Dancing into the sunset: Alumna Sheena Jeffers takes a lifelong passion everywhere she goes

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

Dance has been at the heart of everything Sheena Jeffers (B.S.’08/MC; B.A.’08/H&S) has done since she took her first ballet class when she was 5.

“It’s the one thing I’ve never moved on from, and I absolutely love it more than anything,” says the Richmond, Virginia, native. “No matter what city or state I’m in, and even when I travel, I find a drop-in dance class to join.”

From those first lessons, Jeffers danced competitively for seven years and was accepted to the Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk, Virginia, where she graduated in 2004. When it came time to apply for college, Jeffers wanted a school surrounded by art.

Citing the Richmond Ballet, visits from Broadway shows and a budding modern dance scene, Jeffers applied to and was accepted into Virginia Commonwealth University. Though dance was her first love, she chose to pursue a different path in college. Growing up, her grandfather, a Baptist preacher, would frequently encourage her to write by giving her writing journals, and she would often sit in his library and watch him write his weekly sermons.

“I still have journals from when I was younger that recount all the things I’ve gone through,” Jeffers says. “When I got to [VCU], I knew I wanted to explore writing as much as I had [already explored] dance.”

While double majoring in English and mass communications, with a focus in journalism, she made it a point to take as many dance classes as possible and spent three years as a member of VCU’s dance team, Gold Rush. In addition, Jeffers worked as news editor for the student newspaper, The Commonwealth Times, and interned at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“[Sheena] was thoughtful, dedicated and relentlessly upbeat while she was working at the VCU Capital News Service,” says Jeff South, associate professor of journalism and director of undergraduate studies in the VCU Robertson School of Media and Culture. “Reporters often get the door slammed in their face, but she had a keen eye for stories and never let anything discourage her.”

VCU English professor Catherine Ingrassia, Ph.D., echoes South’s praise of Jeffers.

“She was always an enthusiastic and engaged presence in the classroom,” Ingrassia says, “Her infectious good nature and ability to connect with everyone always made her a dynamic part of every class.”

Jeffers blended her passion for dance with her passion for writing after college, first starting an internationally-recognized dance blog and then writing for the Richmond Times-Dispatch as the paper’s dance critic. Then, in 2010, she went back to school to earn a master’s of science in arts integrated education from Old Dominion University, graduating in 2014.

Her dance card has been full ever since. She founded Well Women Inc., a corporation that helps women with personal and professional development, worked as an adjunct professor of dance at ODU and spent nearly three years as arts integration director for Young Audiences of Virginia Inc., where she helped develop school curriculums that integrate literacy with art and dance.

“I know firsthand that having early access to art helps you visualize a better world and become a stronger person,” Jeffers says. “Through art, we’re able to break down barriers and educate, empower and uplift the world around us.”

Now working as a freelance writer for clients such as the U.S. Department of Energy and Answers.com, Jeffers has continued to forge her own path.

Recently, she and her partner restored an aging 43-foot catamaran, and the two live full time on the vessel. They set sail in late November and are sailing down the East Coast to Central America, where Jeffers is writing and teaching yoga to traveling families at ports along the way. Jeffers recently took over the VCU Alumni Instagram account, offering a glimpse into what it’s like to live on the open ocean.

No matter where her travels take her, Jeffers is confident that her hard work has prepared her for this new journey.

“It’s empowering to know that the knowledge I gained at VCU has given me transferrable, global skills,” she says. “I say this often, but it was at [VCU] where I learned it’s OK to take the road less traveled, make bold choices and follow my dreams.”

Joshua Hiscock named VCU associate vice president for alumni relations

Joshua Hiscock will start at VCU on Jan. 4.

Virginia Commonwealth University announced today that following a national search Joshua Hiscock has been named associate vice president for alumni relations, effective Jan. 4. Hiscock currently serves as executive director of alumni benefits and services at the George Washington University.

In his new role, Hiscock will work closely with VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., and senior leaders from across the institution, as well as volunteer alumni leaders to support VCU’s growing national reputation.

