The Virginia Tech Graduate School's 2016 Diversity Scholars will present their projects during a Diversity Spotlight program beginning at noon May 5 in the multipurpose room of the Graduate Life Center on Otey Street.

The free program is open to the public and designed in lightning-round format, with each student giving five-minute presentation about their work.

Established in 2012, the Diversity Scholars initiative is a competitive program to help students develop and implement projects to improve inclusion and diversity through dialogue, advocacy, and change. Past projects have taken multiple forms, from events to programs to analysis. They can focus on specific departments or the entire university, including the campuses in the National Capital Region, Roanoke, and Richmond.

The 2016 scholars and their projects are as follows:

  • Ana-Christina Acosta Gaspar de Alba of Blacksburg, Virginia, is a creative writing master’s degree student in the English Department. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Indiana University. As a fiction writer, she is interested in the craftsmanship of interconnected short stories, family epics, and cultural testaments. She plans to coordinate an art showcase to promote the creative work produced by graduate students at Virginia Tech, Radford University, and Hollins University. Her goal is for artists from all graduate disciplines to have a place to showcase work, for the Virginia Tech community to have an opportunity to immerse itself in varied arts, and for artists and attendees to network and build community through common interests.
  • Ashish Agrawal of Dalsinghsarai, India, is a Ph.D. student in engineering education. He received his bachelor’s degree from Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee and his master’s degree from Virginia Tech. His research interests include exploring and understanding the experiences of international faculty, teaching assistants, and students in U.S. universities. He is working with Diversity Scholar Yen Nong and other students to facilitate and run AcrossBorders@VT, a group of international Virginia Tech LGBTQ+ students, faculty, and affiliates with the goal of supporting one another by providing a friendly space to discuss concerns about their sexuality, gender identity, and coming out. He also plans to design a workshop for Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) to help them become aware of the needs of international students in their classes.
  • Rebecca Elias of Los Angeles is a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology.  She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley and her master’s degree from Virginia Tech.  Her doctoral research focuses on the assessment of challenges, needs, and strengths of postsecondary students with Autism Spectrum Disorder. She is co-implementing her project with Amber Turner. They will develop online content to educate the university community about disabilities in postsecondary students. 
  • Alexandra Hyler of Blacksburg is a Ph.D. candidate in the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kansas. Her doctoral research focuses on combining cancer biology, biomedical engineering, and biophysics of fluids to understand the progression of ovarian cancer with the aim of identifying key signaling molecules for earlier detection of disease. She plans to bring the program, Sustained Dialogue, to the university.  The program facilitates discussion of global, national, local, and campus issues in an intimate setting. The short-term goals of this project will be to train dialogue leaders who can facilitate discussions regarding several dimensions of identity. The long-term goal of this project is to implement weekly conversations among diverse groups to build a more cohesive, collaborative and respectful atmosphere at the university and beyond.
  • Kevin Krost of Russellville, Arkansas, is a Ph.D. student in educational research and evaluation. He received a bachelor’s degree from Arkansas Tech University and a master’s degree from University of Pittsburgh. His research focuses on cognitive diagnostic models, differential item functioning, and the intersection of both. This will provide much-needed research on the new topic of cognitive diagnostic models and provide a better understanding of the presence of differential item functioning when present in data analyzed with cognitive diagnostic models. Krost plans to create a more inclusive environment on campus by providing more information and resources to graduate students about mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, with a goal of bringing to light a problem that is prevalent in American universities, but remains largely ignored.
  • Erin S. Lavender-Stott of Blacksburg is a Ph.D. candidate in human development with a family studies concentration. She received her bachelor’s degree from Hollins University and her master’s degree from University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Her research focuses on gender and sexuality within the family context. For her project, Lavender-Stott plans to gain a better understanding of the current climate and needs of sexual- and gender-minority graduate students through online questions. Through learning more about people who are currently engaged in conversations revolving around this aspect of their identity, as well as those who are not, the information received can help the university understand current concerns and areas for growth.
  • Corey Miles of Weldon, North Carolina, is a Ph.D. student in sociology with a concentration in Africana studies. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Western Carolina University and his master’s degree from Morgan State University. His research interest broadly centers on the African diaspora and popular culture, with a focus on ways in which hip-hop culture challenges notions of modernity. He is conducting an exploratory research project on the college experiences of students from underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities. The project will conduct an array of focus groups with general questions to allow these students to “speak their own truth.”
  • Alexandria M. Noble of Newark, Delaware, is a Ph.D. student focusing on transportation engineering in the Charles E. Via, Jr. Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering. She received her master’s degree from Virginia Tech and her bachelor’s degree from West Virginia University. Her doctoral research focuses on the development and assessment of an Advanced Traveler Information System that will eventually allow for substantial components of connected-vehicle technology to be experienced by the masses. She plans to create a mobile application designed to educate students, faculty, and staff about privilege and racism. The application will leverage Virginia Tech’s existing architecture, monuments, and landscape and the local surroundings to educate people about the past, and the repercussions of that past in today’s present climate, assumptions, and our future. The short-term goal is to present topics that create an opportunity for constructive dialogue that otherwise would not take place, edifying the framework of an open and inclusive environment at Virginia Tech.
