Most people I’m sure were like, ‘who’s this random Asian kid asking me all this personal stuff?’ I wanted to make sure that this succeeded. I knew that if I did this alone it would go downhill. The growth was pretty slow at first but then more people joined and it got bigger.”

What was a defining moment in your life?

“Immigrating to the United States in 2009. I started high school here and immigrated from South Korea. Coming here gave me a lot of time to work on the stuff I love to do. I love videography and photography. I love learning new culture and new language. It opened my eyes to different parts of the world and history.”

Why did you decide to leave Virginia Tech?

“I was frustrated. I started Humans of Virginia Tech thinking this school and the Hokie community was amazing. This is a very tight, interconnected community because Hokies love this community so much, we try to protect it too much. Just like a United States citizen loves their country, they want to protect it by only saying good things about it despite its problems. People sometimes rebel against change for the better. Tech is having a lot of negative impact towards the locals and I was finding that locals were dissatisfied with Tech. The money that is involved with the college scene is too excessive and I understand that money needs to be present in order to run a great college system. For example, so much money is invested in football, in advertising, new facilities, etc. Publishers making deals with professors. The system and quality of undergrad education is declining and becoming corrupt. It is a money-making business. It no longer represents what college was built for. I think undergrad education is as important as higher education. If we want to enrich our citizens and make them smarter, free thinkers who can hold a debate about politics or about any subject, they need this undergrad education to be able to do that. But because of the tons of money that is involved in this system, it’s corrupt. I think college education is important but it needs refining.”

Do you think you will go back to school to finish your bachelor’s degree?

“I’m not advanced far into my life yet to know for sure. There are some moments now where I get emails from jobs asking if I want this job and then they find out I don’t have a bachelor’s degree, so it’s limiting. I’ve been trying to learn more about computer science for several months now. I’m trying to create this social web platform and in order to do this I’m trying to study computer language but it is very hard. I’m thinking of going to George Mason to study computer language. Then I’d like to network with different engineers and professionals to help me build Compassers. Potential investors in Korea told me to come back to them after I do get a bachelor’s in computer science.”

Piece of wisdom you’d like to pass on to people?

“I’m not going to say just follow your passion. You have to really think about the consequences—every decision you make has consequences. Are you willing to go through those consequences for your dream? If this dream needs schooling, then stick it out and stay in school but if school isn’t for you then don’t suffer through it. You don’t need college to follow your passion whatever it may be. College doesn’t define you or your intelligence.

I failed so many projects and organizations that I started. I live off of this failure. I don’t care if I fail, I like starting and creating new ideas. I’m not this amazing adventurous person and I am not a bum. Once your life becomes defined, that is the ultimate failure. Never define yourself, there is always room to change and grow. I don’t let anyone define my life.”

A photo of Wilson Rhodes wearing a maroon Virginia Tech shirt

Wilson Rhodes

Senior computer science major, cinema minor
Co-founder of Humans of Virginia Tech

Where do you find inspiration?

“I take inspiration from a lot of places. I like all kinds of music, but rap might be my favorite. I really like Drake, he seems like a really down-to-earth kind of guy even through all the fame. I like Childish Gambino—him and Drake have both gone back and forth between singing and acting. That’s pretty cool that you can be that talented. One person I really look up to is Alan Turing. He was a guy in World War II who worked for England to break the Enigma code, which was Germany’s message coding algorithm. They made a movie about it called “The Imitation Game.” I feel like he’s really one of the unsung heroes. He basically solved the entire thing and saved so many lives during the war. He’s also known as one of the fathers of computer science because he developed a lot of complex algorithms back when they didn’t even really have complex computers.”

How has Humans of Virginia Tech made an impact on you and the community?

“One thing I think about that I never really thought about before is when you’re walking by people, you don’t realize that they have everything going on in their own life that you just never really think about. They have their own stories. It’s just cool to see how unique everyone is. It helped me see a different perspective on everyone.

Ut Prosim is our motto. When you think about it, it’s a really important thing. “That I may serve”—you’re not just looking out for yourself, you’re also looking out for all your classmates and all your friends that are also in the Hokie community. We do our best to get everyone’s story, and as a part of that it helps bring people together just by letting people know one another a little better.”

How would you like to be remembered?

“To me it’s not important to be remembered for doing anything huge or changing lives in a super big way. For me, it’s the little things I’d like to be remembered by, like maybe somebody this morning was looking through their phone at a Humans of Virginia Tech post and they smiled and made their day a little better. I don’t know if that happened or not, but it could happen and I think people enjoy what we do and just knowing that I’m making people’s lives a little bit better is really all that matters to me.”

A photo of Sue Jung

Sue Jung

Junior architecture major
Co-Administrator and photographer for Humans of Virginia Tech

How has Humans of Virginia Tech changed since you joined?

