VCU Alumni and MCVAA welcome new leaders: Alumnae Dale Kalkofen and Ellen Byrne bring deep ties to VCU, decades of experience in education

Dale Kalkofen, Ed.D. (M.A.E.’76/A) (left), and Ellen Byrne, D.D.S., Ph.D. (B.S.’77/P; D.D.S.’83/D; Cert.’91/D; Ph.D.’91/M), are the new presidents of VCU Alumni and MCV Alumni Association of VCU, respectively. Photo by Jud Froelich.

By Erica Naone

New presidents took office this month for both VCU Alumni and the MCV Alumni Association of VCU. They’re the first new leaders since both organizations approved an inclusive model for all graduates in November 2017.

Dale Kalkofen, Ed.D. (M.A.E.’76/A), leads VCU Alumni’s Board of Governors, and Ellen Byrne, D.D.S., Ph.D. (B.S.’77/P; D.D.S.’83/D; Cert.’91/D; Ph.D.’91/M), sits at the helm of MCVAA’s Board of Trustees. Both alumnae bring decades of experience in education and administration, deep connections to VCU and a lifelong love of learning from people and the world around them.

It’s an exciting time to be a part of the alumni organization, they say. In May, the VCU Alumni board voted to endorse ELEVATE, the VCU Alumni strategic plan, which stands for “Expanding Leadership, Enrichment and Volunteerism for Alumni Through Engagement.” The five-year plan starts strong with a year of collaborative programming and engagement opportunities for all graduates, especially those who previously did not find a way to connect.

“The whole idea is to touch as many VCU alumni as possible in the course of a year and to create all kinds of opportunities,” Kalkofen says.

Byrne and Kalkofen will have strong support from the university as they guide their associations toward engaging VCU’s nearly 200,000 alumni.

“Dale and Ellen are dynamic and collaborative leaders with strong ties to many facets of VCU,” says Joshua Hiscock, associate vice president for alumni relations. “I look forward to partnering with each of them over the next two years to both strengthen their respective associations and grow new volunteer engagement opportunities for even more alumni to become involved.”

Strong connections to VCU

Kalkofen was recruited to study at VCU after nine years teaching visual arts to elementary, middle and high school students. After completing an interdisciplinary master’s degree (half in the School of the Arts and half in the School of Education, she says) and 24 years in Richmond Public Schools, she went on to administration and leadership roles in school systems including Boston Public Schools, Memphis (Tennessee) City Schools and Chesterfield County (Virginia) Public Schools, from which she retired in 2010.

What’s kept her connected to VCU all this time, she says, are the people and the opportunities to serve.

She’s excited to spread the word about ways alumni can get more involved. She points to examples such as VCU Libraries’ Friends of the Library and the Pollak Society, which supports the School of the Arts. Kalkofen notes that there are also many opportunities for alumni to connect to current students.

For her part, Byrne has spent most of her life studying and working at VCU. She began at the School of Pharmacy, completing a bachelor’s degree in 1977. She taught in the School of Pharmacy from 1977-79, but soon returned to her studies. She went on to graduate from the School of Dentistry in 1983, complete a general practice residency at Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center, earn a certificate in endodontics in 1991 and finish a Ph.D. in pharmacology in 1991.

She now serves as senior associate dean and professor at the School of Dentistry. “I guess after you get three degrees and two certificates, they have to give you a job,” she says with a laugh. “I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”

Byrne’s times both as a student and as a faculty member tie her strongly to MCVAA. “It’s a reunion year for me every year,” she says. “Even if it’s not really one of my reunion years, I come back down [to campus] because I’m definitely going to know someone there. … I sign up for everything.”

At the most recent Reunion Weekend in April, she particularly enjoyed visiting the new Institute for Contemporary Art on the Monroe Park Campus. “We really are one university,” Byrne says. “I think as we move forward and the university itself grows in many areas, we have to remember and honor our legacy and our heritage and embrace the future of whatever VCU is going to look like.”

Kalkofen adds that helping alumni build relationships with people and places on both campuses can bear fruit. For a long time, VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., has had a vision of interdisciplinary connections within the university community. “If people don’t know each other, they’re not likely to develop interdisciplinary projects together,” Kalkofen says.

She can imagine effective community service projects, for example, led by alumni from the School of Social Work and the College of Health Professions, working together.

