Randy Grayson founded the Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program (MAOP) at Virginia Tech in 1993. He had no idea how big it would get.
“It has changed substantially in a sense that they’ve gotten involved in [many] departments. So they have expanded out, and I’m very happy with that,” Grayson, who has been at Virginia Tech since 1984, said.
MAOP, housed under Undergraduate Academic Affairs in the Office of the Provost, just celebrated its 25th anniversary with its annual Summer Research Internship Symposium at the Graduate Life Center. The goal of the Summer Research Internship Program is to educate undergraduates about research and graduate education, and to date, it has hosted 715 interns.
“We know that if our students are trying to go to graduate school, they have to be competitive. We want them to be competitive with their peers, whether it’s graduate school or professional school. You have to have some research experience,” MAOP Director Jody Thompson Marshall said.
Forty-three student interns attended this year’s program: a 10-week research experience for undergraduates from diverse backgrounds. Several academic departments in seven of the university’s colleges hosted the interns.
To mark the end of the program, the interns and faculty mentors shared academic presentations with fellow students, faculty members, and their families at the MAOP symposium.
After morning presentations and a poster session, student interns and faculty headed to a luncheon where Virginia Tech alumna Takiyah Sirmons spoke about a current NASA research project. Sirmons was a summer intern in 2007 from Iowa State University. As a graduate student, she worked for the program for a few summers, and is now doing contact work for NASA.
“At that point, I was considering whether or not I wanted to go into graduate school. MAOP … exposed me to a different area of food science research. But that was my first exposure with graduate-level research,” said Sirmons, who graduated with a Ph.D. in food science in 2012.
The summer program also helped expose her to a more diverse research environment.
“I think it really helps to have someone in your department that looks like you and you can relate to. Being in a graduate program is challenging in and of itself … so I think building a community of people who look like you that are going through similar experiences can help you to finish your program,” Sirmons said.
In addition to research, the students participated in workshops and activities to familiarize them with graduate school.
“We have a few workshops for the interns, such as personal statements. We also have graduate faculty [members] come in and talk about what it takes to be a strong applicant for a graduate program and then what it takes to be successful in it. And we also talk to them about creating research posters and also making oral presentations,” MAOP Director Jody Thompson Marshall said.
Interns were also required to attend a Graduate Record Examination (GRE) preparation course each week. Thompson Marshall said it’s hard for underrepresented students and first-generation students to score well on the GRE.
“Some of the interns ... did not even know what the GRE was. They did not realize that you have to take a test to enter into a graduate program. So for them, this was very eye-opening,” Thompson Marshall said.
For Kyle Titus-Glover, senior engineering science and mechanics major of the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics at Virginia Tech, being able to learn more about the GRE was helpful.
“Going into the summer, I didn’t really know what the GRE entailed other than it was just a higher version of the SAT. Now I have a better idea, and I’m glad that I did the program because I feel like I’ll actually do well now,” Titus-Glover said.
The interns were selected by faculty members and came from 24 institutions across the United States. Faculty members also served as mentors.
“I have been working with Kyle [Titus-Glover], who has been in my research group for about a year,” said Jack Lesko, associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Engineering. “The MAOP program gave him that experience and an opportunity to pull everything together and really support his professional and presentation skills.”
Lesko believes that people learn by accomplishing things that further their self-esteem.
“By having the students come together, they recognize that there is a group of people that they identify with; that then allows them to expand their own understanding of how they learn and provides the confidence to go and accomplish more,” Lesko said.
Titus-Glover enjoyed working hard alongside other students on a single topic.
“It’s humbling and inspiring at the same time. It allows me to see the merits of other programs,” Titus-Glover said.
Students in MAOP’s summer program come from community colleges as well as four-year institutions.
“The great thing about Tech is you have certain apparatuses and equipment in which you can use and learn. Some of the students are engaged in research at their home institutions, but they don’t have [access to] certain equipment to use,” Thompson Marshall said.
Thompson Marshall wants the student interns to get two particular things out of the summer program.
“This is an opportunity to see if they even like research. What I want them to have is the opportunity to explore what they like and what they don’t like. Secondly, the interns will have networked with faculty, graduate students, and other interns. Most of the interns will stay connected with each other for a lifetime,” Thompson Marshall said.
Many at the research symposium echoed their support of diversity in education, the workforce, and elsewhere.
“It’s important in all areas because you cannot expect one ethnicity to have all the knowledge, all the insight,” Grayson said. “We are a scientific and technological society. We need all of the brain power that we can capture, regardless of the source.”
Students who participated in the program were selected from Bennett College for Women, Old Dominion University, Central Piedmont Community College, Cornell University, Southwest Virginia Community College, Duquesne University, The College of New Jersey, Fayetteville State University, Towson University, Lafayette College, Liberty University, University of Miami, New River Community College, University of New Mexico, North Carolina A&T State University, North Carolina State University, University of West Alabama, Northern New Mexico College, and Virginia Tech.
Photos, video, and story by Olivia Coleman