“When I first started in the Spring of 2014 we were at 4,000 followers. Now I think we’re at 11,000. I really appreciate how Tech created this opportunity for us to share our stories. We’re so embracing, that’s what facilitated our page to grow more. I hope that people gain inspiration and hope from Humans of Virginia Tech and I hope that it continues after we’re gone.”

Is there a filtering process to what you guys post?

“Since we’re becoming so large, a lot of people want publicity, especially for their organization. If they have a personal story they really want to share, sure, but if it’s solely for publicity we try not to interview them. Some people would submit a quote for us and they’re like, ‘hey, can you post this?’ So we’ve had to turn people away.”

Why study architecture?

“I moved around a lot when I was a kid. Actually, living in Virginia was probably the longest time I’ve stayed in one spot. I like how architecture has its permanence and tangibility. I think that’s why I’m drawn to the field.”

What are you passionate about?

“Individuality. I think everyone has the potential in themselves but they don’t know what they have in themselves and they just let it die. I hate it when that happens. I think education is such a vital part when it comes to finding one’s potential and maximizing it. That’s why I want to teach really badly, because I know that everyone has a forte, and everyone has a talent. I just want to be that person that helps others to find their potential so they can spread their talent and use it for the betterment of the world.”

What’s your piece of wisdom you’d like to pass on?

“The scariest part of trying new things is right before you do it. You just have to go past that psychological barrier. Like right before you dive at a swimming pool—I don’t dive but my brother does. He says the scariest moment is right when you’re hanging on the edge of the board and you’re about to jump off, that’s the scariest part. So, aiding that process I think is such a significant role, which is why I’d like to teach.”

A photo of Michelle Vernon

Michelle Vernon

Recent graduate of Virginia Tech with a Bachelor of Fine Arts
Former graphics designer and photographer for Humans of Virginia Tech

Why are you interested in art and photography?

“I like to capture the world in different perspectives. I never liked being in the videos themselves. I like recording people’s stories. You’re capturing a memory, a special moment, that you can replay over and over again. You don’t have to try and remember it in your head because when you try and remember your past experiences, you don’t remember the full event, you remember just the bits and pieces of it. You can look at a photograph and remember that night. Photography and videography—it captures these unique moments that you would otherwise forget, and I think that’s a beautiful thing.”

What do you wish you could do more of?

“I’d cross more things off my bucket list. The first time I ever traveled, I got to cross off so many things at once and it’s an amazing feeling. My mom was really the one who inspired it. In high school, she talked about all the things she didn’t get a chance to do, and I want to live my life to the fullest and constantly try to do new things. My goal in life is to bring my mom to Ireland because that’s at the top of her list.

If I ever end up in a bad place or situation or if I fall in a rut, the bucket list is a reminder that I’m going to be who I want to be and I’m not going to settle for anything. It’s why I took the risk of going into art at Virginia Tech. I don’t want to settle and be unhappy. My ultimate goal in life is just to be happy, but to do that you have to risk it and go after your passion. It’s a constant journey, it’s not a destination. The bucket list is just a reminder that I’m going to be doing lots of things with my life and that there is so much to look forward to—like Swiss chocolate. I tried that for the first time and it was amazing.”

A photo of Jacqueline Nelson

Jacqueline Nelson

Senior public relations and natural resources and conservation and recreation management double major
Contributing videographer for Humans of Virginia Tech

How has Humans of Virginia Tech affected you?

“Humans of VT has changed me because of the people I’ve gotten to work with when I film. I can’t ask a stranger to do a video because videos take hours of work and filming, so usually I have to find someone who that I sort of know at least. But I get the chance to film some incredible people. It inserts me into parts of this school and this community that I normally wouldn’t be a part of. I’m trying to learn more about people’s backstories, but I feel like I’m finding more about myself and that I just like to connect with people and learn about different parts of the community. You learn a lot about other people, and in turn you learn a lot about yourself.”

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

“I see myself working for a government organization or nonprofit, working PR, or doing some kind of environmental education or outreach. My dream job would be to be the next Steve Irwin. Just to be a part of one of those organizations that help people educate people and that do it in a creative and innovative way.”

Who has really inspired you?

“My parents, definitely. That’s kind of the cheesy answer but they don’t share the same interests as me at all. When I entered college they never pushed me to go in any certain direction, they always encouraged me to do what I love. Some people get pushed into doing things they don’t want to do and end up regretting it, and my parents have just been very supportive of everything I do and they’re like, ‘it’s your life, make your decisions and we’ll support you no matter what.’ That’s always been a big deal for me because it didn’t occur to me until high school that everyone’s parents weren’t like that.

In terms of celebrities: Steve Irwin, Jack Hanna, and even Jane Goodall, but those [first] two especially. They were like my heroes growing up. I used to watch Animal Planet non-stop and I actually work in the zoo in Roanoke where Jack Hanna has had some of his education animals there. I read his autobiography. When Steve Irwin passed away, that was one of the worst things for me as a kid because that was the turning point of educational programming. He used to be this icon on television and then when he passed away, I feel like Animal Planet lost its grip on actual education and went to more shocking things like ‘10 of the Most Dangerous Animals in the World’ kind of like shows that I felt weren’t really helpful. Everything he did he just made so accessible—it was fun, and it taught me about animals.”

