VCU inspires alumna’s career in advocacy

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

Alexsis Rodgers (B.S.’13/MC), director of communications for Planned Parenthood Virginia, takes over the VCU Alumni Instagram account Monday. Outside of her full-time job, Rodgers is active in local politics and recently worked as director of policy for then-Lieutenant Governor of Virginia  Ralph Northam.

What drew you to VCU?

I originally chose VCU because of its top-notch medical program, but I later decided I’d rather work for doctors than be a doctor myself. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to lead communications efforts and messaging for the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, Dr. Ralph Northam and the Virginia League for Planned Parenthood.

The diversity of VCU’s student population was also a driving factor in my decision to attend the university. The ability to learn from and build lifelong bonds with individuals from all over the world is a degree on its own.

What was your time like at the university?

A balancing act. Earning good grades and getting communications internship experience were my top two priorities. Of course, I wanted to have fun and try new things while I was in school, too. I’m sure I didn’t strike the perfect balance, but I think I came pretty close.

I loved traveling to Guatemala to serve as an interpreter for an arts education study abroad trip, working at a local coffee shop near campus and organizing the 2012 Intercultural Festival at VCU. None of these opportunities were “part of the plan,” but they were major highlights from my time at VCU.

When did you know you wanted to be involved with politics and issue advocacy?

During my senior year, a friend of mine was a national leader for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. His involvement inspired me to start volunteering. A few months later, I decided to defer my final semester and accept a full-time job on the campaign.

I’ve stayed active in local, state and national Democratic politics ever since. Recently, I was elected president of the Virginia Young Democrats, the largest partisan youth organization in the commonwealth of Virginia.

How has VCU tied into your career path?

I was really blessed to be able to weave a lot of career development opportunities into my time at VCU. I interned at PR firms and advertising agencies, and I served as a career center ambassador as well. Those real-world experiences prepared me to jump right into my career.

Evans-Haynes Burn Center earns Beacon Award for nursing excellence

VCU Health Evans-Burn Center received a 2018 Beacon Award for Excellence from the American Association of Critical Care Nurses.

The 30-member nursing team at the VCU Health Evans-Haynes Burn Center has been recognized with a silver level Beacon Award for Excellence by the American Association of Critical Care Nurses.

The award honors North American hospital units for their, “evidence-based practices to improve patient and family outcomes,” according to the AACN website. Also used as a benchmark for the award are nursing units that demonstrate a positive and reassuring work environment, with greater collaboration between colleagues and leaders, higher morale and lower turnover.

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These eight VCU students are the first in their family to graduate from college. Here’s how they did it.

From left: First-generation graduates Sophia Booker, Jaren Butts, Ricardo Rodriguez, Brandon Watts and Tammie Goode

They each have a story: Jeff Petraco (B.S.’14/N) earned his first degree 42 years ago and now finds himself in cap and gown again, at the beginning of a new career. Brandon Watts was raised in a home without internet and now aspires to start a data science company. Candace Moore had to put her education on hold twice and cashed out her 401(k) to pay for school. On Saturday, she will graduate with two degrees.

They come from different places and have different dreams. But they also share something in common: They are the first in their family to graduate from college. VCU News sat down with eight students in the weeks leading to commencement to discuss the moments that mattered on the way to their degrees.

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Displaying more than 1,000 piñatas, VCU and community groups break Guinness World Record

More than 1,000 piñatas were hung along Richmond’s Canal Walk on Saturday at the annual ¿Qué Pasa? Festival.

More than 1,000 piñatas were hung along Richmond’s Canal Walk on Saturday at the annual ¿Qué Pasa? Festival, breaking the Guinness World Record for “Largest Display of Piñatas.”

The new record is the result of five months of work by the da Vinci Center at Virginia Commonwealth University, the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Virginia Hispanic Foundation to create and collect as many piñatas as possible to surpass the previous record of 504 piñatas displayed, set in 2008 at an event in Mexico.

“This is building on an effort that the Virginia Hispanic Chamber already had. They have grade schools and high schools make piñatas for the festival, so we just went big. We got all the piñatas,” said Allison Schumacher, director of academic alchemy at the da Vinci Center, a collaboration of VCU’s Schools of the Arts, Business, Engineering and College of Humanities and Sciences to advance innovation and entrepreneurship.

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As he prepares to speak at commencement, Boris Kodjoe recalls his road from VCU to Hollywood

Boris Kodjoe will deliver VCU’s spring commencement address on May 12.

