A record-breaking four winners of the annual Randolph L. Grayson Outstanding CALS Diversity Scholar Award were announced by the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Diversity Council.

The diversity awards recognize the outstanding accomplishments of faculty, staff, and students in the college and includes a letter of commendation, a plaque, and a monetary award of $500. Graduate students are named the Randolph L. Grayson Outstanding CALS Diversity Scholar Award. Due to the enhanced support of Grayson, three additional students were recognized in 2020.

“Because of the high quality of the nominees, we faced an impossible task of choosing only one recipient of this award,” said Isaac Magaña, chair of the Diversity Council. “We narrowed down the list to two, but Dr. Grayson was so impressed with the nominees himself that he offered to sponsor the additional recipients.”

Cristina Marcillo, who earned her Ph.D. in biological systems engineering, showcased a devotion to environmental justice through her dissertation research on potential disparities in community water systems. She demonstrated that communities with a higher percentage of some minority groups are more likely to be served by water systems with more violations of the Safe Water Drinking Act. She also found that small rural water systems are more likely than urban systems are more likely than an urban system to fail to meet all Safe Water Drinking Act monitoring requirements.

“Over her four years at Virginia Tech, Cristina’s devotion to promoting diversity and equity has extended far beyond the lab,” said Leigh-Anne Krometis, associate professor in Biological Systems Engineering and Marcillo’s mentor. “She has always been eager to share her passion for water quality and environmental equity with younger students and has served as a role model and mentor for students of all backgrounds.”

Connor Owens, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Dairy Science, displays a commitment to Ut Proism (That I May Serve) through his commitment to projects that enhance inclusiveness. Owens has provided and actively participated in opportunities to raise awareness of diversity and inclusion within the community in which they live, study, or work.

Lester Schonberger, a Ph.D. candidate in food science & technology, has demonstrated a commitment to equity and fairness in the treatment of all while actively seeking to increase knowledge of current inclusion and diversity topics. In 2016, Schonberger began providing leadership for the VT Engage Campus Kitchen Program, a university-wide service-learning program that is a part of a larger national network. Schonberger spent more than the 20-hour a week commitment managing that volunteer support that focuses on students recovering food from campus dining facilities and delivering meals to food insecure populations in the community.

“He is a born leader and positioned himself to change the landscape of the Campus Kitchen,” said Renee Boyer, professor in the Department of Food Science & Technology and an Extension specialist. “He worked closely with other community partners to help expand the services of the program. Lester’s exposure to Campus Kitchen’s program and community partners inspired him to structure his graduate work around developing educational messaging and tools to educate volunteers at food banks and food pantries on safe food handling, preparation, and storage needs.”

Alexis Villacis-Aveiga, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, began a Ph.D. exchange program as a member of the Graduate Student Association, providing an opportunity for graduate students in the department present their research at another institution while the department hosts a student from another university who also presents their research. Villacis-Aveiga also helped initiate an international annual potluck that celebrates multiple cultural traditions, providing an area to discuss different cultures and giving attendees a way to sample traditional cultural foods. He is also an integral component of the department’s undergraduate research trip to Ecuador, helping conduct the spring semester course by helping to train and prepare students for their field experience and teaching the students some Spanish.

“We are so inspired by the work of these students and their dedication to fostering diversity and inclusion within their departments, clubs, and across the college,” said Erin Ling, vice-chair of the Diversity Council. “Their creativity, empathy, and passion for making every person feel valued, safe, and seen is something we can all learn from and emulate.”

- Written by Max Esterhuizen