Faculty and students partner on Immersion Vanderbilt projects with support of provost funding

“Smart clothing” that relieves stress by applying pressure to acupuncture points. The mystery of retina regeneration in zebrafish. A TEDx Vanderbilt talk exploring cultural identity through the examination of a nationwide favorite food: ketchup.  

Forty-four professors received a Provost’s Faculty Grant to advise 332 students conducting these and other Immersion Vanderbilt projects that were completed in spring and summer 2023.  

Senior lecturer in Asian Studies, Pengfei Li, received funding to mentor students who conducted projects that explored their family history and cultural heritage within the context of larger global forces and historical structures. 

“For my Immersion Vanderbilt project, I embarked on a meaningful exploration of my family’s roots and transnational ties,” said Jenny Yang, Class of 2026. “In the United States, it is not uncommon for first-generation Chinese immigrants and their children to lose touch with the cities and regions they originated from. As a result, they may have limited knowledge of the people, dialects, history and culture of these places.”

Alexandra Sargent Capps, adaptive fashion writer Alicia Searcy and Vanderbilt students Sophia Potter and Tyler Schoenecker attended the launch party for Fashion Is for Every Body. Photo credit: Vanderbilt University

The grant enabled the group to travel to Flushing, New York, a city often referred to as “the China of America,” Li said.  

The students spoke to residents, interviewed the director of a local cultural center and carried out surveys with more than 70 respondents. The students then created a video showing the ways in which Chinese communities outside of China maintain and pass on their cultural traditions. 

“The students not only embarked on a profound learning journey, but also gained insights into how even in Flushing, Chinese communities are continually deepening their understanding of their heritage and actively resisting the assimilation of Euro-centric standards and culture,” Li said. 

Another awardee, assistant professor of anthropology, Sophie Bjork-James, is co-authoring two articles with her immersion students, Rebecca Rossi and Anna-Grace Lilly. They will submit the articles to the journals New Media & Society and Social Science & Medicine. Bjork-James said that the faculty grant funding created the opportunity to involve students in research on how women’s health and reproductive politics are represented in social media. The students also conducted ethnographic research, interviewing two dozen OB-GYNs in Tennessee. 

“The Immersion Vanderbilt program and immersion grant allowed me to develop innovative ways for undergraduates to participate and assist me in my research program,” Bjork-James said. “This has helped me exponentially in moving forward with my next book project and has provided students with access to qualitative research experience rarely available to undergraduate students.” 

Senior Lecturer of Theatre Alexandra Sargent Capps used her grant to purchase fabrics and adaptive hardware for students to research and create adaptive fashion garments, including dignity-centered clothing for hospital patients and items designed to improve the quality of life for people with physical disabilities. 

Capps noted that the experience stretched her students with “an out-of-the-box project that encourages them to think, learn and design in new ways,” and underscored the benefits of the mentorship relationship for herself and her students. 

“I am inspired by their learning journey and their culminating project ideas, and I am proud to be part of their successful final projects,” Capps said. “I grow from working with the students and considering the connections between my classes and others on campus.”

Capps demonstrates fitting a coat’s hood for adaptive fashion writer Alicia Searcy. Photo credit: Vanderbilt University

Under Capps’ mentorship, sophomore HOD major Sophia Potter collaborated with fellow students to create the Adaptive Fashion Clothing Resource Guide, which seeks to improve the adaptive fashion industry by educating tailors and designers about adaptive tools and techniques for altering clothing for people with disabilities. 

“It is vital that we have conversations about the incorporation of adaptive clothing into the industry, empowering all individuals to express themselves through fashion,” Potter said. “Our [next] goal is to transform the existing technical guide into a comprehensive overview that highlights what adaptive fashion is, why it is important, and who our main inspiration has been—Alicia Searcy, a prominent figure in the adaptive fashion industry.” 

The Provost Faculty Grant program for Immersion is administered by the Office of Experiential Learning and Immersion Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt faculty members from all schools and colleges are eligible to apply. The application is now open