2022 Year in Review • Grantee Profile

Clark Scholars Program,
A Holistic Approach

Clark Scholars Program Research at Vanderbilt University
After her first year at Vanderbilt University, Yoanna Ivanova spent the summer in a campus laboratory targeting the most aggressive type of breast cancer with different medication delivery methods. Even as a biomedical engineering major, this research opportunity was unusual for a rising sophomore, but Christopher Rowe, then the director of the school’s Clark Scholars Program (CSP), made it possible.

This targeted support by Rowe led Ivanova to her current position as a second-year Ph.D. candidate in bioengineering at the University of Illinois and a Graduate Assistant at the Harley Research Lab, using 3-D models to identify the effects of medications on brain cancer. Ivanova’s pathway to her present-day role epitomizes the opportunities created by the CSP.

As the CSP Program Director, Rowe emphasized campus summer opportunities for Clark Scholars to increase the likelihood that they would stay and complete their degree in four years. “I know that we have some students that cannot go home in the summer. They don’t have a home life to go home to. Some don’t even have a home to go home to. I wanted to make sure that we provided some level of safety for them if they were in that situation,” Rowe thought as he developed Vanderbilt’s CSP.

Rowe said the Clark Foundation welcomed his proposal to add summer options to Vanderbilt’s program. “The Clark Foundation was really looking for something that was truly unique that fit the DNA of a specific campus. They said to make it my own,” Rowe said.

Rowe also said that whereas the parents of many well-resourced undergraduates push their children to pursue career-enhancing experiences during the summer, the families of many Clark Scholars lack awareness of these opportunities. The CSP’s mentorship connects them to experiences that strengthen their engineering credentials and enhance their resumés.

The current Vanderbilt CSP director, Julianne Vernon, said that Clark Scholars can also conduct research during the academic year for credit. “Getting students involved in research early on builds into their success in college. It gets them learning how to engage with faculty in a different arena outside of the classroom, and gives them that confidence to ask questions and talk to faculty,” Vernon said.

Students who want to stay on campus for the summer must identify professors with whom they want to work or the type of work they want to do. Vernon requires every Clark Scholar to complete a questionnaire about summer opportunities to educate them about information they need to gather before applying for research positions or internships.

The CSP then helps make introductions for the students to professors working on subject matters that interest them, and together with the university, covers the cost of students’ stipends. “The draw for the faculty member is that it doesn’t cost them any money,” Rowe said, adding that by contributing to students’ pay, Vanderbilt also invests itself in the dignity of these Scholars’ work.

Rowe added that the CSP research and internship component “is helping to change the narrative” about Vanderbilt’s reputation in assisting high-need students.

Ivanova, born in Bulgaria, attended a STEM high school in northern Illinois and although drawn to engineering, did not consider a focus on research. But given the opportunity through the CSP, she decided to try it for a summer.

“Having a resource on campus from day one that was able to guide me along that path, and even introduced me to the first lab I worked with, made it a lot less scary after I had identified people that I was interested in working with,” Ivanova said. “Then I kept liking it and here I am in grad school now.”

In 2022, the Foundation surveyed Clark Scholars across its 11 partner universities who participated in engineering-related research or internships. Ninety percent said they gained valuable professional skills, while 94% said they believe that the experience will help them in job searches or applications to graduate school.

“We got really lucky with Yoanna because she took to it like a duck to water, loved it, kept going and decided that she was going to get a Ph.D. in it,” Rowe said. “That’s a dream come true. A first-generation [college student and] woman getting a Ph.D. in engineering. That was a home run.”

When I received that letter about the Clark Scholars funding opportunity and scholarship, that felt incredible. It’s one thing to know you have financial aid, it’s another thing to know that it comes with the support of an organization that thinks you’re deserving of it.

Yoanna Ivanova on being accepted as a member of Vanderbilt’s inaugural CSP cohort in 2017

Clark Scholars Program Abroad at PENN state university
Someday in the future, residents of a developing country may be driving on a new roadway system designed by Gisselle Zuniga. These drivers won’t know about Zuniga, or that her visit to Peru with Penn State University’s Clark Scholars Program sparked her desire to contribute to social good. But they’ll know that their new, modern roads cut down on their commute to college or enabled them to take a new job in a previously inaccessible location. And that’s fine with Zuniga.

