Students and faculty from 15 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and minority serving institutions (MSIs) from as close as Virginia and North Carolina and as far away as Texas and Florida converged on Virginia Tech recently for the annual HBCU/MSI Research Summit.

The event, hosted by the Graduate School, provides opportunities for Virginia Tech faculty and administrators to meet and partner with faculty from the visiting institutions on a wide range of research proposals and projects. Undergraduate students have the opportunity to learn more about Virginia Tech and to attend several workshops to help them prepare to apply to graduate programs. They also receive frank and insightful information from Virginia Tech graduate students who earned undergraduate degrees at HBCUs before coming to the university.

Visiting institutions included Bethune-Cookman University, of Daytona Beach, Florida; Delaware State University; Florida A&M University; Hampton University and Norfolk State University; Virginia State University; Elizabeth City State University; North Carolina A&T University; Prairie View A&M University; Texas Southern University, of Texas; and Morgan State University, of Maryland; among others.

Shernita Lee, assistant dean and director of the Office of Recruitment, Diversity, and Inclusion, said several Virginia Tech colleges, departments, and research centers provided workshops and presentations. The Center for Communicating Science broke the ice on the first day with several activities, and six students associated with the center gave lightning talks during the research showcase, which was followed by a poster session. The College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences’ Juneteenth Scholars also discussed their work.

The program included sessions for faculty devoted to grant-writing, finding funding for proposals, working collaboratively across institutions, and equity, diversity, and inclusion in graduate research and education.

“Each year the summit is strategically planned and organized by an engaged planning committee to add insightful schedule components for both faculty and student attendees’” Lee said. “No two years are the same as we continue to refine the summit to meet the evolving needs of the participants and to make the programming more inclusive to serve all of the colleges.”

Virginia Tech graduate students, who all earned their undergraduate degrees at HBCUs, speak on a panel that serves as one of the more popular events of the summit. Lee noted that this year the panel comprised eight students with degrees from at least eight institutions. A few had also earned master’s degrees from HBCUs.

“We are so fortunate to have wonderful graduate students eager to share candid responses to the audience about their transition to Virginia Tech and offer other advice’” said Lee. “Not only did they fully participate in their session, but they also interacted with the participants throughout the three-day event. The HBCU/MSI students said they could now envision themselves in graduate school and that revelation adds to the summit’s success and supports its mission.”

Several of the Virginia Tech students said being on the panel was a privilege.

“Not too long ago I was in their seats," said Jatia Mills, a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical and veterinary sciences who earned her undergraduate degree at Morgan State University. "I used to dream of being able to one day have the knowledge of my mentors and like them share with those students coming up behind me. Being able to provide minority undergraduates information that can help them to one day surpass me assures that I am on the right path.”

Larry Luster, a second-year doctoral student in chemical engineering from Montgomery, Alabama, earned his bachelor’s degree at Hampton University and attended the 2019 summit. He said being a panelist this year was about giving back.

“Representation matters, and being able to ask sometimes tough questions to someone who looks like you and has had similar experiences is an opportunity that is invaluable when trying to make connections and decide your next steps,” Luster said.

They were joined on the panel by Audra Barnes, a Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering who earned her bachelor’s degree from Florida A&M University; Carlos Posada, a graduate student in chemistry who earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and another bachelor’s degree from Fayetteville State University; Tyana Scott, a master’s degree student in biomedical engineering who earned her bachelor’s degree at North Carolina A&T State University, Tarisa Ross, a Ph.D. student in geosciences with a bachelor’s degree from Howard University and a master’s degree from North Carolina Central University; Joseph Sturgess, a doctoral student in engineering education with a bachelor’s degree from Tuskegee University and a master’s degree from Fisk University; and Arogeanae Brown, a Ph.D. student in agricultural, leadership, and community education who earned a bachelor’s degree from Virginia State University and a master’s degree from Virginia Tech. Tremayne Waller, director of graduate student programs for the College of Engineering, was the moderator.

Scott also attended an HBCU/MSI research summit at Virginia Tech as an undergraduate and said the experience influenced her decision to pursue a graduate degree. She found the panel to be particularly helpful. “Just talking to students who are in a position of where you intend to be one day can be insightful,” she said. “You are able to get answers from a perspective to which you can closely relate.”

Panelists answered a wide range of questions, from how to find community on campus to how to work with mentors and advisors and how to handle difficult situations. Panelists provided tips, insights, and examples from their own experiences, including information about housing, funding, and extracurricular activities. Luster said several students asked about how to say no and to manage their time. He said these are difficult concerns for most graduate students but, can be tougher for students “who may struggle with issues like imposter syndrome, perfectionism, or feeling the need to prove themselves.” He said all the panelists did a fine job of assuring the students that they did not need to prove themselves, that they were admitted for a reason and that they have to keep their own well-being in mind.

“These types of events are where I picked up some of the best advice as an undergraduate student that I still use today as a graduate student,” he said. Scott urged the students to remember to have fun. “Graduate school moves so quickly and when your time is up you want to have memories to look back on. Just enjoy your moments."

Lee sent out a survey after the summit and said several students and faculty have responded, as have Virginia Tech program participants and attendees.

“The quantitative and qualitative responses from the summit participants will drive the planning for 2023,” she said. “We carefully review all comments and use them to inform what we can do to continue to make the summit an event that is worthwhile and productive. We emphasize that the summit is a rewarding experience whether you are a new faculty member or a student uncertain of the best graduate program to match budding interests.”

The next research summit will be held in fall 2023.