  • Yen V. Nong of Dong Nai, Vietnam, and Orlando, Florida, is a master’s degree student in interior design in the School of Architecture and Design. She received a bachelor’s degree at Seminole State College, Florida. Nong and Agrawal want to create a support group and a safe space for international LGBTQ+ students of Virginia Tech. LGBTQ+ students at Virginia Tech consist of diverse groups of students from different countries with different cultural backgrounds. They also plan to translate “coming out” resources from English in different languages, including Mandarin, Taiwanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Hindi. Such resources can help international students come out to their friends and family back home.
  • Zeynep Ondin of Istanbul, Turkey, is a Ph.D. candidate in instructional design and technology who also has earned a human-centered design graduate certificate. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Bogazici University, a master’s degree from Yildiz Technical University, and a master’s degree from Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University. Her doctoral research focuses on exploring the design process of professionals from different design disciplines. Ondin plans to evaluate accessibility of the Virginia Tech Information Technology Service Catalog and report the results to the project team so the service catalog can be improved and more accessible. The service catalog aims to provide a single, easy-to-use, structured online catalog for all external and internal services provided. Ondin will conduct expert reviews and user testing, and will use online web accessibility tools. She will report results in the form of comprehensive user requirements about behaviors, needs and motivations of users with disabilities.
  • Andrea Rolong of Barranquilla, Colombia, is a Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering and mechanics. She received her bachelor’s degree from Florida International University. Her doctoral research focuses on studying the biophysical properties of cells and tissues to advance the use of pulsed electric fields to treat cancer. Her work involves the use of three dimensional scaffolds to recreate the tumor microenvironment for in vitro testing, ex-vivo tissue testing, and electro-thermal computational modeling.  She developed a college-wide initiative that calls for each engineering department to devote one graduate seminar per semester to topics that align with goals of diversity and inclusion. Ideally, these would be embedded in mandatory seminars already established for each department, thus reaching the maximum number of graduate students and faculty. These efforts could provide a pathway to open discussion and mutual understanding, and address concerns regarding underrepresentation of minorities in engineering fields.
  • Mary K. Ryan of Milwaukie, Wisconsin, is a Ph.D. student in the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought program. She received a master’s degree from Marquette University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her research interests include racism and white privilege, civic studies, moral philosophy, and popular culture. She plans to develop a new undergraduate course which addresses issues of forgiveness and revenge in contemporary U.S. social movements. This project aims to create a space for undergraduate activists to struggle with issues central to challenges in cultivating inclusion and diversity, and provide tools, scholarly history, philosophical approaches, and examples of how movements and change-makers have dealt with similar struggles. She also hopes to improve campus climate by helping students forge stronger relationships as they work on complex issues of inclusion and diversity while cultivating social change.
  • Mariana Sierra-Santana of Bayamón, Puerto Rico, is a student in the Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing program, specializing in poetry. She received her bachelor’s degree at the University of Puerto Rico and her master’s degree from Monmouth University. Her creative and academic work is often geared toward gender roles and expectations, especially within sociocultural constructs. As a Diversity Scholar, she plans to establish a new tradition at Virginia Tech by coordinating an open mic series, called The New River Revival, to build a supportive community that offers a platform for diverse creative voices.
  • Amber Turner of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, is a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master’s degree from Virginia Tech. Her dissertation research involves developing an emotion regulation intervention for children with disruptive behaviors. Along with Elias, Turner plans to develop training for faculty and graduate teachers, providing information about disabilities students may have. This training will include education about common disabilities encountered by teachers, how accommodations work and how teachers should implement them, and tips for creating a more inclusive classroom. They hope to develop and post online training modules covering these topics.
  • Whitney Wright of Roanoke, Virginia, is a former secondary educator and a Ph.D. student in the School of Education’s Educational Leadership Program. She earned a bachelor’s degree Virginia Commonwealth University and a master’s degree from Mary Baldwin College. Her doctoral research focuses on the professional development of educators who instruct predominantly underserved students, and she studies educational law and policy. She is designing a pilot study to facilitate a workshop that provide departments with tools and frameworks to design and implement their own professional learning communities. The goal is to establish a sustainable approach to disseminate knowledge regarding best practices to faculty and administration to create culturally competent students and racially and culturally affirming classrooms.

If you are an individual with a disability and desire an accommodation for the Diversity Spotlight event, please contact Dannette Gomez Beane at 540-231-6529 or email during regular business hours at least seven business days prior to the event.

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