In 27 years as head tennis coach at Virginia Commonwealth University, Paul Kostin has just about seen and heard it all. He’s coached hundreds of players of varying abilities and personalities, and they have challenged him in seemingly infinite ways. Still, he has only encountered one Boris Kodjoe (B.S.’96/B), and he has never faced a conundrum quite like the one Kodjoe brought to him one spring day in 1996.

Kodjoe appeared depressed when he entered Kostin’s office that day. A superb competitor in both singles and doubles, Kodjoe was nearing the end of a Rams’ career that would place him among the most successful VCU players ever. So Kostin was stunned when Kodjoe sheepishly asked if he could miss the team’s upcoming match with Clemson University.

Kodjoe wanted to be on the court with his teammates, he said, but he also wanted to attend a music video awards show in New York. Kodjoe wasn’t just looking for some random fun night out. While acing the rigors of a student-athlete’s life at VCU, Kodjoe had also carved out a promising modeling career that already saw him traveling in rarefied circles. He had been a breakout star in the recent video for TLC’s song, “Red Light Special,” a top awards contender, and the upcoming show would offer him an invaluable moment in the spotlight.

Few Division I athletic coaches likely would have even considered the request, but Kostin knew the event was a unique opportunity for a student whose star was rising fast outside of tennis. Also, he said, it was hard to say no to this particular player. So he reluctantly agreed to excuse him.

“I could never get mad at Boris because he was such an exceptional person and so unselfish as a player and a teammate,” Kostin said. “He deserved to go. It also was clear he was going places and I didn’t want to get in the way of that.”

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VCU recognized as a top producer of Gilman scholars

Marwa Eltaib, one of 14 VCU students who received Gilman scholarships during the 2016-17 academic year, at Chamonix Mont Blanc, at the border between France and Switzerland. Eltaib studied abroad as a Gilman scholar in fall 2016.

Virginia Commonwealth University has been recognized among education institutions that sent the most students overseas through the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program in academic year 2016-17. VCU ranked No. 41 among nearly 150 universities nationwide that enroll more than 15,000 undergraduates, according to a report issued last month.

In addition to its ranking among large institutions, VCU was listed in all of Gilman’s priority achievement categories, which included scholarships for minority students, first-generation college students, students with disabilities, STEM students, and variety in the total number of destinations.

VCU was Virginia’s top-ranked institution on all lists.

The Gilman scholarship plays a significant role in making study abroad accessible for VCU students, said Stephanie Tignor (B.M.’04/A; M.A.’12/H&S), director of the VCU Education Abroad office.

“We are immensely proud of our students’ accomplishments and of VCU being recognized among other institutions that produce Gilman scholars,” she said. “When students study abroad, they not only build skills that will benefit them academically, professionally and personally, they also bring their broadened global perspectives back to campus, and that enriches the entire VCU community.”

The Gilman scholarship program provides awards for U.S. undergraduate students who are receiving federal Pell Grant funding at two-year or four-year colleges or universities to participate in study abroad programs worldwide. The program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and Institute of International Education.

Over the past five years, 59 VCU students have received Gilman scholarships. Fourteen were awarded in 2016-17 to students from 10 different academic majors who studied in 13 countries between fall 2016 and summer 2017.

Gilman scholars receive up to $5,000 to apply toward their study abroad or internship program costs. The VCU Education Abroad office and National Scholarship Office work with students to develop competitive applications.

Ultrasound technology can help paramedics save lives in the field. A groundbreaking new class at VCU is training them how.

Michael Ny (B.S.’13/H&S), a firefighter and paramedic for Chesterfield County, practices using ultrasound to find a vein to insert an IV.

A 62-year-old male has collapsed on a treadmill at the gym. First responders arrive to find that he’s unconscious and without a pulse. They start CPR.

“Let’s see what’ve got,” says paramedic Shawn Lawrence (B.S.W.’10/SW), as he runs a small ultrasound probe over the man’s chest, conjuring up a black-and-white image of the heart on a handheld monitor.

The ultrasound reveals the heart is quivering, just slightly.

“OK, so what do you think?” asks Stephanie K. Louka, M.D. (H.S.’17/M), an emergency medical services fellow and clinical instructor in the Department of Emergency Medicine of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine.

“So, we’re going to shock him,” Lawrence replies. He applies a defibrillator. The ultrasound shows the man’s heart has started beating again with an organized rhythm.

“Oh, I’m happy with that,” Lawrence says. “It looks good.”

