University of Virginia Serves the Community Through Engagement and Opportunity

Diversity Champions exemplify an unyielding commitment to diversity and inclusion throughout their campus communities, across academic programs, and at the highest administrative levels. INSIGHT Into Diversity selected institutions that rank in the top tier of past Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award recipients. 

Founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819, the University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville has been a pillar of the local community for nearly 200 years. As such, the flagship university has a history of engaging and involving all members of both the UVA and surrounding community in its efforts around diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Marcus Martin

“As a small unit at the University of Virginia reporting directly to the president, the Office for Diversity and Equity’s goal is to promote an inclusive, welcoming, and respectful environment. To do so, we collaborate with UVA student groups, alumni, faculty, and various individuals and community organizations to promote inclusivity and an appreciation for diversity,” says Marcus Martin, MD, vice president and chief diversity officer for diversity and equity and a professor of emergency medicine at the UVA School of Medicine.

Acknowledging Historical Inequities
Despite its role as a cornerstone of the community, UVA — like many institutions — hasn’t been without its shortcomings. However, recognizing not only its history as the brainchild of a slaveholder but also a university born of the Antebellum South, UVA has undertaken an expansive project to address the racial inequities that have plagued its past to improve its relationships in the present.

The President’s Commission on Slavery and the University (PCSU) is an effort by UVA to examine and acknowledge its relationship with slavery and the enslaved people who worked there between 1817 and 1865. Spearheaded by Martin, the commission was officially established by UVA President Teresa A. Sullivan in the fall of 2013 to “explore and report on the [university’s] historical relationship with slavery” and “provide advice and recommendations to the president” on ways to commemorate this relationship, according to the PCSU website.

[Above: A digital rendition of PCSU’s Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, which will be built on UVA’s campus in 2019 to recognize the slaves who were integral to the university’s founding.]

Meghan Faulkner, assistant to the vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity for programs and projects, helps oversee the commission. She believes it is critical for UVA to engage members of the community — particularly African Americans — in its effort to address its complicated history.

Students in PCSU’s Cornerstone Summer Institute participate in an archaeological dig at Montpelier, the plantation previously owned by President James Madison

“It is incredibly important to make sure that those who may not be formally connected with the university but who may have lived in the community for years … have a say in what we should be doing,” Faulkner says. “One of the reasons behind UVA opening up about and presenting this ugly but truthful part of its past is to demonstrate that the university intends to be truthful about its history.”

As one of its larger projects, PCSU developed a walking tour map of the campus featuring historically significant places that showcase “how physically embedded slavery was in the university’s operations,” says Faulkner. The self-guided “Enslaved African Americans at the University of Virginia Walking Tour” introduces people to some of the sites constructed or operated by enslaved laborers and the stories of those individuals, demonstrating how integral they were to the university’s founding and operation.

In 2019, a new site will be added to the map: the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, which will feature some of the names of these individuals. Armed with feedback from students, faculty, staff, and the community, design firm Höweler + Yoon created a plan for the memorial, which UVA’s Board of Visitors approved in June. “Now we’re in the process of fundraising $6 million to get the memorial constructed,” Martin says. “It’s been a long-desired goal of the university and community to have such a memorial, and ultimately, it will be more than just a visible towering wall — it will be a place where people can gather.”

All Cornerstone Summer Institute participants at Montpelier

A large part of PCSU’s work has focused on research, Faulkner says, as little was known about the enslaved population at UVA prior to the commission’s founding. The Cornerstone Summer Institute, now in its second year, maintains this emphasis by providing opportunities for high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors to explore the university’s legacy of slavery via historical investigation, archaeological excavation, and community engagement. During this weeklong experience, students live in dorms and explore the campus’s early history together while building skills for college.

Another aspect of PCSU’s research, Universities Studying Slavery (USS) is a collaboration between UVA and 26 other colleges and universities in the region, which is led by UVA. USS is part of a larger effort by educational institutions to “address both historical and contemporary issues dealing with race and inequality in higher education and in university communities, as well as the complicated legacies of slavery in modern American Society,” according to the PCSU website. “They meet twice a year and share findings, ideas, and advice with one another,” says Faulkner. “It can be extremely beneficial for universities to learn from each other in terms of what has worked so that everyone’s not starting from square one.”

While efforts to commemorate and atone for one’s past are increasingly recognized as important in today’s higher education landscape, UVA’s is unique in its collaborative and community-centric approach. “I think that the issue itself is a community issue,” Faulkner says. “It’s impossible to separate what was going on at the university from what was going on in the community — it was all connected.”

Providing Academic and Social Support
UVA’s commitment to community also translates to ensuring that all students are provided the support they need to succeed. The Office for African-American Affairs (OAAA), for example, serves as a conduit for black students seeking resources and academic support services. One of OAAA’s initiatives, the Peer Advisor Program (PAP), addresses all of these areas and more for incoming students.

The 2015-2016 cohort of OAAA peer advisers

Established in 1984 in response to a need expressed by black students — who reported feeling isolated on campus — PAP’s mission is to provide these individuals with a caring, supportive environment; promote academic excellence; inform them of the services and resources available at UVA; encourage their involvement on campus; foster university pride; and increase retention, according to the OAAA website. To do this, all African American first-year freshmen and transfer students are assigned an upperclassmen adviser who serves as a resource for new students throughout their first academic year.

