Advancing Diversity

Andrea Dennis LaVigne gives the CANR Commencement address at Gampel Pavilion in May 2011.

UConn Trustee Andrea Dennis LaVigne gives the CANR Commencement address at Gampel Pavilion in May 2011. (Peter Morenus/UConn)

When UConn Trustee Andrea Dennis LaVigne gave the College of Agriculture’s Commencement address in May, graduating students and their families were shocked to hear that the successful veterinarian and business woman’s career plans were almost derailed by an adviser who said – despite her excellent grades – she would never get into vet school.

“I wasn’t sure if it was because of my diverse background, or because I’m female,” she said. “It was 1977.”

With the guidance of another UConn professor, however, and continued success in her course work, she was not only awarded a place at vet school but was offered early admission after her junior year, and earned her DVM before completing her undergraduate degree. She returned to UConn years later to finish her bachelor’s through the Bachelor of General Studies program.

Dennis LaVigne’s record of service to UConn includes: Alumni Association president, 1997-99; Alumni Association Service Award, 2000; Alumni Association Board of Directors; Alumni Council; Alumni Association Nominating Committee; Gavel Society; UConn Foundation Board of Directors; UConn Foundation Building Committee; President’s Athletic Advisory Committee; Building Naming Committee; President’s Task Force on Diversity; Alumni Center Building Committee; Chair, Alumni Association Strategic Planning Committee; Chair, Committee on Diversity & Opportunity; Member, Board of Trustees, 2003-11.

Dennis LaVigne ’03 (BGS) is so grateful for the education she received at UConn, which enabled her to achieve her childhood dream of becoming a veterinarian, she has spent years giving back to the University in a whole host of ways. On Aug. 31, she is stepping down after two terms on the Board of Trustees as the elected representative of the University’s alumni.

To celebrate her long history of service, an endowed scholarship to promote diversity at the University has been established in her name, with a $50,000 gift from an anonymous donor and a matching gift from former UConn athletic director Lew Perkins and his wife Gwen.

Rachel Rubin, chief of staff to President Susan Herbst and executive secretary to the Board of Trustees, who was a primary advocate for the scholarship’s creation, says the Andrea Dennis LaVigne Scholarship for Advancing Diversity is intended to benefit a student “who thinks that diversity and multiculturalism are vital to a college campus, and approaches the issue with the same dedication, energy, and spirit that Andrea has always shown.”

The criteria for the scholarship define diversity broadly, to include race, gender, religious belief, and sexual orientation; and any UConn undergraduate may apply.

Acceptance of difference

Diversity is an issue that’s dear to Dennis LaVigne’s heart, and she has devoted much of her career of service at the University to promoting the acceptance of difference.

“When you come from a diverse background, you want people to see you the person, not you the race,” says Dennis LaVigne, whose maternal grandfather was one of the first African American dentists in Hartford. “I want to make sure we look at each other as people.”

Dennis LaVigne says UConn has come a long way in terms of diversity since she was a student. She points to the opportunities that are available to students, and to the appointment of the University’s first female president.

When you come from a diverse background, you want people to see you the person, not you the race. I want to make sure we look at each other as people.

“In the 1970s, UConn was not known to be accepting of difference,” she says. “From the time when I was a student here, I think we have moved mountains. But there are still areas that we struggle with. The changes in the student population are a positive factor, but bringing in more diverse faculty members is something we have to continue to make a priority.

Dennis LaVigne says she hopes the scholarship will “keep the conversation going” University-wide. “I’m not talking about affirmative action,” she says, “I’m talking about the need for 100 percent acceptance of the individuality of people.”

She also hopes the scholarship will make a difference in the recipients’ quality of life by relieving them of some of the financial burden of getting a college education.

Lisa Lewis, executive director of the Alumni Association, lauds Dennis LaVigne’s long-term commitment to UConn and the Alumni Association.

Campaign logo“I can’t think of a more fitting way to thank Andrea for her dedication and devotion by naming this scholarship in her honor,” says Lewis. “The Andrea Dennis LaVigne Scholarship for Advancing Diversity illustrates Andrea’s commitment to encouraging students, today and in the future, to carry the message of diversity forward.”

Staying involved

Although her term on the Board of Trustees has come to an end, Dennis LaVigne is looking for other ways that she can continue to make a difference at the University.

One of those ways will be to participate in the scholarship selection committee, and to meet with the award winners in person.

“I would love to stay connected and active with UConn in a meaningful way,” she says. “UConn truly is my second family.”

To contribute to the Andrea Dennis LaVigne Scholarship for Advancing Diversity, click here.