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The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Meet the nine new Ingram Scholars

The Hustler met with each incoming Ingram Scholar to discuss their backgrounds in service and future ambitions at Vanderbilt.
Maya Nachenga
Aerial view of Zeppos and West End, as photographed on Aug. 17, 2022. (Hustler Multimedia/Maya Nachenga)

CORRECTION: This article was corrected on Aug. 1, 2023, at 9:58 a.m. CDT. The article initially indicated that the Ingram Scholars Program has not selected incoming sophomore scholars since 2019. A representative of the program clarified that four sophomores were offered the scholarship in 2022, with the selection occurring after the initial press release that had announced the Class of 2026 Ingram Scholars. 

Vanderbilt announced at the end of June that five incoming first-years and four sophomores were selected for the Ingram Scholars Program out of over 1,000 applicants. Scholarship recipients receive scholarships covering tuition and housing and a $7,000 stipend to complete a summer service project. 

This scholarship is awarded to students who display both academic excellence and a commitment to service. The program was founded in 1993 by former chairman of the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust E. Bronson Ingram and is currently led by faculty director Dr. Brian L. Heuser. 

“Academically, they’re the most prepared class we’ve ever had,” Heuser said. “We prioritize the program-fit scholars who are incoming, very high achieving students with superior academics who want to dedicate their professional careers in some way to a life of service and want to spend four years combining their academic pursuits with service.”

This year’s selection contrasts 2020 and 2021, where only incoming first-years were awarded Ingram Scholarships — 10 in the Class of 2024 and seven in the Class of 2025. Heuser cited “shifting patterns of the university” during the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for the temporary change to admit solely incoming first-year students into the program in 2020 and 2021. Though the press release announcing the Class of 2026 Ingram Scholars listed only incoming first-years, Ingram Scholars Program representative Kelly King told The Hustler that four rising sophomores — Halle Eviner, Zachary Klinger, Emerson Pereira and Soumia Vellanki — were also invited to the program in 2022.

“We’re returning to more of the model from a few years ago, like pre-COVID,” Heuser said.

Last month, the university announced the conclusion of Heuser’s faculty directorship this upcoming December, after which he will return to his faculty role in Peabody College alongside “new research and teaching opportunities.” Heuser has directed the program since 2017 and, in May 2023, wrote an opinion editorial in Inside Higher Ed that criticized Chancellor Daniel Diermeier’s stance of principled neutrality on political issues. 

The publication of the op-ed came after the internal decision to search for a new program director, according to a source being kept anonymous for protection from retribution. Heuser said he was unable to comment on why he is leaving his role, though he stated he has “mixed emotions” about leaving in the middle of the academic year. 

“I think ending in the middle of the year, there are probably benefits but also costs, and I haven’t quite figured them out. My strongest thought about that is what’s best for the student scholars,” Heuser said. 

Reflecting on his term as faculty director, Heuser said he sought to transition the program to be more inclusive of various academic and professional disciplines and to rethink service during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I feel very good about the fact that our capacity as a program, our resources as a program, have never been greater in the history of the program. Our human resources and other resources are greater now, and I hope that I’ve built significant capacity for the next director,” Heuser said. 

Heuser said he hopes that the new director will continue the program’s commitment to its original mission and values. 

“I hope the new director will just simply listen to students and meet them where they are in their pursuit of the original mission and mandate,” Heuser said

Class of 2027 scholars 

Ron Asoulin-Handelman of Dallas, Texas, Caden Cyr of The Woodlands, Texas, Naomi Porter of Ranchos Palos Verdes, Calif., Kevin Song of Clarksburg, Md., and Şefika Öztürk of Antalya, Turkey, comprise the Class of 2027 Ingram Scholars. 

Many of these students demonstrated initiative in entrepreneurship and civic engagement through their interest in STEM. For example, Öztürk pursued service through her passion for engineering and past experience with robotics. Concerned about environmental issues affecting her coastal hometown of Antalya, Turkey, she led a project to design an underwater robot to observe sea pollution.

“We wanted to do something fun, and then we realized that what we thought would be fun could also be very helpful for society, and we didn’t want to miss the chance to do that as well,” Öztürk said.

Similarly inspired by technology, Song’s experience in a computer science club that he started in middle school taught him about inequities in STEM education among low-income students and underfunded school districts, particularly in coding. As a result, he founded DevelopIT, a nonprofit that provides free computer science courses to underserved students to help them jump-start their careers in technology.

Like Song, Asoulin-Handelman worked to make STEM education more accessible. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Asoulin-Handelman began tutoring his little brother in math and quickly recognized that many students were struggling through online classes. After expanding his one-on-one tutoring to other students in his brother’s school, he reached out to the nonprofit UPchieve, which connects math tutors with underserved students on a digital platform. 

“Now, I’m able to reach those students in my local community and students in different states, which has been super awesome in maximizing the impact that I can have,” Asoulin-Handelman said.

Asoulin-Handelman also incorporated his passion for technology in his service by moving the registration system for a local mobile food pantry to an online platform so food bank visitors did not have to wait outside in the Texas heat. 

Similarly, Cyr and his sister started the nonprofit Project Love, which aims to help the homeless population in Texas by collecting donations and making bags with necessities like socks, toothbrushes and hot meal gift cards. Cyr also combined his passions for business, sneakers and service by hosting a sneaker drive in high school, which partnered with his school’s National Honor Society. 

“I wanted to figure out how I could cover my two passions, business and sneakers and just give back to the community around me,” Cyr said. 

Likewise inspired by the promise of entrepreneurship to combat social problems, Porter founded an initiative that teaches young students about entrepreneurship, launching social ventures and business skills. She said she was inspired by the lack of entrepreneurial and financial education around her. 

