Virginia Tech Graduate School’s 2020-21 Diversity Scholars will share their projects with the university community and the public in a virtual Spotlight showcase on Friday, May 7, at 3 p.m. The event will be held on Zoom and will feature a short video from each of the 10 scholars discussing their work. Register via this link.  

The Graduate School developed the Diversity Scholars program in 2012 to help students develop and implement projects to improve inclusion and diversity through dialogue, advocacy, and change in programs, units, and colleges across the university’s campuses. Past projects have included organizing and holding the university’s first powwow, creating support groups and mentoring programs for underrepresented students, producing films and multimedia displays, hosting discussion groups and more.

“This year's Diversity Scholars centers on our student's commitment to develop, promote, and sustain a culture of inclusion through a series of different projects,” said Assistant Director for Recruitment, Diversity and Inclusion Justin Grimes. “These exceptional VT graduate students raise critical questions which challenge everyone to create spaces where individuals feel welcomed, acknowledged, safe, and successful.”

Below you will find information about the 2020-21 Diversity Scholars and their descriptions of their projects.

Mohammed Baaoum, a Ph.D. student in the Industrial and Systems Engineering program in the College of Engineering, shared the following about his project: “Racial discrimination is often complicated by religious discrimination (i.e., the stigmatization of religions most commonly practiced by individuals with minoritized racial identities). I intend to design an Art Exhibit focused on interfaith solidarity and racial equity. The goal of my project is to highlight stories, discourses, and images that show solidarity among people from various secular and religious backgrounds and to contribute to the advancement of an inclusive environment and pluralism in our campus.”

Katrina Colucci-Chang, a Ph.D. student in the Biomedical Engineering program in the College of Engineering, at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute in Roanoke, said of her project: “In STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, people with disabilities often face myriad stereotypes and barriers in their pursuit of personal or professional goals. Due to prejudice and the lack of resources, students with disabilities may feel inhibited and abandon their dreams of pursuing STEM careers. By recognizing and understanding the individual educational needs that students protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act require, an effective mentorship and workshop series can be structured to encourage the inclusion of everyone in STEM. Through the implementation of well-established guidelines, appropriate methods, and effective tools specified to assist those with disabilities, mentors can successfully guide high school students with disabilities towards success in STEM and fulfillment of those students’ career or educational goals.”

Jamie M. Dellinger, A Ph.D. student in the Marriage and Family Therapy program in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, describes her project as: “This project aims to create a systematic tutorial that will guide members of the Virginia Tech community in creating more gender affirming course content. The program will suggest language guidelines, which will promote inclusivity.”

Jing Ju, a Ph.D. student in the Biomedical and Veterinary Science program in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, wrote: “I aim to form an AdvantageVT student committee comprised of international graduate and undergraduate students. I want to hold at least four online group meetings with international students from the AdvantageVT Pathway Program. The goal is for the AdvantageVT student committee to build a good relationship with the pre-admitted students in this program and to help them take advantage of opportunities and to efficiently use university resources, and at the same time raising awareness and improving their study experiences across Virginia Tech.”

Malia Pownall, a master’s degree student in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, offered the following description of her project: “This project involves participatory, community-engaged art. The outcome of this project will be a visual collection of thoughts, feelings, ideas, reflections, and dreams from community members who participate. I hope that this project will encourage participants and observers to reflect on how they feel included in Blacksburg or at Virginia Tech, and to recognize how others may experience these collective spaces differently.”

Jessica Resor, a Ph.D. student in the Human Development and Family Science program in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, wrote: “This project extends anti-racist efforts in the Department of Human Development and Family Science (HDFS) with a graduate student book club discussion on anti-racism and oppression. HDFS graduate students will select a book of interest together, meet throughout the semester to discuss the book, and work towards actionable steps for the department to improve the quality of anti-racist discussion and create individual and structural change. As a field, HDFS is concerned with issues of racism and oppression, particularly as they impact one’s life course development and outcomes.”

Muhammed Shah Shajahan, a Ph.D. student in the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought (ASPECT) program in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, describes his project in this way: “My project thematically focuses on intercultural and cross-cultural understanding and attention to power dynamics. The program specifically aims to help make students aware of the racial configuration in American society; to familiarize students with how caste-based hierarchy works in the non-south Asian contexts (i.e., diasporic); to discuss with students how to create a politically sensitive atmosphere of democratic interactions on campus; and to create an awareness of the democratic togetherness on campus through rigorously developing the idea of social hybridism.”

Courtney Swanson, a Ph.D. student in Psychology in the College of Science, said of her project: “Rainbow Road is a graduate student organization for individuals who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community. This group helps graduate students find others within their community who are closer to their age and are experiencing similar life troubles, provides a resource list for places that are LGBTQ+ friendly in the area, and provides research talks that highlight both research on the community and researchers who are part of the community.”

Sara Wenger, a Ph.D. student in the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought (ASPECT) program in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, offered the following description: “My project intends to assess how students, faculty, and staff are feeling in the wake of remote learning for nearly two semesters, comparing the social impacts of remote learning to those of in-person learning. I will create an online survey for this project, the results of which will be analyzed and presented as a report to the Office of Recruitment, Diversity, and Inclusion. I plan to include in my online survey questions regarding how students, faculty, and staff see themselves on Zoom, and will ask them to self-identify their gender, race, ethnicity, class status, and ability to help gauge attitudes towards identity and body image issues across diverse populations at Virginia Tech.”

Jordan Westcott, a Ph.D. student in the Counselor Education program in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, said of her Diversity Scholar work: “My project is focused on advancing social science research with LGBTQ+ participants. By identifying best practices for reducing risk in collecting demographic information related to LGBTQ+ identity, I hope to support greater inclusion for LGBTQ+ participants in important research.”

Written by Cathy Grimes