“We are thrilled that Josh will be joining the VCU team. Josh is an experienced alumni relations professional who impressed our search committee from our first meeting,” said Jay Davenport, vice president for development and alumni relations. “At a time when we are reorganizing our alumni relations effort, Josh has the vision, drive and passion to help connect all our alumni in a meaningful way. We look forward to welcoming Josh and his wife, Jennifer, to Richmond.”

Hiscock joined the George Washington University in August 2012 and was responsible for oversight of alumni benefits and services and advised the 60-member George Washington Alumni Association Board of Directors. Hiscock previously served as graduate coordinator for the National Clearinghouse for Leadership Programs at the University of Maryland from 2010-2012 and before that was graduate coordinator for the minor in leadership studies at Maryland. He has also held leadership roles in coordinating student activities and programs at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Roger Williams University and Boston University.

“VCU is a world-class institution with passionate alumni who are innovators changing Richmond, the commonwealth of Virginia, and the world in a wide array of professional industries,” Hiscock said. “I am excited to work collaboratively with offices across the institution to engage all our graduates through innovative new programming and volunteer opportunities that both reconnect alumni to their alma mater and fulfill critical university priorities that will enhance the experience for current students at VCU. There is no better time to be part of the VCU Alumni family and I am thrilled to join the team.”

Hiscock is currently a candidate for a Doctor of Philosophy in college student personnel administration at the University of Maryland. He received a Master of Arts in counseling and personnel services — college student personnel from the University of Maryland in 2005 and received a Bachelor of Arts, cum laude, in American studies from the George Washington University in 2003.

Martin Luther King III will headline MLK Celebration Week at VCU

Martin Luther King III will provide keynote remarks Jan. 17 as part of VCU’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Week.

Human rights advocate, community activist and political leader Martin Luther King III will provide keynote remarks Jan. 17 as part of Virginia Commonwealth University’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Week.

King’s keynote, which will be held at 7 p.m. in the University Student Commons, Commonwealth Ballroom, will be moderated by Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney. The event is free and open to the public. Guests can RSVP at go.vcu.edu/mlk3keynote.

King serves as an ambassador of his parents’ legacy of nonviolent social change. A graduate of his father’s alma mater, Morehouse College, King has devoted his life to working in the nonprofit sector to promote civil rights and global human rights and to eradicate the “triple evils” of racism, militarism and poverty his father identified as the scourges of humankind.

As the elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization co-founded by his father, King reinvigorated SCLC by stabilizing its governance, program and development components. As founder and president of Realizing the Dream, Inc., he has taken his father’s message to a global audience, spearheading nonviolence training in Bosnia and Herzegovina, India, Israel and Palestine, Kenya, Sri Lanka and the United States.

VCU’s MLK Celebration Week was established in 2014 to honor and raise awareness of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. through VCU and Richmond community-wide educational programs that commemorate his distinguished contributions, leadership, spirit of service and dedication to nonviolence and justice. MLK Celebration Week is scheduled for Jan. 15 to Jan. 21 and is sponsored by VCU’s Division for Inclusive Excellence.

The week’s theme, “50 years later: Don’t sleep on the dream,” commemorates the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. Program and event attendees will have the opportunity to learn more about King’s lasting legacy and engage in making their community a better place for all. Learn more at mlkday.vcu.edu.

It takes a village: Community partners help VCU Alumni’s RVA GOLD Chapter give back to the city

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

Every September, during Hunger Action Month, Virginia Commonwealth University Alumni’s RVA GOLD Chapter hosts the Alumni Charity Challenge, sponsored in part by Nationwide and Virginia Credit Union. The event brings together alumni chapters from 30 universities in Virginia as well as several out-of-state institutions who compete to donate the most canned goods FeedMore, the Central Virginia Food Bank and get their school’s name on a challenge trophy.

“One in 7 of our neighbors is struggling to put food on the table, and 1 in 6 children in our region aren’t receiving necessary nutrition,” says Tim McDermott (M.P.A.’82/GPA), chief development officer at FeedMore. “Events like the charity challenge help raise awareness and validate VCU’s continued investment in the Richmond community.”