Serving on campus

The remaining four incoming Ingram Scholars were selected during their first year at Vanderbilt, so their service was conducted on campus, largely through student organizations. Aryan Garg of Cupertino, Calif., Sharmila Adapa of Fairfax, Va., Brinda Ambal of Chesterfield, Mo., and Shree Kodavatiganti of Frisco, Texas, complete the Ingram Scholars’ Class of 2026.

As a first-year, Garg was a manager of Change++ — a role previously reserved for upperclassmen — and helped build an app for the For Peter’s Sake Cancer Respite Organization. He managed the relations between the nonprofit and the Vanderbilt students involved in the software development. 

“It was really fun, being able to combine my software engineering and computer science skills with helping nonprofits and other people succeed,” Garg said. 

Ambal similarly used design and innovation to serve others. After taking a Commons iSeminar on sustainable adaptive fashion, she collaborated with other students and the Wond’ry — Vanderbilt’s innovation center — to create a raincoat for a woman with disabilities and is currently working on expanding this personalized, adaptive fashion to more people in need.

Ambal also conducted research with the Stress and Early Adversity Lab at Peabody College, which she hopes will result in earlier intervention and more equity measures in education for children who have experienced adversity.

“Hopefully, [my research] helps lessen the gap between children who come from adversity and adverse backgrounds and children who have had opportunities come a little easier to them,” Ambal said.  

Likewise interested in addressing adversity in Nashville, Adapa’s background in service before her time at Vanderbilt led her to join Habitat for Humanity at Vanderbilt, where she helped serve the homeless community in Davidson County. She said her experience with Habitat for Humanity taught her about service beyond campus and in the greater Nashville community. 

Similarly, Kodavatiganti gardened with the Heimerdinger Foundation to provide organic meals and harvests to disadvantaged groups in Nashville. He was also a member of Vanderbilt Students Consulting for Nonprofit Organizations, for which he helped a theater nonprofit — Unscripted Improv — teach drama to underprivileged communities.

Choosing Vanderbilt

All nine of the new Ingram Scholars interviewed for the scholarship program in early 2023. Incoming first-years were hosted by current scholars on campus, and all were able to connect with students and faculty in the program. 

Asoulin-Handelman reflected on the friendliness of the Vanderbilt and Ingram Scholars communities when he visited campus. 

“Everyone there is just really kind and welcoming and committed to making you feel like a part of the Vanderbilt family. It seemed like that positive attitude really creates an awesome environment for school and for what learning can take place,” Asoulin-Handelman said. 

Porter further spoke about the culture of the Vanderbilt campus and Ingram program, as well as the mentorship opportunities from faculty. 

“[Vanderbilt] just felt like the right collaborative student environment that I wanted to be in and so that really stood out to me. Also, the faculty director and the program directors are some of the kindest people I’ve met,” Porter said. 

Through the selection process, Ambal said appreciated the program’s search for authenticity.

“From the moment that I read the essay questions on the application, I realized that they’re not just looking for people who have done something that looks good on paper,” Ambal said. “They’re looking for people who want to make an impact on their community and are focused on deliverables.”

As a Turkish international student, Öztürk also spoke of the Ingram program’s courtesy in the wake of the Turkey earthquakes in early 2023, which prevented her from attending Ingram’s on-campus welcome weekend and interview process. 

“They told me if I couldn’t get my visa appointment, which was canceled because of the earthquake, they could schedule a Zoom interview for me. They were just so caring and so understanding, and I really loved that,” Öztürk said. 

A legacy of service

Ingram Scholars must complete four service hours per week throughout their time at Vanderbilt, as well as a one-time summer service project. 

Asoulin-Handelman said he wants to continue to tutor in the Nashville community through on-campus student organizations like Teach the Future and Youth Encouragement Services. Additionally, he looks forward to further exploring the intersection of technology and service. 

Cyr hopes to continue helping the homeless population in the broader Nashville area while also being involved in Greek Life. 

Beyond her future service at Vanderbilt — which she hopes will take her abroad as part of the Alternative Spring Break Program, Porter is confident that she will pursue a career in public service. She added that she hopes to get involved in ministry at campus, a business fraternity, VSG and Women in Government. 

“The kind of person I want to be at the end of these next four years is exactly what senior Ingram scholars and junior Ingram scholars are like,” Porter said. 

Like Porter, Ambal said she knows service will play a large role in her future. Adapa, a pre-medical student, similarly hopes to continue her service beyond Vanderbilt through a career as a physician.  

“I really hope through this program to foster or to be a part of a connection to another community. The Vanderbubble is real, and any chance you can to learn more about the community around you is important,” Adapa said. 

Like Garg, Song said he is interested in working with Change++ to continue using technology as a tool for service. He is also interested in joining the Nashville Entrepreneurship Center to pursue his next startup. 

“In the future, I want to step into the realm of utilizing technology, specifically software and hardware, to help make products that help different communities around the world,” Song said. 

Similarly, Öztürk said she is excited to engage with the Wond’ry to pursue her passion for engineering and entrepreneurship.

Garg said he looks forward to branching out and potentially pursuing another major in the social sciences, while also joining more service-oriented organizations on campus, especially those that can incorporate his passion for teaching. 

Kodavatiganti also plans to join more service-oriented organizations, such as joining Students Promoting Environmental Awareness and Responsibility (SPEAR), which he hopes furthers his passion for sustainability. 

“My education here at Vanderbilt and what Ingram is helping me with is going to shape me as a person,” Kodavatiganti said.

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About the Contributor
Arman Amin
Arman Amin, Staff Writer
Arman Amin (‘27) is a student in the College of Arts and Science planning to major in political science. When not writing for The Hustler, you can find him listening to music, going for a run or spending time with friends. You can reach him at [email protected].
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