Meet a STARS connection: Rohit Kataria

A year ago this month, Vanderbilt University announced a collaboration with 16 of the nation’s most prominent universities and colleges in a new effort to help students from small-town and rural America enroll in, succeed at and graduate from the undergraduate programs of their choice.

With a $20 million gift from philanthropist Byron Trott, the STARS (Small Town And Rural Students) College Network initiative communicated its intent to help students who might not recognize the full range of opportunities available to them build pathways to college.

This nationwide effort, the first of its kind, is designed to empower students to find the best institution for them, whether or not they ultimately choose to enroll at a STARS institution. The network includes Ivy League universities, state flagships and leading private schools.

Vanderbilt has played a unique role in the STARS efforts by serving as co-founder of the initiative along with the University of Chicago. Douglas L. Christiansen, STARS co-chair and vice provost for university enrollment affairs and dean of admissions and financial aid at Vanderbilt, said Vanderbilt has been working on targeted programming to small-town and rural students, college counselors, high school administrators and community-based organizations across Tennessee.

“There is often overlooked talent in our small towns and rural communities. We know there are many students who have much to offer at our colleges and to future generations,” Christiansen said. “Sometimes rural communities don’t have the bandwidth to help show these students what is possible and outline the road on how to get there. Partnerships like STARS will help to connect new faces to higher education through bringing additional resources designed to guide students to college opportunities. We are pleased with our successes during STARS’ early stages but know there is much more to achieve ahead.”

Vanderbilt Chancellor Daniel Diermeier said joining STARS aligns with the university’s commitment to eliminate barriers to access to a Vanderbilt education. As Vanderbilt observes the first anniversary of the program, Diermeier said STARS has made excellent initial progress toward its goal—but it is just getting started in opening doors to new students.

“Far from the urban areas where high-achieving students tend to be concentrated are many promising students who might not learn about the path to a selective college around the family dinner table or even from their college counselors. It is incumbent on top universities to help make sure these high-potential students can see themselves, early in their lives, at a school like Vanderbilt, and understand the process and the preparation necessary for admission. Through the STARS initiative, we are leading in that effort,” Diermeier said.

In celebration of STARS’ successful first year, we are highlighting students who have benefited from the program’s creation at Vanderbilt. Student Rohit Kataria shares his experience in a Q&A below.

Rohit Kataria (Submitted photo)

Q: How did you end up at Vanderbilt?

A: In my hometown in rural southern Ohio, Vanderbilt is a school known for one thing: baseball. As a result, for most of high school, I wasn’t aware of the wonderful academic opportunities Vanderbilt had to offer. Upon looking further into the school, I decided I wanted to apply for college. The school had endless opportunities for the high school version of me who wanted to pursue a career in neuroscience, and even though my interests had changed by the time college decisions were released, I knew that Vanderbilt was going to be an amazing place for me to explore my passions. The opportunities at the school, in tandem with knowing that the admissions committee wanted to invest in my education by offering me a Cornelius Vanderbilt Scholarship, made attending Vanderbilt one of the easiest decisions I have made in my life. It also didn’t hurt that it’s only a six-hour drive from home!

Q: How are you involved with the STARS initiative?

A: I have the utmost privilege of serving as the first-ever president of Vanderbilt STARS. Through our organization, the rest of the Executive Board and I aim to primarily provide resources and mentorship to current rural Vanderbilt students and raise awareness about the barriers that rural students often face. In the six months since our formal establishment, we have launched a mentorship program to help younger rural students at Vanderbilt navigate the university, held our first general body meeting with the Career Center to share career resources with rural students, and run an informational campaign on our Instagram page to raise awareness about rural issues. Other highlights of our work have included sharing rural-specific scholarship information through our monthly newsletter, collaborating with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions to speak with rural prospective Vanderbilt students about what it’s like to attend a school like Vanderbilt, and working to set up Vanderbilt’s first alumni affinity group for rural students. In all that we do, we aim for rural Vanderbilt students to feel celebrated and empowered in their college journeys.

Q: How has STARS shaped your Vanderbilt experience?

A: STARS has made my senior year shine infinitely brighter. For most of college, I ran from my rural identity with a fear that admitting where I was raised would raise questions about my qualifications or deservingness to be at Vanderbilt. Through STARS, I have found an incredibly supportive and welcoming community of rural students that has helped me become prouder of the rural aspect of my identity. I’m sad that I’ll be leaving Vanderbilt after graduation in a few months, but I am hopeful that the rural community I’ve found at Vanderbilt will continue to support countless rural students for years to come.