iCubed’s Commonwealth Scholars Program: Bridging the Gap Between Access and Opportunity

By Neha J. Goel, B.A. and Faika Zanjani, Ph.D.

Access and opportunity are two buzzwords being discussed among higher education administrators across the United States. Though these two words are often conflated with one another, they are distinct concepts that are mutually informative, deeply intertwined, and equally important in aiding in the success of college students across America (Engstrom & Tinto, 2010). For many, access precedes the ability to acquire opportunity. While many students are provided access, only a small proportion are afforded the opportunity to succeed.

The VCU Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry and Innovation (iCubed) has identified this access-opportunity gap as an important priority and addresses it through its cornerstone initiative, the Commonwealth Scholars Program (CSP). CSP is a research mentorship program that matches college students who are considered to be of the highest need and highest talent, with exceptional research faculty who specialize in inclusive community-engaged research. CSP aims to bridge the gap between access, opportunity, and engagement for students who are typically most affected by this gap: the highly-talented with the highest financial need. Specifically, CSP students are incentivized with a work-study and stipend fund to specifically conduct research, acquire a research skill-set, and network to gain new connections and mentorship – both within and outside of their respective departments. After successfully completing a rigorous application process, students are matched with a primary research mentor who incorporates the student into their lab and guides their student through the basic research process. CSP students are exposed to research at multiple levels of this apprenticeship by working within transdisciplinary research teams that are composed of faculty, post-doctoral scholars, graduate students, and their fellow undergraduate CSP students. Altogether, the CSP experience cultivates students’ research interests by getting them directly engaged with iCubed faculty research that is geared towards benefiting local communities. The CSP program was piloted in spring 2018 and was well received by the VCU administration, faculty, and students alike. This program is now scaling up with a nine-fold increase in completed applications from spring 2018 to the most recent semester, indicating a strong student desire to be engaged with faculty research.

Commonwealth Scholars meetingIn order to ameliorate the access-opportunity burden on a broader scale, researchers and administrators alike need to recognize the power, impact, and importance of exposing students to research experiences during their undergraduate career (Gregerman, et al., 1998). Although not necessarily a new idea, it is well-known that research internships and assistantships provide students with valuable technical skills that prepare them well for graduate school, and well beyond the world of academia by enhancing student professional networks, critical-thinking skillsets, self-confidence, sense of independence, and self-efficacy (Lopatto, 2007; Petrella & Jung, 2008). Unfortunately, diversity and inclusion efforts at premiere research institutions (R1) typically focus on improving the social climate for underrepresented minority students, instead of prioritizing the academic or research climate and experience. Thus, while obtaining higher education in world class research facilities, these students’ engagement with the world class professors and scientists who contribute to the reputation of the university is sorely lacking, indicating a gap in the systematic process of providing opportunity to these students. By increasing access to research opportunities for underrepresented students, both students and universities can share in the benefits (Hathaway, et al., 2002). Research opportunities increase a student’s chance for success post-graduation and universities are rewarded by producing inclusive research, retaining higher numbers of students by decreasing their attrition rates, and a more successful alumnae pool (Louis, et al, 2015).

More broadly speaking, all institutions should be actively working to bridge the divide between access, opportunity, and engagement for students by investing resources in their college experience that can positively impact student economic and social mobility post-graduation. Higher education can address opportunity issues by investing in local institutes that are directed at funneling back into developing quality student research opportunities and promoting academic development for underrepresented students. Further, these institutes are encouraged to create access programs that, “…have a commitment to research and evaluation of outcomes, to continual learning and to applying their data to practices that are constantly evolving” (p.12, Diverse).

Each research-oriented university within the United States should include strategies for engaging undergraduate students within their research initiatives. Research should aim to trickle down from the highest levels to the masses. Engaging undergraduates should be understood as an integral component of the undergraduate experience and prioritized in administrative agendas. Aid and assistance should be targeted to bridge the gap between access and opportunity for college students, especially those who come from low-income, underrepresented communities. In doing so, we can work together to ensure that all students who attend higher education do have equal access to quality opportunities to engage in research experiences. As a preeminent, urban research university, VCU aims to lead this charge by acknowledging that we have an inherent responsibility to be certain that our students are receiving the highest level of quality, care, and professional development that they have paid for. We, as faculty, staff, and administrators, are obligated to serve our students equally. As stewards of the university, we designed and implemented CSP through iCubed as a means of mending the gap between access and opportunity in hopes of better enhancing the university experience. Though we understand that this can be intimidating for universities who are essentially taking a gamble on the success of a nascent institution, we strongly encourage our fellow university administrators and colleagues elsewhere to roll the dice that has shown winning probabilities.

For more information about iCubed and the Commonwealth Scholars Program, please contact the Co-Directors of this program, Ms. Neha Goel at and Dr. Faika Zanjani at


  • Engstrom, C., & Tinto, V. (2008). Access without support is not opportunity. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 40(1), 46-50. doi: 10.3200/CHNG.40.1.46-50
  • Hathaway, R.S., Nagda, B.A., & Gregerman, S.R. (2002). The relationship of undergraduate research participation to graduate and professional education pursuit: An empirical study. Journal of College Student Development, 43(5), 1-18.
  • Lopatto, D. (2007). Undergraduate research experiences support science career decisions and active learning. CBE Life Science Education, 6(4), 297-306. doi: 10.1187/cbe.07-06-0039.
  • Louis, D.A., Phillips, L.L., Louis, S.L., & Smith, A.R. (2015). Historically black colleges and universities: Undergraduate research, mentoring and the graduate pipeline. [Blog post]. Retrieved from
  • Nagda, B.A., Gregerman, S.R., Jonides, J., von Hippel, W., & Lerner, J.S. (1998). Undergraduate student-faculty research partnerships affect student retention. The Review of Higher Education, 22(1).
  • Petrella, J.K., & Jung, A.P. (2008). Undergraduate research: Importance, benefits, and challenges. International Journal of Exercise Science, 1(3), 91-95.

iCubed Commonwealth Scholars