“How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these.”

- George Washington Carver

Agricultural scientist and inventor George Washington Carver’s words speak of a higher truth that guided the Tuskegee University researcher’s legendary accomplishments and moral bearing. Like many of his sweet potato, soy, and peanut products, Carver’s legacy endures, continuing to inspire students at universities across the country, including Virginia Tech.

Each year, George Washington Carver Assistantships are awarded to students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) who have demonstrated excellence in academic achievement, scholarship, and community service.

“Knowing the legacy of George Washington Carver, his contributions, artistry, and service to agriculture and mankind, I felt empowered to live up to his name and continue in his excellence,” said Dez-Ann Sutherland, a doctoral student in the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences.

True to her words, Sutherland has made the most of her Carver assistantship, seizing opportunities that would surely have made its namesake proud. By co-authoring multiple peer-reviewed publications, engaging in collaborative research, pursuing a study abroad opportunity in Sweden under the tutelage of animal geneticist Leif Andersson, and volunteering to help underrepresented students explore new possibilities, she has embraced her time at Virginia Tech, practicing Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) and honing her skills as a researcher.

"This initiative supports underrepresented students in the college," said CALS Dean Alan Grant. “The George Washington Carver Assistantship Program upholds the principles of InclusiveVT and is central to preparing our students to be leaders. As a land-grant institution, we have a responsibility to educate to our country’s underrepresented populations. In doing so, we educate talented students, equipping them with the ability to transform the world.” 

For more than three decades, Grayson has fostered a welcoming climate for all underrepresented groups at Virginia Tech.

For more than three decades, Randolph Grayson has fostered a welcoming climate for all underrepresented groups at Virginia Tech.
For more than three decades, Randolph Grayson has fostered a welcoming climate for all underrepresented groups at Virginia Tech.

The assistantships are awarded annually to encourage students from historically black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, tribal colleges and universities, students from the Appalachian region, and nontraditional students to enroll in a CALS graduate program. Recipients are students seeking master’s degrees or doctorates who aspire to a career in higher education or in the agricultural or life sciences industries.

“I appreciate the leadership, commitment, and confidence that Dean Grant and Associate Dean Mostaghimi had in me and the Carver proposal to engage in this journey,” said Randolph Grayson, director of the program and former director of the CALS’ Electron Microscopy Center.

In addition to the Carver program, which began providing assistantships a decade ago, Grayson also founded the Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program (MAOP) in 1993 and introduced the NSF-funded Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program to Virginia Tech, opening up new opportunities for minority students. In partnership with Larry Moore, former head of the college’s Department of Plant Pathology, Physiology, and Weed Science, Grayson also founded Virginia Tech’s Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences chapter, which was folded into MAOP.

“The Carver program provides opportunities to students who otherwise may not have considered going to graduate school,” said Russell Umstead ’16, who earned his master of science degree in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering. “I know in my case, I initially thought that maybe graduate school wasn’t for me, but after meeting with Dr. Grayson and several other faculty members, I realized that Virginia Tech would provide me with a plethora of opportunities that would help me achieve many of my career and life goals.”

Umstead works as an engineer for a contract pharmaceutical firm that manufactures sterile injectable drugs for clients around the world. He credits the assistantship with helping him to explore a variety of career paths, praising numerous alumni speakers and seminars that provided guidance and helped him choose the right vocation.

“To receive support from a program that provides not only funding, but supports you holistically, was incredible,” said Umstead. “Dr. Grayson was a fantastic mentor. There are a lot of assistantships that provide financial backing, but maybe don’t provide the personal support to help students to take advantage of the opportunities available to them. I think this aspect is what makes this such a unique program.”

The success of the program is based on a holistic concept of recruiting, retaining, and graduating students with high ethical standards.

“Embedded in the program is the principle that close cooperation and understanding of cultures by all parties composes a nurturing environment of financial, academic, sociological, and psychological support,” said Grayson, who earned the university’s 2017 Principles of Community Award. “The advisors have been excellent, with around 92 percent of students graduating with advanced degrees, which increases minorities and women in the STEM workforce.”

Current students and alumni hold high praise for the personal support and connections that set the George Washington Carver Assistantship apart.

“Connecting with other students who were going through the same graduate school process was a huge help to me in completing my degree,” said Umstead. “I was able to discuss challenges that I was facing – challenges that almost every student in the program could relate to. Learning how to deal with the pressures of academia while trying to maintain a healthy personal life outside of school, how to conduct yourself in a professional manner, and how to navigate issues that may arise with your colleagues are all important skills that I developed during my time at Virginia Tech that helped me finish my degree.”

The program has helped its alumni to pursue high-powered jobs throughout the country. In addition to Umstead, they include Kacie Blackman ’13, who earned her doctorate in human nutrition, foods, and exercise, and is now an assistant professor in the Department of Public Health at California State University, Northridge.

Cristina Marcillo, a doctoral student in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, added that the program has been central to her ability to pursue a career in an engineering field.

“Receiving the Carver assistantship allows me to pursue a graduate degree free of debt, offers academic support, and connects me to a cohort of diverse and talented graduate students. The program helps to make Virginia Tech more inclusive of talented and diverse scientists and engineers, something that is much needed,” said Marcillo. “It also connects me with Virginia Tech professors who become allies and share advice on being professionally successful.”

After she earns her degree, Marcillo plans to work for an international nonprofit organization focused on drinking water management and policy in Latin America before ultimately pursuing a career as a college professor of engineering.

On Oct. 14-15, Virginia Tech, in partnership with Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority Serving Institutions, will host an annual research summit, offering Virginia Tech faculty the opportunity to identify partner faculty and students at HBCUs/MSIs to engage in summer research opportunities and grant proposals. Students from the program, including Marcillo and Sutherland, will participate in the event.

To learn more, or to participate, please register here by Oct. 7.

Written by Amy Painter

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