“It made me realize the impact that I could have on other countries in the world in general. And I think it made me want to give back,” Zuniga said of her five weeks in Peru during the summer of 2022. “One of my goals is to one day work in a different country, and as a civil engineer, build their roads, build their highways, bridges, and help their transportation. I feel like it really inspired me to strive for more.”

Zuniga is a junior studying civil engineering and a member of the first cohort of 10 Clark Scholars who enrolled in fall 2020 at Penn State, which is one of 11 universities now participating in the Clark Scholars Program (CSP). At Penn State, the $15 million Clark Foundation investment both expands opportunity for promising students to earn a top-tier engineering education and builds on the university’s Engineering Equity Initiative to increase the number of traditionally underrepresented students in the College of Engineering. The university’s initiative aims to increase the number of women completing their engineering degree to 50% by 2026, while also growing the number of students from all underrepresented groups to better represent our diverse nation.

Penn State requires its Clark Scholars to attend a summer global experience, leveraging the connection of the program’s faculty advisor, Dr. Julio Urbina, to the Universidad Nacional de Ingenieria in Lima, Peru. The university states, “Research has shown that study abroad experiences improve retention and graduation rates, particularly for high-risk populations. International experiences develop confidence and open students to new possibilities that otherwise would not have been considered.”

In the summer of 2021, the program was virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic but in 2022, nine students, including Zuniga and two others who traveled as mentors, spent five weeks in Peru with Dr. Urbina and Dr. Lauren Griggs, the Penn State CSP director.

Zuniga grew up in Long Beach, California, the child of Mexican immigrants, and attended a STEM high school where she became interested in civil engineering, focusing on infrastructure needs such as roadways and transportation arteries. She dreamed of attending Penn State, but after being accepted, she and her family realized that the costs were out of reach.

So Zuniga started applying for scholarships and was elated to learn she was one of 10 students selected for the university’s inaugural Clark Scholars Program.

Zuniga credits the CSP with giving her confidence and equipping her to succeed in school and beyond. “Over the years I have learned things like networking, communicating, how to reach for more, strive for more, and work towards my goals. And the Clark Scholars Program has given me a network that has allowed me to connect with so many people, and taught me what it means to change the world and accomplish your goals,” Zuniga said, adding that she arrived at Penn State shy and unsure how to navigate such a large school. “I feel confident. I know that I will be successful. And I think that’s something that the Clark Scholars Program has given me. They have set me up in a way that I know that I can achieve anything that I really want to.”

I honestly would not be here without the Clark Foundation. I’m always just forever grateful that I was given the opportunity to be here and experience Penn State and the College of Engineering, and everything that does come with the Clark Scholars Program.

Gisselle Zuniga Penn State Clark Scholar Gisselle Zuniga at Machu Picchu

The students began their Peru experience by taking an engineering course at the Lima University together with Peruvian students. Both in the course and by talking to their Peruvian peers, the Penn State students learned about the extent of engineering challenges in the country, including access to drinkable water and the fragile sewage system, and the lack of planning around roadways and transportation. “The way that transportation works is actually pretty insane. It’s shocking seeing it, because cars are just going, pedestrians do not have the right of way. And it’s just something that’s a little bit chaotic and very scary to kind of experience,” Zuniga said.

In Lima, the students lived with families who opened their homes and hearts to the Clark Scholars. “My homestay experience was absolutely amazing. It was probably my favorite time in Peru. It really got us to immerse in the culture,” Zuniga said. “They opened up to us about their lives, and what it’s like in Peru, and the challenges, and the struggles, and everything that they face. And I think that was the most amazing experience, and the most eye-opening experience, because it taught us their ways of life.” After some time in Lima, the group traveled around the country, immersing themselves in Peruvian history and culture.

Zuniga is exploring other international study experiences and hopes to emulate Mr. Clark by using her education and expertise to improve communities’ infrastructure for future generations. “I know that Clark’s mission is to be a leader and to give back. And that’s exactly what the Peru experience emphasized to me. It showed me how big of a change I’m able to make, and that is what I want to do,” she said.