With the help of sponsors, the event provides food trucks, giveaways and more when the participating alumni groups gather at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in Richmond, Virginia, to see which school’s graduates donate the most canned goods by weight.

“[Nationwide is] proud to sponsor the Alumni Charity Challenge because it gives us the opportunity to support the Central Virginia community and many of our alumni affinity partners, but it’s also at the core of what we’re all about,” says Ann Ritterspach, associate vice president of affinity solutions at Nationwide. “Supporting this basic need that affects so many is why Nationwide is proud to lend its support.”

Angela Roisten, membership development director at Virginia Credit Union, echoes the sentiment.

“We’re proud of our great relationship with VCU students, faculty and staff, and we’re glad our relationship with many students continues post-graduation,” she says. “[VACU is] happy to participate in the Alumni Charity Challenge because it encourages alumni to give back, raises awareness and contributes significantly to the fight against hunger in Central Virginia in such a meaningful way.”

Since the first event in 2013, the Alumni Charity Challenge has collected more than 16 tons of food that has benefited 200,000 children, families and seniors in 34 cities and counties across Central Virginia. In addition, a portion of beer sales at the event are donated to the FRIENDS Association of Richmond, which provides child care, developmental skills and family support services to children and families in the area.

This year, the Alumni Charity Challenge raised a record 48,335 pounds of food for the Richmond community, more than double FeedMore’s goal of collecting 20,000 pounds.

“I think that every single [VCU alumnus] wants to make the world a better place,” says Joseph Stemmle (B.S.’13/B), director of volunteering for the RVA GOLD Chapter. “It doesn’t take an organization like the RVA GOLD Chapter to make that happen. Find a cause you love and go make that change happen.”

VCU’s new La Esperanza Lab to study health disparities, impact of immigration policy on Richmond’s Latinx population

Oswaldo Moreno, Ph.D.

Growing up in Arizona as the son of Mexican immigrants, Oswaldo Moreno, Ph.D., saw firsthand how the United States’ immigration policies could affect Latinx communities.

Now, as a new faculty member at Virginia Commonwealth University, Moreno is gearing up to study how policies — including access to health care, immigration restrictions and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — are affecting Latinx students at VCU, as well as the growing Hispanic population of the Richmond region.

“The reason why I do this is because I feel heavily involved with these communities. I come from a Latin community myself. I was raised in Phoenix, the hub of immigration policies [that were characterized by] discrimination constructs, prejudice and institutional biases,” said Moreno, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “Now all that’s on a national platform, impacting communities like Richmond.”

Moreno’s La Esperanza Lab (“esperanza” is Spanish for “hope”) at VCU aims to understand and address health care disparities in the United States that affect individuals from low-income and racial and ethnic minority backgrounds.

Read more.

VCU Health celebrates ribbon-cutting of new children’s mental health facility

Renderings of the new Virginia Treatment Center for Children.

VCU Health and Children’s Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University on Fridaycelebrated the ribbon-cutting for their new Virginia Treatment Center for Children. The new VTCC is the result of $56 million in funding from the Virginia General Assembly and a dedicated community of donors and mental health advocates.

One in five children will experience a serious mental health issue, but 75 percent of them will not receive the care they need, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. VTCC is an acknowledgement that national issues surrounding children’s mental health need to be addressed and VCU’s Department of Psychiatry is leading the charge.

The facility is transformational for children’s mental health care, bringing VTCC’s services out of a 50-year-old institutional space and into a modern facility with an inspirational design that incorporates natural light, green space and unique safety features important to modern mental health care. Based on research and the unique profile of the pediatric psychiatric patient, the facility design features a soothing aesthetic, warm and bright color palette, and comforting, home-like furnishings.

“It eases the stigma surrounding mental illness and improves access to care,” said Marsha Rappley, M.D., CEO of VCU Health and vice president of health sciences at VCU. “We’re also doubling space to train future generations of children’s mental health providers and conduct innovative research initiatives that will enhance treatment and prevention efforts. Our work here in the commonwealth will have a ripple effect across the country.”