Advisers connect with students during the summer before their first semester to offer pre-college advice, and they continue to meet individually with them throughout the year — as well as plan group activities for all new students — to help ease their transition to both the academic and social aspects of college life. “It’s helpful for [incoming students] to know there’s somebody who is already here who they can reach out to,” says Kimberley Bassett, PhD, PAP director and associate dean of OAAA.

Although OAAA designed PAP with incoming students in mind, Bassett says the benefits of the program go both ways. Peer advisers — most of whom are also African American — gain not only valuable mentoring experience, but also leadership development and communication skills. They are required to attend training in the summer, a mid-year retreat in the spring, and monthly meetings, where Bassett says they develop listening skills, learn how to provide personal and academic advice, and recognize when a student needs to be referred to a counselor or therapist.

“We always spend some time discussing tricky situations and how they might navigate them. They also get training around their own time management and identity development,” says Bassett, adding that being a peer adviser requires a serious commitment. “They have to have a willingness to really be engaged in the lives of incoming students. They have to be willing to sacrifice their time and also be passionate about helping [others].”

Now a longstanding initiative at UVA, PAP has contributed to students’ academic success as well as helped them form lifelong relationships; Bassett says she can recount numerous times that participants have told her they met their best friend through the program. While the OAAA is just now beginning to collect hard data on PAP’s impact, Bassett believes its positive effects are apparent in other ways: For decades, UVA has had the highest graduation rate for African Americans of any public college or university in the U.S.

“I would never say that PAP is the sole reason [for this success], but I do believe it is absolutely a contributing factor,” says Bassett. “I talk to students every single year who say they thought about leaving UVA but stayed because of a conversation they had with their peer adviser.”

Increasing Minority Representation in STEM
Overseeing the Virginia-North Carolina (VA-NC) Alliance for Minority Participation, part of the national Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program, UVA serves as a leader in the local higher education community. The VA-NC Alliance is composed of 12 schools — including predominantly white institutions, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and one community college — all focused on increasing the number of underrepresented minorities earning degrees in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Kristin Morgan

Kristin Morgan, director of university and community relations and development at UVA, oversees the program at the university, while Martin serves as principal investigator. The project has been funded by the National Science Foundation since 2007. While each partner institution develops its own individualized recruitment, retention, and enhancement activities, the alliance’s purpose is to provide a forum for schools to share not only what’s working on their campuses, but also resources.

“Public schools have been strained by states cutting funding for higher education for a while now, and HBCUs have been struggling financially as well and have had dips in enrollment,” Morgan says. “So leveraging our resources to provide more opportunity is essential.”

As part of this effort, every year UVA hosts the Summer Research Program for undergraduate students from alliance member institutions majoring in a STEM discipline who plan to pursue a PhD in one of those fields. For eight weeks, participants live on UVA’s campus and report every day to their assigned lab, where they work under the guidance of a faculty or graduate student mentor on a research project in one of eight tracks: astronomy, biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, environmental science, neuroscience, or physics. In addition to free housing, students receive a $4,000 stipend and a $200 meal allowance.

Student presentation winners at the 2016 Annual VA-NC Undergraduate Research Symposium

With its emphasis on the pursuit of advanced STEM degrees, Morgan says the program also offers participants graduate school preparation and professional development opportunities, including writing workshops. “We also offer social activities — field trips, cookouts, ice cream socials — to help cultivate [their] sense of belonging on campus in addition to developing that science identity through their research,” she adds.

At the end of the experience, students are required to present their research, first on campus, and then to a larger audience at the National Leadership Alliance Symposium. Morgan believes this helps prepare them for graduate school and beyond. “Conducting research and presenting their results … also increases their sense of self-efficacy and starts to develop their identity as a scientist,” she says. “In addition, by explaining their research projects and methods, students develop a stronger grasp of the material and learn how to communicate their results to a lay audience — an essential skill for scientists.”

UVA usually selects 10 people each year for the program, and 69 have participated since its inception — some of whom have made significant scientific findings. One such instance involved the discovery of a new interstellar molecule, which Morgan says “had major implications for astrochemistry research.”

In addition, the alliance hosts the Annual VA-NC Undergraduate Research Symposium, which provides additional opportunities for students to conduct presentations. UVA also facilitates transition workshops to assist its partners with understanding how to improve the transfer process for community college students.

The extraordinary success of the VA-NC Alliance, and of UVA’s efforts specifically, is evidenced not just by the fact that NSF recently awarded the initiative another five-year $5 million grant — allowing UVA to welcome three additional institutions to the partnership — but also by hard numbers. During the first and second five-year phases of the project combined, the number of underrepresented minority students graduating from alliance institutions with STEM degrees increased by 156 percent. At UVA alone, this figure was 109 percent.

Martin believes that UVA has been able to make a positive difference in the lives of its students, faculty, staff, and members of the local community — as well as the commonwealth broadly — due in large part to its inclusive approach to engagement. “This work is so successful because of the people who are involved in these efforts,” he says. “Having input from a wide variety of people is important.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. The University of Virginia is a 2012-2016 INSIGHT Into Diversity HEED Award recipient.