On April 28, a dozen graduate and professional students from across the university’s campuses and programs will discuss projects aimed at addressing and improving inclusion and diversity at Virginia Tech.

The students are the latest cohort of Graduate School Diversity Scholars, and the Diversity Spotlight program will take place at noon in the multipurpose room of the Graduate Life Center, 155 Otey St. in Blacksburg, and on Zoom. Those who plan to attend are asked to RSVP.

Launched in 2012, the Diversity Scholars program is administered by the Graduate School Office of Recruitment, Diversity, and Inclusion. It was developed to provide graduate students who specialize in and advocate for awareness, knowledge, and skills associated with equity, inclusion, and diversity an avenue by which they can develop and implement projects related to those goals. Graduate students apply for the program in the fall semester, and those who are accepted receive financial and institutional support to create and implement their ideas.

“The commitment from the Diversity Scholars participants each year is unmatched when acknowledging their innovation, approach, and outlook on specific issues that affect them as graduate and professional students," said Shernita Lee, assistant dean and director of the Office of Recruitment, Diversity, and Inclusion. “The outcomes of these efforts lead to transformations from the individual, departmental, college, and institutional levels.” 

These students will share their work at the spotlight event.

Alaa Abdalla, a Ph.D. student in the engineering education program, earned her bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M University at Qatar. Abdalla calls Alexandria, Egypt, and Doha, Qatar, home. She is interested in why people attend universities and the purpose of higher education.

Her project, “Home Loan,” invites individuals who grew up in different cultures from their parents to think about home and belonging through cinema. Participants are asked to choose one movie to represent part of that place, experience, occasion, or a feeling that represents home to them. The end of the project will be a movie festival showing some of these films.

Isil Anakok, a Ph.D. student in the engineering education program, is from Turkey. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Kocaeli University in Turkey and her master’s degree from Virginia Tech. Her research examines engineering ethics education in design courses, and she is interested in applications of natural language processing and text analysis in engineering education.

Her project aims to enhance new international students’ sense of belonging by having more experienced international graduate students share their academic and social experiences, challenges, and successes. 

Francesca Battista, a Ph.D. student in the science and technology studies program, calls Argentina and Italy home. She earned master’s degrees from Università di Modena e Reggio Emilia in Italy; the Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Virginia Tech; and a doctoral degree from Lund University in Sweden. Her research explores practices of inclusion and diversity “during the process of knowledge production.”

Her project is a workshop series open to the Virginia Tech community “to help faculty and graduate students expand their pedagogical tool kit with an explicit goal of unsettling hegemonic ways of teaching that re-create unequal sociocultural dynamics.”

Stephanie Ann Bontell, a master’s degree student in the natural resources conservation and sustainability studies program, is from Orlando, Florida, and she earned a bachelor’s degree from Southeastern University. Her research intersects environmental, gender, and literary studies and explores the subject of environmental memory and how place-making is a gendered process impacted by patriarchal forms of nostalgia that adversely impact socioecological justice and the representation of marginalized perspectives.

Her project is a virtual one-day symposium featuring panels of students, faculty, and alumni involved in the field of environmental justice to increase awareness of the importance of environmental justice as both a discipline and a form of diversity activism to combat social discrimination.

Caitlin Cridland, a Ph.D. candidate in the biochemistry program, is from Perth, Australia. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Winthrop University. Her research focuses on understanding how plants sense and respond to changing nutrient levels.

She and Kelsey Reed plan to quantify the effectiveness of mentorship workshops in the Translational Plant Sciences Center. They want to report a quantifiable success to present to departments across the university.

Amilia Evans, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in the rhetoric and writing program in the Department of English, is from Damascus, Maryland. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Virginia Tech and her master’s degree from Texas Tech. Her research explores how predominantly white institutions use diversity discourse and the effects of this language on their marginalized communities.

Her project examines how predominantly white institutions use climate surveys to collect student demographics and capture students’ insights into their experiences. Evans argues that these surveys can perpetuate what she calls data violence, which the University of Santa Cruz’s Center for Public Philosophy defines as encoded biases that can sustain discrimination and lead to harmful outcomes. She is researching climate surveys to “reimagine an inclusive data collection and response process that will hold institutions accountable to multiply-marginalized and underrepresented communities' experiences.”

Brandon Ganjineh, a second-year medical student at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, calls Los Angeles home. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Los Angeles. His research considers the factors that make LGBTQ+ adolescents comfortable with disclosing their sexuality to their pediatricians.

His project involves a survey of 50 LGBTQ+ identifying adolescents in Roanoke that asks about their visits to their pediatricians and whether they discuss their sexual health or disclose their sexuality to their physician. He hopes to draw attention to the issue and improve health outcomes for such adolescents in Southwest Virginia.

Gia Ha, a master’s student in the sustainable land development and urban and regional planning programs, is from Falls Church, Virginia. She earned her bachelor’s degrees from George Mason University. Her research examines using technology and behavioral sciences to promote more sustainable choices for International development.

Her project is the creation of the Asian, Pacific Islander, Desi-American (APIDA) Grad Mentoring Program to create connections among graduate students and faculty members within the APIDA community with the goal of developing environments for students to seek guidance and support.

Kelsey Jennings, a master’s student in the fish and wildlife conservation department, calls Saint Paul, Minnesota, home. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia, and her research focuses on understanding the factors that encourage people to engage with the outdoors.

For her project, she worked with an undergraduate student to explore the literature focused on LGBTQ+ people in the outdoors to understand what had been studied and to recommend future research directions.

Shaghayegh Navabpour, a Ph.D. student in the translational biology, medicine, and health program, is from Tehran, Iran. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Tehran. Her research focuses on memory formation.

Her project focuses on the experiences of international graduate students at Virginia Tech, many of whom have dependents, such as their spouses or kids. There are many issues this community is facing after coming to Virginia Tech, such as financial issues, health care, child care, social isolation. She hopes to provide recommendations for the university targeted toward dependents.

Kelsey Reed, a Ph.D. student in the horticulture program, is from Castle Rock, Colorado. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Her research involves enhancing crops to be environmentally sustainable and resilient to the changing climate.

She and Caitlin Cridland are working together to quantify the effectiveness of the Translational Plant Sciences Center mentorship programs.

Zuleka Woods, a Ph.D. candidate in the planning governance, and globalization program and a master’s student in the public health program, is from Liberia. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Northeastern University. Her research explores race and power structures in international programs in sub-Saharan Africa.

Her project combined a photo display and a panel of women focused on the history, experiences, and scholarship on Black women's hair. The work examined hair textures, styles, and types as learning opportunities and spoke to inclusion of hair as an element of identity for Black women.

Written by Cathy Grimes