VTCC serves children from across Virginia, with nearly 50 percent coming from outside Richmond and surrounding counties. With new telemedicine programs, VTCC physicians will extend their reach across Virginia, particularly in rural areas.

Read more.

VCU launches newly expanded pre-accelerator program, called VCU Pre-X, to better support student innovators and entrepreneurs

Hilton Bennett (B.S.’16/En; Cert.’16/B), then a senior engineering student and now a Master of Product Innovation student at VCU, pitches a business idea last fall to VCU’s pre-accelerator program. Bennett’s idea was centered around an invention he designed to allow mountain climbers to practice indoors.

The da Vinci Center at Virginia Commonwealth University is looking for entrepreneurial and innovative students, as well as mentors from the Richmond area’s business community, to take part in a newly expanded and revamped pre-accelerator program that helps VCU students turn their promising ideas into viable startup companies.

VCU’s pre-accelerator program launched in 2015 to identify, support and launch high-growth and high-potential startups and student founders. Over four cohorts, the program’s teams raised more than $2 million in investment and revenue, and three student-run companies went on to be accepted into Lighthouse Labs, the Richmond region’s startup accelerator program.

Now called VCU Pre-X, the pre-accelerator program has shifted to a new model in which all VCU students who meet the minimum requirements will be able to access the program’s curriculum, tools and mentorship. As they progress through the program, participants will have to meet benchmarks and compete with one another for funding.

Read more.

Capturing a far-off place: A conversation with wildlife photographer Trevor Frost

Trevor Frost and his father on the Masai Mara reserve in Kenya, on a trip to see the annual migration of wildebeest across the plains.

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

Trevor Frost (B.S.’06/LS) is a wildlife photographer and filmmaker who, after graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2006 at the age of 16, has gone on to work with National Geographic. We caught up with Frost recently to learn about his love of the wild, storytelling and his time at VCU.

What was it that made you so interested in wildlife?

I was always interested in wildlife growing up. They’re just as complicated as us, and while they’ve adapted to live in a human world, they still live completely differently from us. Both of my parents were biologists; they actually met each other in the Galapagos and spent time living in the Venezuelan rainforests.

I grew up watching slideshows of howler monkeys and scarlet macaws. When we moved back to the city, [my parents] often did talks at my elementary school where they’d show off artifacts from their travels and share slides of animals you could find in the rainforest.

Another big reason was the amount of time I spent outdoors. I worked for Passages Adventure Camp, which is based out of the local Richmond rock-climbing group Peak Experiences. I went there as a camper one summer and came back for years as a volunteer and even worked there while I was attending school.

Did you always envision yourself as a photographer?

I originally wanted to be a biologist, and sort of follow in my dad’s footsteps, and stayed on that route through college because I saw it as a natural path. You get your degrees, defend your thesis and there’s always a way forward. It’s far from easy, but it’s different from the path you go in the creative world.

I started taking pictures when I was around 12 years old. My father’s sister was getting married on a cruise to St. Maarten, and while cruise ships aren’t really my thing, I decided I’d make the best of it and bring along a point-and-shoot camera. Afterward, I kept taking pictures, eventually upgraded to a DSLR and shot on film for around 10 years.

What was your time at VCU like?

I really enjoyed it here! I was a kayaker, volunteered to work with coastal ecosystems and the Rice Rivers Center and traveled out of the country by myself for the first time.

VCU was instrumental to my success because it was different than a lot of the other schools I had previously looked at. There were so many continuing education programs, and I had a lot more flexibility to learn the way I wanted to; that was the secret to my success.

You know, I dropped out of public school in seventh grade. I was lucky enough to come from a family that was decidedly middle class, and I had parents who were willing to take the risk. My mom really championed the idea, because she knew that I had to learn in a way that was right for me. I spent a year doing all of the things that a boy dreams of, like riding my bike, building tree forts and exploring the wetlands behind my house, but the novelty wore off. I still had a thirst for knowledge. A year and a half later, I started at VCU at 16.

