Natasha Saunders has worked at Virginia Tech for only a year, and already, she has made a distinctive mark as a diversity leader.

As director of student recruitment for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, she revitalized Virginia Tech’s chapter of Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences, which promotes advancement for minorities in this field. She also served on the college’s Diversity Council, and she will be vice president of the university’s Black Caucus this fall.

Now, Saunders is leading a new initiative at Virginia Tech. This month, she became the director of the Student Opportunity and Achievement Resources program in the university’s Office for Inclusion & Diversity. The SOAR program supports Virginia Tech's strategic goals by working with entities across campus, from colleges and academic departments to Enrollment Management and the Division of Student Affairs, to help students who are underrepresented and underserved.

The new program is in line with Virginia Tech’s goal to become more diverse. By 2020, the university aims to increase its population of underrepresented and underserved students to 40 percent, which includes minorities, first-generation college students, and those from low-income households.

“This is a significant commitment from Virginia Tech to enhance retention and timely attainment while focusing on developing rich learning experiences for our students,” said Mercedes Ramirez Fernandez, who is associate vice provost for strategic affairs and diversity. “We are very fortunate to benefit from Ms. Saunders’ expertise, knowledge, and passion for the educational achievement of all students.”

In her new role, Saunders will work directly with students to connect them with university resources and opportunities, from job placement to landing internships and studying abroad.

“I want to continue to contribute to the collaborative spirit that’s already here,” she said. “All of us have the end goal of working to support these underrepresented students.”

Saunders, a Roanoke native, has an extensive background in diversity and inclusion work. She came to Virginia Tech from the University of Kentucky, where she was an extension associate for diversity recruitment and retention in the College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment. There, she also worked with the Kentucky Jr. Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences Leadership Institute. She served as committee chair with the Governor’s Minority Student College Preparation program, and for four years, she chaired the Kentucky Youth Seminar.

Saunders has a bachelor’s degree in family consumer sciences from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and a master’s degree in human and environmental sciences from the University of Kentucky.

In her new role at Virginia Tech, Saunders said she wants to help students chase their passions.

“What excites me most is being a part of empowering students,” she said.

Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone