Nine Inclusive Excellence Student Fellows representing three academic departments are working on projects to encourage a sense of belonging for diverse students studying science at Virginia Tech.

These Fellows, who serve in an advisory role to the team leading the $1 million Inclusive Excellence grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), are also helping to create profiles of diverse science faculty members. As a part of their projects, the students will survey faculty who embody success in science and feature their research in various digital formats each month. The goal is to inspire students of color, transfers, and first-generation students to pursue their goals and learn from the stories and the science of people from diverse backgrounds who have preceded them.

“Whether or not the faculty we work for has identified themselves as a member of an underrepresented group, research, in general, has made a difference in our lives,” said Ahmerah Thompson, a senior dairy science major with a minor in women and gender science “We want to acknowledge those who have come through challenges and obstacles to get to where they are today.”

The Student Fellows are giving voice to the day-to-day experiences of diverse students in science programs. The student perspective is crucial to informing the work that departments involved with the grant undertake to make courses more accessible and improve academic success.

“This grant has given me the opportunity to express how I feel studying at a majority white institution, especially as a Navajo Native American student,” said Nizhoni Tallas, a senior studying natural resources and conservation with a minor in American Indian studies. “ I would like to use this opportunity to construct meaningful change.”

A safe space for the students to speak and to be heard is one of the most important aspects of the Inclusive Excellence grant. The grant offers them the freedom to speak their truth, knowing that they are surrounded by supportive individuals who understand what it means to be a minority student. “I am happy that the Inclusive Excellence grant provides a space for diverse students to work together and expand their creativity with the same goal in mind, which is promoting diversity and inclusion in STEM,” said Demisha Porter, a graduate student studying translational biology, medicine, and health.

After joining the group this year, Madelynn Todd, last year’s undergraduate representative to the Board of Visitors, said, “I wish I had known about this grant and this group of dedicated Hokies sooner, as I feel it is a great resource for information and a platform from which to drive change at the college level. It is also a wonderful forum for networking and collaboration.”

Senija Davis, a junior studying animal and poultry sciences, and Spanish, has learned from the challenges she had to overcome during her freshman year and plans to apply this knowledge to the group’s next project.

“I realized that many incoming freshmen had a hard time navigating the university, especially when they are the first in their family to attend college,” Davis said. “I want to create an engaging video for newly accepted STEM students or more specifically APSC majors, to help them get familiar with the buildings, important resources, and potential opportunities to come with being in the department. The video will serve as a roadmap for freshmen that will eliminate the time, money, and energy spent attempting to maneuver through the first year of college as a first-generation student.”

The HHMI Inclusive Excellence program is in year four of five years and is led by Jill Sible, associate vice provost for undergraduate education and professor of biological sciences. Sible works alongside a core team of faculty and leaders from each department involved in the grant. Departments engage in learning and developing projects to foster inclusion and success through inclusive pedagogy, addressing implicit biases and issues of climate in STEM classrooms, and creating curricular paths that are flexible and embedded with high-impact practices.

For more information, visit the Inclusive Excellence program website to learn more about the grant, departments participating, Faculty Scholars involved, and a list of current and former Student Fellows.

Written by Abby Mercatoris