This scenario — a simulation in which Lawrence was resuscitating a medical training mannequin — took place in VCU’s trauma skills classroom as part of a new course in which first responder medical personnel from across Virginia are getting hands-on training to use ultrasound technology before the patient reaches a hospital.

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How do we view the Syrian refugee crisis? A new study looks to Instagram and Pinterest for answers

Sentiments about the Syrian refugee crisis are increasingly being expressed on social media. A new study led by Jeanine Guidry, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, provides new insight into what and how information about Syrian refugees is being shared.

As millions of Syrians have fled their country’s civil war, the influx of refugees has prompted both humanitarian efforts to help them as well as growing views of refugees as a threat to the receiving countries’ security and autonomy.

Sentiments about the refugee crisis are increasingly expressed on social media. A new study led by Jeanine Guidry, Ph.D. (Ph.D.’17/M), an assistant professor in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences, provides new insight into what and how information about Syrian refugees is being shared.

The study, “Welcome or Not: Comparing #Refugee Posts on Instagram and Pinterest,” was a quantitative content analysis of a random sample of 750 Instagram posts and 750 Pinterest posts to evaluate and compare visual and textual messaging surrounding the crisis.

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VCU’s engineering school becomes the VCU College of Engineering

VCU’s engineering college offers six undergraduate degrees. It also has six master’s programs and five doctoral programs.

Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Engineering is now the VCU College of Engineering. This change reflects the college’s increase in programs, research, faculty and student census, and supports its mission to advance a collaborative, creative and entrepreneurial engineering culture.

College leaders said the growing scope of VCU’s academic programs in engineering — and its robust sponsored research program with collaborations across the Monroe Park and VCU Health campuses, and the Virginia Bio+Tech Park — are in keeping with its designation as a college.

“Since 2013, our faculty numbers have doubled, and our extramural research funding has quadrupled,” said Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., Alice T. and William H. Goodwin Chair and dean of the VCU College of Engineering. “Becoming the VCU College of Engineering recognizes the rapid growth during the last five years and positions us to continue our forward trajectory.”

VCU defines a college as a large academic unit with a broad scope of degree-granting programs covering multiple disciplines. The university’s 22-year-old engineering college now offers six undergraduate degrees. It also has six master’s programs, as well as a Master of Product Innovation degree affiliated with the VCU da Vinci Center. The college offers five doctoral programs in engineering.

The college houses four interdisciplinary centers and institutes: the VCU Institute for Engineering and Medicine, the VCU Nanomaterials Core Characterization Facility, the C. Kenneth and Dianne Harris Wright Virginia Microelectronics Center and the Medicines for All Institute.

The advancement in status from school to college also underscores VCU’s broadening platforms to connect engineering research, student engagement `and degree programs with economic development and community partnerships. Recent examples of these intersections include a $25 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to establish the Medicines for All Instituteand a major gift from Altria to promote active, hands-on, collaborative learning. A new 133,000 square-foot Engineering Research Building is set to break ground this summer and open in 2020. The facility will support advanced research, student innovation and economic development initiatives.

John D. Leonard II, Ph.D., executive associate dean of the School of Engineering, said the change sets the stage for continued increases in engineering enrollment, faculty and facilities.

“The title change to college recognizes the breadth and scope of our activities and more clearly communicates the expansive role that we play in the region and the commonwealth,” he said.

Keyanna Conner earned her Ph.D. in chemistry from VCU. Now she oversees five Virginia government agencies.

Virginia Secretary of Administration Keyanna Conner earned her doctorate in chemistry from VCU.

Keyanna Conner, Ph.D. (Ph.D.’15/H&S), was running late to work in a Virginia Commonwealth University chemistry lab in February 2007 when she caught Barack Obama’s presidential campaign kickoff speech in Illinois on CNN.

“I was sitting there and, like, tears are coming down,” Conner said. “There’s all of these emotions that I really didn’t know I had.”

Conner, who was pursuing her doctorate from the Department of Chemistry in the College of Humanities and Sciences, found herself inspired by Obama and his message of change and public service. “Each and every time, a new generation has risen up and done what’s needed to be done,” Obama said in that speech. “Today we are called once more, and it is time for our generation to answer that call.”

“Obama called us to action,” Conner said. “It wasn’t just talking about change, but what can you do? So I started supporting his campaign in the evenings late at night, making phone calls and doing data entry. Then we started to win, right? And it’s like, well, while you’re winning you just can’t quit this thing. So I was pulling crazy hours in the lab and then late at night continuing to help out other states from here in Richmond.

“A passion just started to stir up inside of me and it hasn’t left,” she said.

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