What’s a piece of wisdom that you would like to pass on to people?

“It makes me upset when I see people who immediately shut down the idea that they can’t do something just because they think it’s unrealistic. Everyone told me that I’m ‘not going to make any money, you’re not really going to make a difference,’ but it’s something I’m passionate about and I love doing it. As soon as I finished my freshman year I got an internship working for a wildlife center. If you’re passionate about something, immediately start doing what you love. A lot of people put money at the forefront of their problems and while that’s valid for a lot of things, I think if you want to follow your passion you should just do it and not worry about money, because honestly, I’ve never made money off of my video work but having that as one of my passions translates into my job and is one of the reasons why I got the internship that I did. Forcing yourself to do new things will help you develop as a person. Most people see being uncomfortable as something to be avoided, I seek it out.”

A photo of Armahn Rassuli.

Armahn Rassuli

Senior psychology major
Co-administrator and photographer for Humans of Virginia Tech

How do you choose who to interview for Humans of Virginia Tech?

“Some people send us scripted stuff. If I happen to be the one on the receiving end of it, I try to disregard it and actually ask them questions. You get better answers that way—you get raw, original stuff. I think it’s easy to fall in that trap of, ‘hey, can I just take a picture and you send me a quote?’ It’s pretty easy to do that, and maybe the first couple times you do that because you get nervous so I can understand that. But once you figure it out, ask questions to make it more real.

I get a lot more rejections than most: I get rejected 60-70 percent of the time. I’m still figuring out the right way to approach someone without scaring them because I’ll come up to you and comment on something you’re doing or say, ‘hey, I’m from Humans’ and they’re like, ‘um, does that mean you’re gonna take a picture? Oh, no.’ That’s the one thing I want to work on, how to approach people better.”

What motivates or drives you?

“Every so often, a couple times a month, I’ll sit down and say, ‘why am I doing this?’ I lose my motivation, I say I’m never going to make a difference. This strong negativity just kind of hits me out of nowhere. There’s that famous question, you know, ‘how do you eat an elephant?’ It’s one bite at a time. I look back and see what have I done so far. I read other people’s stories and I see what I’ve been able to accomplish so far and what I’m trying to accomplish to get to where I want to go. I see the work that I’ve put in and I see my work as a reminder of why I’m doing what I’m doing. It keeps me going. I’m working—’let’s keep pushing forward.’ I stop that negative talk, go sit down somewhere where I can see the stuff that I’ve been able to do so far and I say, ‘okay, now let’s keep going.’ I think it’s healthy that I have these moments. Sometimes you get on this high when you’re doing so well that you need to take a moment to step back and say hold on, let’s put my feet back on the ground to humble myself. What I’m doing here is good, but I have a lot more to go. I am nowhere near the finish line.

I suffered from anxiety attacks and every now and then, I still do. A technique I learned at least is to meditate. It really helps, it builds you. It puts you on hold. It started for me in high school. I had my first attack during our school mass. I stood up in the middle of it and everyone looked at me and I just ran out the room to the nurse’s room. Everyone was freaking out. My heart was going out of control, it was the first time. That’s when I got introduced to meditation. I didn’t do it at first. They went away for awhile, but then they came back and they came back differently. It wasn’t a strong point the first time, but the second time it was and it turned out to be a big help for me.”

If money, time, and failure weren’t issues, what would you be doing?

“I’d still be doing what I’m doing. My head is so set on trying to make a difference. There’s a quote I got from a guy I interviewed a month ago: “be the change you wish to see.” I know that’s a common quote, but I hadn’t heard until he said it and it stuck with me. It made me realize there are so many things I want to change in society, that I want to make better. It’s driving me every day, ‘be the change you want to see.’ If failure wasn’t an option, if money wasn’t an option, I’d still be trying to get to law school, going on to becoming somebody that can make a difference in society. I’d stay on this path and I’d just be going even faster.”

What do you want to tell the person reading this article right now?

“I hope that when people see me and when they read my story, I hope they see the same resilience in me that I see in them. I’m just the guy behind the camera, taking all these stories of these people that inspire me. I hope I do the right thing and I overcome whatever is put in front of me and people take something from that: ‘if he was able to do it, I can do it.’”

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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About the Author

Stephanie Kapllani

Stephanie Kapllani is an avid adventure junkie from Northern Virginia, who just recently made the leap from pre-med to a technical writing and language and literature major her junior year. With this 180 degree turn comes her newfound passion for journalism, having recently become the Variety editor of The Pylon. Although she has no idea what she wants to do after college, she aspires to live a fulfilling life studying literature and hopefully someday pursuing a teaching career.

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