I had a lot of freedom and my advisers were open to veering off the standard path if they felt it enhanced my education. I’ll never forget the time my adviser, J. Clifford Fox, Ph.D., J.D., went out of his way to grant me permission to do an independent study because I came to him hesitant about taking a required environmental economics class. It was those kinds of experiences for people like me, who don’t quite fit into a traditional learning mold, that allow us to succeed. Without that, I may have never went to class and not finished my degree, but he made it a point to support me and it made all the difference in the world.

How did you get your start with National Geographic?

After graduating, I took two big trips, one to Africa for six months and a second to South America for seven months. I was always keeping my eyes open for field research jobs where you volunteer and they basically cover your costs while you help other researchers collect data. The plans I had to work in Africa fell through so I just backpacked and saw things as you do, but in South America I landed a position with the local wildlife conservation society helping with camera trap studies of jaguars in a new nature reserve. I was also becoming more serious about taking pictures.

When I came back to the States, after a bit, I went on another trip to the Middle East and realized that while these trips were fun, I was having new experiences and learning new things, the novelty began to wear off. I started thinking about how I could travel — because we’re all a little curious about the world and self-serving — and tell these stories. I stumbled across National Geographic’s Young Explorer program, they call them Early Career Grants now, where they’d give you between $1,000-$5,000 to fund science, photography or video projects. I was fortunate enough to have grown up in Richmond at summer camp with one of the people who received one of the first grants, and he encouraged me to apply.

Inside Grotte de Lembamba cave, in the northwestern corner of Gabon.

My application was to find, explore, map and photograph caves in the west-central

African country of Gabon. I tried to think about what was going to interest National Geographic, so I did my research and learned that the two least explored places on the planet are the “underworld,” or cave systems, and the deep ocean. Now exploring the ocean takes a lot of expensive boats and equipment so I’ll leave that to the team at Discover Titanic, but there are cavers all around the world in practically every country.

I’ve been rock climbing for about 10 years and know my way around the equipment, so I reached out to cavers and got experience caving in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I ended up getting the grant and spent two months in Gabon exploring 14 caves. We ended up finding around 11 new caves and further mapped a cave that had already been explored, finding out that it was much longer than previously thought, and it ended up being the longest cave in the entire country!

What does telling a story mean to you?

I want to tell stories that change the world. Even if they just change the hearts and minds of a few hundred people, then I’ve done something. Your story needs to be guided by how much you think about it, how much it rules your day. If you go to bed dreaming about it and wake up thinking about it then you’re on the right path. That passion will result in stories that are meaningful and will resonate with people around the world, whether you’re a pianist, a sculptor or if you just dream of far-off places.

Some friends of mine recently did an expedition to the Arctic and turned it into a film called “In Between Galaxies.” It had nothing to do with conservation or science; it was just an adventure. One of them broke her back midway through but continued on through this incredibly physically demanding expedition to make it through to the end. When I saw what they went through, and how they triumphed despite it all, it lifted me up. I think that’s what it comes down to. Good stories are born out of people that go after it with everything they can and sacrifice everything they have to make their dreams a reality. It starts, and ends, with relentless obsession.

What do you plan to do next?

Next year I’m going to the western Amazon of Peru to document a team of researchers that are capturing green anacondas, the world’s largest snake, so they can insert radio transmitters that will track them. The team is also taking tissue samples and will test for mercury contamination. There’s a lot of illegal gold mining in the area and mercury levels in the rivers are making people sick, but we have no data about how it is impacting wildlife.

My partner Melissa and I have also just started filming for our next long-term project, a feature length documentary on animal intelligence, which will be a 3-4 year effort. I don’t want to give away too many details but I will be a character driven film, following a few scientists on their journeys to prove animals are more like us than we imagine.

We’ll be spending a lot of time on and in the ocean working with various marine creatures, and if all goes to plan we’ll be working in 10 countries across 3 or 4 continents!

