By Amy Hubbard

Patricia “Patty” Raun joined the Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) faculty in 2012 to share her wealth of knowledge and professional experience in leadership for sustainability, especially in the skills of communicating effectively about complex sustainability systems. 

Patty says that her background as an actor contributes to her science communication work. She also serves as professor of performance and voice in the School of Performing Arts and director of the Center for Communicating Science at Virginia Tech.

In 2023, Patty received the Virginia Tech William E. Wine award, after being nominated by students, faculty, and alumni. The award, first given in 1957, honors faculty with a history of teaching excellence at Virginia Tech. 

I recently interviewed Patty about what drew her to the XMNR program and why she believes that skills such as storytelling, empathy, and connecting outside differences is vital to the work of sustainability professionals.  

AH: Hello, Patty! Could you share a little bit about yourself, your career, and how that has prepared you for teaching in the XMNR?

PR: I started my professional life as an actor. I trained as an actor and I'm still a professional actor. And I've been teaching acting to all kinds of folks, actors and non-actors for over 30 years. About 10 or 12 years ago, I started shifting the focus of my professional life to use the tools of arts practices to support people in scientific and technical fields in their need to communicate and connect across differences with other folks.

I think that none of us is just a scientific mind or just an artistic mind or just a technical mind. We are all three-dimensional human beings and the ways that we communicate with other people need to rely on all of our capacities, especially around issues of sustainability and climate change. We have to connect through all the tools and that includes tools of listening, tools of empathy, tools of storytelling. So what I try to do is help folks that have these passions for sustainability use those tools to connect with people outside of their own disciplines.

Patty poses on stage with fellow actors.
Patty in the role of Sonia in Christopher Durang's play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, with colleagues David Johnson and Susanna Rinehart. 2016. Photo courtesy of Patty Raun.

AH: What was it that initially drew you to the XMNR program and what continues to keep you engaged? 

PR: Well, my dear colleague and friend Bruce Hull had been teaching and I had been aware of his interaction with the XMNR program. He had taken a couple of workshops that I had facilitated, and he was talking to me about how the kind of experiential learning that I introduce would be valuable in the XMNR.

And simultaneously, I was being awakened in the night by difficult thoughts of climate change and sustainability issues. So I thought this might be a really good thing to try, to see if I can contribute to these folks who are changing the world for the better in that way. 

Patty Raun kayaks on the New River.
Patty kayaks on the New River in 2022. Photo courtesy of Patty Raun.

AH: I know that you work with a variety of different audiences and student groups. What is it about the XMNR program that keeps you engaged or motivated working with those specific students? 

PR: The XMNR cohorts are always the highlight of every year for me as far as learning journeys, partly because the students in the XMNR are so diverse in terms of passions, capacities, previous life experience, and work experience. I feel like it's possible for me to really learn from them as much as the experiences that I introduce.

So it’s the particular alchemy of every group of XMNR participants that is so exciting and so engaging for me. When I feel like I may be overwhelmed, I know that I can get energy and new inspiration from the folks in the XMNR. 


Group photo of 2019 XMNR cohort.
Patty with the 2019 XMNR cohort students and faculty. Photo courtesy of Amy Hubbard.

AH: Prospective students often tell me that they want those technical skills, the science, and a deep dive into the sustainability systems but they don’t necessarily see the importance of the soft skills. What is it like for you when you encounter some of our students with this perspective and how do you see their evolution throughout the year?

PR: I think some proportion of the students come into the XMNR, hoping for or intending to gain technical skill, technical knowledge and technical facility, and they will certainly get that. But I have been so delighted to see so many of them that come in with that idea of what they're going to learn transformed by the experience of communicating in a new way, connecting across differences, because what is often called soft skills are actually the necessary skills. There is solid research that says 85 percent of our success in any situation, job success, interpersonal success is about those necessary skills of listening, of empathy, of storytelling.

We develop some confidence. And especially for those folks that are looking for very technical information, sometimes there's a sense of what's right: “What's the right way to express myself? I have an idea that it's gonna be this formula. And so I'm quite stiff.” But, as we go through the program, people start to loosen up and say “Oh, it's actually my unique humanity, my own specific individual capacity that helps me communicate.”

