First-Generation Student Who Paves the Way for Others Among UVA Award Winners

March 23, 2023 By James Keese, James Keese,

Zehra Demir grew up in rural Appalachia, in a family that struggled to make ends meet.

When she left home for Virginia Tech, she became the first in her family to make it to college. The experience was overwhelming; it often made her feel “like I was fighting this battle alone,” she said. But she found professors who helped her navigate the challenges, and she graduated cum laude.

Now a graduate student at the University of Virginia, Demir has dedicated herself to smoothing the path for others like her. According to her UVA academic adviser, Demir has “a keen desire to ‘pay it forward.’”

“This shines through in the depth of the initiatives she has already launched and sustained in the broader community, as well as in the positions she has taken on since undergrad,” wrote Natasha Sheybani, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, in support of Demir’s nomination for UVA’s John T. Casteen III Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Award.

Demir is one of three honorees chosen for this year’s awards, established in 2010 to recognize the diversity, equity and inclusion efforts most visibly championed by Casteen, UVA’s seventh president and now president emeritus.

Demir is the outreach chair of UVA’s First-Generation Student Coalition. One of her initiatives is to pair first-generation students with faculty members who will offer advice and resources to the students over lunch. Her goal with the Lunch Series is to provide these students with a new perspective, to think about how “we have diverse experiences and pasts, but share a lot of commonalities.”

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Portrait of Zehra Demir
Zehra Demir is working to make it easier for first-generation students to be successful at the University. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications).

Demir has also established a Grad-to-Undergrad Mentorship Program through the first-generation program.

“Mentorship has always been an important part of educational growth. I dare say without it, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I learned about Ph.D. and [master’s] programs through my mentors, and I would have never even thought about these options without them.”

The other recipients of the award this year are Barbara Brown Wilson and Melody Bianchetto.

Barbara Brown Wilson, Associate Professor, School of Architecture

Social justice, racial equity, climate justice and the relationship among them have been at the forefront of Wilson’s work. The former faculty director at the UVA Equity Center, Wilson works to address these topics by collaborating with community-led groups to provide technical expertise in urban architecture and design, and to identify problems that hinder neighborhoods’ ability to adapt to social and climate change.

Portrait of Barbara Brown Wilson
Barbara Brown Wilson, an associate professor in the School of Architecture, provides her expertise to urban communities to help them adjust to social and climate changes. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Wilson is credited with taking a critical role in the organizational expansion of the UVA Equity Center. She believes universities should be strong community partners, and her work with the Equity Center exemplifies that commitment.

Wilson guided the Equity Center to become a leading member of the Racial Equity Task Force. She fostered and maintained relationships with leaders and directors of entities within UVA, including the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, the School of Architecture, the Environmental Resilience Institute and several others.

“One of the essential pillars in building trust in the African American community is the value of establishing, promoting and sustaining mutually beneficial partnerships,” said Lehman Bates II, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, “and Barbara’s track record of intentional commitment and engagement stands as a shining example of this truth.”

Melody Bianchetto, Former Vice President, Chief Financial Officer, UVA Finance   

In a recent episode of “Finance Matters,” a podcast hosted by UVA Finance, Bianchetto was asked what made inclusivity so important to her.

Portrait of Melody Bianchetto
Melody Bianchetto, now retired from the University, created new recruiting and hiring practices at UVA Finance to ensure a more diverse staff. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“It just always strikes me how our individual experiences can be so different from one another’s based on a number of factors,” she said, “and the more we take it upon ourselves to get into the reasons why, and the more we read and learn about it, the better humans we can be to one another, and the better leaders we can be.” 

Bianchetto was a first-generation college student, graduating from the McIntire School of Commerce in 1988 after choosing accounting as her career path. After an early career working for accounting firms, she accepted a job at UVA and worked 26 years at the University before retiring earlier this year.

Bianchetto expanded the finance department’s focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, which led to new recruiting and hiring practices. Under her guidance, the UVA Finance Leadership Team partnered with the Racial Equity Group consulting firm to establish training sessions that gave employees the ability to promote inclusivity and equity within the organization.

Excellence Here Goes Everywhere, To Be Great and Good In All We Do
Excellence Here Goes Everywhere, To Be Great and Good In All We Do

Bird Guess, president and CEO of the Racial Equity Group, said Bianchetto’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion has been exemplary.

“To our knowledge, no other UVA department had demonstrated this level of commitment by implementing an entire framework to advance racial equity,” he said.

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