VCU recognizes veterans

Timothy P. Williams, adjunct general of Virginia, provides remarks at Friday’s event.

Virginia Commonwealth University celebrated military veterans Friday at a Veterans Appreciation Reception held at the Commons Theater.

The event, which doubled as the launch of the VCU Military Veterans Alumni Council, featured remarks from Saif Khan (B.A.’07/H&S), an Iraq War veteran and a graduate of the College of Humanities and Sciences; Timothy P. Williams, adjunct general of Virginia, who commands the Virginia Army National Guard, Virginia Air National Guard and Virginia Defense Force; Stephen Ross, director of VCU Military Student Services; and Dan-Viggo Bergtun, president of the World Veterans Federation.

Khan is the first president of the VCU Military Veterans Alumni Council, which offers an opportunity for VCU alumni to connect with one another and the current student body through their shared bond of military service.

Read more.

A covert operation: How alumna Eva Dillon learned a Cold War secret

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

As a child, Eva Dillon (B.M.’82/A) moved all around the world. She and her six siblings would fall in love with a country, and a few years later, her father’s job would take the family somewhere new.

“I was born in Berlin, Germany, four years before the [Berlin] Wall went up,” she says. “I remember being frightened by the guards, the barbed wire and German shepherds, but our parents felt it was important that we see it.”

The family also lived in Mexico City and Rome before returning to the States shortly after the conclusion of the Cuban missile crisis. When Dillon was 17, the family moved to New Delhi. It was 1975, the year a bombshell, tell-all book called “Inside the Company: CIA Diary” was published. The book listed the names of 250 CIA officers, and her father, Paul Dillon, was on that list.

“We always thought he worked for the State Department, but when we saw a news article identifying him, we learned the truth,” Dillon says.

The book was written by former CIA officer Philip Agee who worked for her father when the family lived in Mexico City seven years earlier. In it, Agee revealed that Dillon’s father was an operations officer in the Agency’s Soviet division.  Eventually Dillon learned that he handled the CIA’s highest-ranking double agent, Gen. Dmitri Fedorovich Polyakov.

Going her own way

A year later, Dillon returned to the U.S. to attend the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, graduating with a music degree focused on composition and theory. Though music was her passion (she still sings to this day), Dillon realized that she wanted to go in a different direction.

“Five of my siblings attended VCU. We all lived in the Fan,” she says. “Just about all of us worked at Strawberry Street Café. It was how we worked our way through college. We had an amazing experience!”

After graduation, Dillon worked as a roving assistant at National Geographic, where she eventually landed in the advertising department. She loved the publishing industry and decided to pursue a career in business operations. She moved to New York City and got a job at a trade magazine in advertising sales, marketing and circulation. From there, she worked at TV Guide, Glamour, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and other publications, later becoming president of Reader’s Digest.

Putting pen to paper

With 25 years of experience in the publishing world, Dillon was ready to write her own book, one that told the story of her father and Polyakov. After learning that the general’s son, Alexander Polyakov, had emigrated to the U.S., she sought him out, and he was willing to share his stories with her.

She began to collect material written about Polyakov from newspapers, magazines and various books, and with his son’s help, she also gained access to information from Russia that she had translated. Combining that information with interviews she had from her father’s former colleagues and friends, she filled in the details of the story.

The resulting book, “Spies in the Family: An American Spymaster, His Russian Crown Jewel, and the Friendship That Helped End the Cold War,” paints a broad picture of the Cold War, the issues and the political environment and tells various stories about government operatives and assets. The book also delves into further detail about what life was like for both the Dillon and Polyakov families unknowingly growing up in the family of spies.

“With [Alexander’s] help, I was now able to tell the story from two sides,” Dillon says. “General Polyakov worked on behalf of our country for 18 years. I felt it was important people know what he did for us.”

Dillon returns to VCU on Dec. 6 for a talk at James Branch Cabell Library to discuss the book and reveal additional insights into Cold War politics. The talk will be followed by a Q&A, book-signing and a reception.