Office of Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success

Strengthening and advancing diversity, equity and inclusion at Virginia Commonwealth University

Six students pose together and smile against a blank yellow wall. They are all in professional dress clothes.

The VCU Office of Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success (IES) offers flexible semester-long projects that challenge students to pursue their unique interests.

This semester, six brave Honors College students paired off to co-create their own capstone projects under the guidance of a team lead from the VCU Office of Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success (IES).

All Honors College students are required to complete a capstone project during their final year. These projects encourage students to engage with Richmond’s history and community, and consider ways to stay engaged after they graduate. This fall, three teams each conducted research and provided recommendations for an IES-affiliated organization at Virginia Commonwealth University: Equity and Access Services, the VCU Health Hub and Spit for Science.

“IES is excited to partner with the Honors College for a senior capstone pathway because it brings DEI-focused, experiential learning to VCU students as they approach the milestone of completing their undergraduate degrees,” says Sarah McCall. McCall is the programs manager for IES and helps facilitate the partnership between IES and the Honors College. “We hope that fostering a pathway where students co-create a project with DEI leaders will lead to deeply impactful experiences both in and beyond the classroom.”

The partnership between IES and the Honors College began in the spring of 2022. Each semester, IES pitches projects that would benefit from student involvement, ranging from developing LGBTQ+-informed policies to recommending best practices for physical accessibility on an urban university campus. Students then choose the project that best aligns with their personal interests and career goals.

Keeping minors safe on campus

Savannah Brady and Alyssa Santoro-Adajian’s project makes a case for VCU to commit more resources to its Protection of Minors policy.

Students Savannah Brady and Alyssa Santoro-Adajian teamed up to research policies regarding safety and protection of minors at other R1 institutions in an effort to strengthen VCU’s own policy. After benchmarking, Brady and Santoro-Adajian provided recommendations on how to handle off-campus programs, staff ratios and how to make the policy more readable. 

“Savannah and Alyssa were so dedicated to the work, spending a lot of time becoming familiar with our policy, as well as researching over ten other universities with whom we could benchmark,” says Charles Johnson, training and compliance manager for Equity and Access Services, and who served as team lead for this project. “They brought a unique perspective that helped us ask important questions about ways to keep minors safe on campus. Their research and effort was incredibly timely as we are actively thinking through some of these very issues right now and can use the data they collected to inform decisions made at the university level.”

Promoting health and community-building at the VCU Health Hub

Both Ashley Victor and Akhila Kunuthuru partnered with the VCU Health Hub to co-create their projects under the guidance of Rich Killingsworth, executive director of the VCU Health Hub. Victor examined how residents from the East End–the neighborhood where the hub is located–access their local pharmacies, and how the pharmacy experience can be improved to better serve the community. Victor found that residents needed more information about their medications and immunizations as well as financial assistance, and urged the VCU Health Hub to help fulfill those community needs.

Two students present their final project. One student is speaking and gesturing with her hands while the other stands off to the side near a monitor.
Akhila Kunuthuru’s final project takes inspiration from the popular Humans of New York series by Brandon Stanton.

For her project, Akhila Kunuthuru visited the VCU Health Hub to develop a community-engaged communications plan for the hub. Kunuthuru spoke to and photographed eight residents from the East End and documented their stories. She hopes that their photos and stories will be shared on the hub’s social media to help build a stronger sense of connection between the hub and the community. 

“One of the lessons I learned during this project was how important community engagement is with organizations like the Health Hub,” says Kunuthuru. “What I wanted to do through my project is showcase who the community is…We need to realize that a lot of times, continuous conversations with the community are what help these organizations thrive.”

Investigating non-medical prescription drug use in college students

Keerthana Merugu and Gina Chan conducted data analysis for Spit for Science under the mentorship of Amy Adkins, scientific director for IES. Using data from VCU’s 2015 cohort of freshmen, the two examined the relationship between use of non-prescription drugs and GPA in college students. They found that non-use and use of only stimulants correlated with a higher GPA, while use of multiple substances correlated with a lower GPA.

Two students present their final project. One student talks and clasps their hands while another looks towards the audience.
Keerthana Merugu and Gina Chan share their analysis of data collected by Spit for Science.

“One of the things we wish we could have done but didn’t get to do within the scope of this semester was seeing which majors display higher levels of non-medical prescription drug use, and maybe reaching out to those departments to let them know…and to crack down on why their students are using [non-medical prescription drugs] so much,” says Merugu. “Is it because of academic stress? Is it because they don’t have enough resources? Or maybe they’re not aware of resources.”

As the students wrap up the fall semester, many will be December graduates or are preparing to enter their final undergraduate semester in the spring. Some of their projects will be implemented or published as early as this spring.

“We are grateful to have the opportunity to work with the Honors College on this,” Johnson shares. “I think this capstone is really all about seeing the culmination of years of hard work at VCU turn into a final product that benefits the community.”

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