Meet a STARS connection: Sam Barlet

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 Sam Barlet shares his experience in a Q&A below.

Q: How did you end up at Vanderbilt? What made you choose it over other options?

A: I ended up here by first being dragged along on my older sister’s college tour to Vanderbilt, where I expected to be bored out of my mind. However, I was pleasantly surprised by my experience on the tour and the beautiful campus. Soon after, I learned about their film program—on top of the wonderful resources and community that Vanderbilt runs on—and decided to get serious about coming here. Vanderbilt just has that special air to it, one of prestige but not pretension, of collaboration over competition.

Q: How are you involved with the STARS initiative?

A: My involvement started at the very beginning of the launch of STARS on campus, as (fellow Vanderbilt student) Rohit Kataria and I started this student org from the ground up. I was already involved in the high school STARS network through my job at the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, and then we decided to create the college support network. Our group is all about supporting each other as rural students who share a common identity and, in turn, help each other succeed. Our organization is involved in resource-based meetings, events and mixers that allow other rural students to find a community of likeness while being educated on the resources that Vanderbilt offers.

Q: How has STARS shaped your Vanderbilt experience?

A: My experience at Vanderbilt had been pretty much formed before we started the STARS organization, but it means the world to me to see how all our current rural students are connecting and bonding. I look forward to all of the future events we are going to hold and all the memories we are going to make. I also just love that prospective students in high school right now are being offered support that was not as accessible during my college application journey, and I love connecting with these prospective students.