Lisa M. Lee, associate vice president for research and innovation at Virginia Tech, recalls what it was like to be a first-generation student and recognizes the challenges of navigating college life.

“Walking onto my college campus was a completely new experience for me. I did not have the advantage of having parents who knew what was what to help me navigate the system. Nor did I have the built-in connections that so many of my peers had,” said Lee. “But, what I did have was what most first-gen students have — excellent problem-solving skills, ‘stick-to-it-ness,' and an instinct to thrive. These qualities come in handy when facing new challenges.”

As part of Virginia Tech’s efforts to support underrepresented and underserved students, among whom first-generation students are included, there are numerous programs — new and long-standing — that aim to help first-generation Hokies succeed in their social, academic, and professional goals.

This summer, Lee and the Virginia Tech office she leads — the Division of Scholarly Integrity and Research Compliance in the Office for Research and Innovation — have launched a first-generation undergraduate research internship program in conjunction with Student Affairs’ program for First Generation for Student Support. The goal of the program is to provide first-generation Hokies an internship experience that introduces them to the wide variety of research and provides an opportunity to make connections with leading Virginia Tech researchers.

Dana Carhart, a fourth-year student majoring in communication science and social inquiry in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, is the inaugural first-generation intern who hopes the experience will reinforce her career goals of becoming a public policy researcher.

Carhart said her parents’ determination, perseverance, and strength during difficult times motivated her to earn a college degree. “I am more than grateful and regularly thank my parents for raising me to be someone who will not quit when times get tough, and knows no limit when it comes to reaching my career goals,” Carhart said.

Lee shares advice for first-generation Virginia Tech students like Carhart and their families. "Don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Many people have been in your spot before and are willing to help. And, remember your roots; it takes a great deal of courage and determination for families and friends to help you along the way,” she said.

As for Carhart, Lee’s words ring true. Carhart witnessed her parents' struggles in the job market as a result of not attending college. 

“My parents did everything in their power to raise me and my younger sister the best way they knew. They were able to keep a family of four afloat financially with high school diplomas as their highest form of education. Seeing this first hand motivated me to pursue a college education and am grateful for every experience,” said Carhart. 

During the summer months and the fall, Carhart will support Virginia Tech researchers and research administrators. In her work she will hone communication skills, cultivate relationships, conduct background research on compliance requirements, analyze data, and present and write summaries of research findings. Alongside Lee; Mary Potter, director of privacy research and data protection; Barbara DeCausey, director of the human research protection program; and Cristen Jandreau, director of research conflict of interest, Carhart is learning the inner workings of the office.

“Dana is a wonderful example of a first-generation college student selected for her talent, and positive and engaging spirit,” said Potter, who is supervising Carhart. “Dana’s mother and father supported her goal of attending college and were eager for her to have the same opportunities as other students. We are excited to mentor Dana as she learns more about the work we do to support the research community.”

Living in Blacksburg during summer months and being able to take part in more in-person meetings have been highlights for Carhart thus far. For the fall semester, Carhart is looking forward to meeting more researchers and learning how to best support their activities.

Also in the fall, the office will welcome an additional intern to partner with the Institutional Animal Care and Use and Institutional Biosafety Committee programs. 

For program questions, email Ann Thornhill at

Written by Lindsey Haugh

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