Graduate School builds California connections to increase diversity

Assistant Dean Don Brunson (Vanderbilt University)

Last week, directors from the newly created Office of Undergraduate Research at Cal Poly Pomona, a Los Angeles-area polytechnic university within the California State University system, visited Vanderbilt to discuss research and education partnerships.

The goal, said Don Brunson, assistant dean of the Graduate School and director of the Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education Program (VU-EDGE), is to build stronger connections between the Graduate School and highly diverse undergraduate institutions whose excellence is too often overlooked by elite universities. “We’re really excited about this because we’ve had Cal Poly students in the Bridge Program and summer research programs, but now we’re hoping to make this relationship much more intentional,” Brunson said. “Instead of students finding us, we’re going to start looking for them.”

“What Dean Brunson is doing with Cal Poly is truly innovative and unique, and reflects Vanderbilt’s strong commitment to diversity and to leading the vanguard in ways to promote diversity within our graduate student population,” said Mark Wallace, dean of the Graduate School.

Sukhetu Bhasavar, director of the Kellogg Honors College, and Winny Dong, director of the Undergraduate Research Program, were treated to an intensive, one-day overview of the wide variety of services and opportunities Vanderbilt offers its graduate students. They met with admissions staff and representatives from the Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge Program and the School of Medicine’s Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity programs, learned about Vanderbilt’s variety of student support services, visited the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center, which co-sponsored a luncheon with Vanderbilt faculty, and attended a presentation on Vanderbilt’s summer research opportunities, which brings undergraduates from other institutions to perform research at Vanderbilt during the summer session.

photo of folks chatting over lunch
Suketu Bhavsar, right, and Winny Dong, second from right, got to know Vanderbilt graduate faculty over lunch during their visit. (John Russell/Vanderbilt University)

“I was struck by the support and compassion everyone we met at Vanderbilt demonstrated for graduate students. The care and infrastructure leading to student success was apparent at both the institutional and the personal level,” said Bhasavar. “I was most impressed by how Vanderbilt has flipped the ‘achievement gap,’ the persistent disparity in measures of performance and success between groups of different ethnicities and socioeconomic status, which is talked about nationally.”

Dong had high praise for the support Vanderbilt offers graduate students. “Dr. Brunson’s dedication to the success of the students is remarkable and I was equally impressed by all of the staff and faculty that I met during our visit,” she said. “I have already shared my experience with several students at Cal Poly Pomona and encouraged them to apply to Vanderbilt for summer research opportunities, for graduate programs, and to the Fisk-Vanderbilt bridge program.”

In addition to Fisk University, Vanderbilt has already built similar connections with two other historically black universities, Norfolk University and Hampton University, both in Virginia, as well as Heritage University in Seattle, which is almost 60 percent Hispanic and 35 percent Native American. Vanderbilt also works with the Department of Education’s Ronald McNair scholars program, which supports first-generation college students and underrepresented minorities all across the country seeking to pursue graduate education. “But California is one of the hardest places for us to recruit from because those students already have so many great universities available to them in the state,” Brunson said. “That’s what makes this so exciting.”