And so I see some XMNR students say, what? She's just an actor. What am I going to learn from her? And in fact, they don't actually learn anything from me. They learn from the experiences that I curate for them but they teach themselves the value of those necessary skills, those necessary human skills.

AH: You just mentioned that one possible takeaway from your classes is connecting across differences. What can students expect from your classes and what are the takeaways for their personal and professional lives? How will those lessons serve them beyond your class and beyond the XMNR program year? 

PR: In the center that I run, Virginia Tech’s Center for Communicating Science, we have five principles that we focus on throughout all of our work:

  1. The first is that we know that folks need to be personal. They need to bring their authentic full three dimensional selves to any communication. 

  2. They need to find ways to be direct, not use words and tools and contact concepts that are exclusionary. 

  3. They need to be spontaneous, not memorized, not selling things all the time. 

  4. They need to find ways to be responsive, more attentive to their audience than to themselves. 

  5. And the last thing, maybe the most important, is they need to find ways to be emotionally vivid. Because we respond to one another through our emotions and not the data, not the information, not the stuff that's in our heads. 

When we are aware of and connected with the humanity and expressiveness of the people that we're communicating with, we're going to do better in life. And I think that is a lasting impact of the XMNR program. 

AH: What advice might you have for today's sustainability professionals who want to have more influence in the workplace?

PR: I guess my advice for anybody, not just sustainability professionals but everybody, would be to be as attentive and aware of the needs of your communication partners as you are of your own needs or your own insecurities. So be more focused on the other person and the questions and curiosities that they have.

I think especially people who are in graduate school and beyond—people who have high, high levels of education—tend to think that they have some information that the world needs and that their job is to get that information out into the world. But there's a great saying that goes: “I don't care how much you know until I know how much you care.” And that's the truth. Let the folks that you're communicating with know how much you care, and what you care about—and then they may care what you know.

AH: That is such a good reminder. So for anyone who may be considering the XMNR program, do you have any advice for them as they are exploring their various different options?

PR: Absolutely. I think for folks who may consider joining the XMNR program, it's important to acknowledge that one of the principles of the XMNR is that we lead from where we are. So, just like the fact that I'm an actor—what business do I have in helping to teach sustainability leaders?

Well, I have to lead from where I am. If I want to contribute, who I am has got to be good enough. So my advice for folks who are considering coming into the XMNR is—yes, you belong here, whether you're coming from teaching kindergarten, or whether you're coming right out of an undergraduate biology program, or whether you're a mature professional who is considering making a change in your career. You belong here because we're all going to be leading from where we are. We're all going to be learning from each other, from wherever that place is. And the more different opinions, different perspectives, different frames of mind that we have, the more generative, productive, and exciting the program is.

AH: Storytelling is something that you do quite naturally. Is storytelling something that can be taught and learned? What is the connection between storytelling and environmental sustainability work? 

PR: Well, human beings are storytelling animals. Telling stories to one another and capturing vivid images is, I believe, how we have survived as a species.

So I believe that the ability to tell stories is vital to the work of sustainability professionals, because I think it is the way we will survive these challenges. I know that is maybe pretty emotional for me to feel that way, but I believe entirely in the power of storytelling.

AH: Complete the following sentence, The lasting impact I hope to leave on the world is…

PR: The lasting impact that I hope to leave on the world is that we would each have a great deal of compassion for ourselves, and that through this self compassion we might have more compassion and action toward the support of our fellow humans and all of nature.

CLiGS Blog Posts Featuring Patty Raun

A custom cohort graduate program: what makes the Executive MNR stand out

Expanding the Tribe Through Storytelling (I)

Expanding the Tribe Through Storytelling (II)

Virginia Tech Executive Master’s program launches veteran into second career

Communications should be a fundamental piece of your sustainability career

Learning science your way–inspiring young students in the field through STEAM

XMNR alum challenges the cultural norms of open fire cooking in Latin America

Making the world a more equitable place: Danielle Simms, an Executive MNR alum and environmental justice advocate