“I think it’s important for us to dream about improving the quality of life for children and for adults in the city of Richmond and the greater metropolitan area,” Kalkofen says.

Downtime

When away from her volunteer and professional leadership roles, Kalkofen lives on a farm about 30 miles from Richmond, Virginia. Active farming only started for this “city girl” about five years ago, she says, when her son, Hans Kalkofen (B.A.’12/H&S), started caring for farm animals and got her involved. Since then, she’s enjoyed the pleasures of feeding baby goats and has even cut the umbilical cords of some of the farm’s newborn lambs.

“We have goats and sheep and a couple of donkeys.” She pauses, smiles, and, ever filled with VCU spirit, adds, “Rams.”

Byrne enjoys spending time outside of professional pursuits constructing elaborate gingerbread houses. She got into the hobby through her twin sister, Carol Bolling (B.S.’77/P), who attended pharmacy school with Byrne and graduated in the same year. By now, she says, “it’s almost taken on a life of its own.”

She begins making the dough a year in advance, which she freezes until the holiday season rolls around. A highlight of the annual preparation process is a trip to buy candy in Carytown at For the Love of Chocolate, where she always chats with owner James Kinard (B.S.’89/H&S).

She makes about 30 houses a year. Some go home with guests as party favors. Others go to “people who maybe had a bad year,” Byrne says. “It’s random, never the same person. I just show up and say, ‘Hope this helps you decorate your house at Christmas.’”

She brings a similar generous spirit to her philosophy of helping alumni engage with VCU. Byrne stresses the importance of meeting people “where they are.” Because students often get out of school in debt, she notes, they may not be able to give financially right away. They will, however, come to a reunion or give of their time and talents.

“You have to find out what they want to engage with,” Byrne says and then laughs. “It always helps to have a successful basketball team.”

Help welcome VCU’s newest students this summer

Join VCU Alumni and VCU New Student and Family Programs for our summer send-offs. Come enjoy conversation with members of VCU’s Class of 2022 before they start their college careers. We will have hearty hors d’oeuvres and beverages to savor while welcoming VCU’s newest students and their families.

The summer send-offs are a great opportunity for incoming students to learn from alumni in a networking-type setting about VCU, post-grad life and what it means to be a Ram. They also give alumni a chance to connect with the newest members of the community.

Send-offs have been planned for late July and early August in Philadelphia, Richmond, Va., Charlotte, N.C., Virginia Beach, Va., Washington, D.C., and Roanoke, Va. Alumni are invited to register here.

With a $1M gift, alumna Iris Harrell and wife Ann Benson create a new scholarship for gender, sexuality and women’s studies at VCU

Ann Benson and Iris Harrell have made a $1 million planned gift to the College of Humanities and Sciences to support students studying in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies.

When Iris Harrell’s (M.E.’75/E) parents got divorced during her junior year at what is now the University of Mary Washington, her college education was left in jeopardy. She didn’t have enough money to supplement the scholarships that had allowed her to be the first member of her North Carolina farming family to attend college.

“But [Mary Washington administrators] went into a back room and found some scholarships that they hadn’t awarded,” Harrell said. “They just gave it to me and I was able to finish school. And my life has been way different — and better — because I got a college degree.”

Harrell, who went on to earn a master’s degree from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education in 1975, taught for several years, was a touring folk musician and ultimately founded a successful construction and remodeling company in California with her wife, Ann Benson, is now giving back to help students like her obtain an education.

Harrell and Benson have made a $1 million planned gift to the College of Humanities and Sciences to create the Harrell-Benson Scholarship for students in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies.

“Scholarships are about your legacy,” Harrell said. “I got mine. I want to make sure that the next generation of people get theirs.”

Read more.

Alumna’s novel, featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, follows a 16-year-old who fakes her way through gay conversion therapy and discovers a sense of self

Three-time VCU graduate Michele Young-Stone’s latest novel, “Lost in the Beehive” follows a young woman growing up in the 1960s as she navigates her sexuality.

Michele Young-Stone (B.A.’92/H&S; M.T.’95/E; M.F.A.’05/A)  could not have known it at the time, but the inspiration for her third novel came from a beach trip she took more than 30 years ago.

“I was 16. My best friend and I went on vacation to the Outer Banks and we met these boys from Minnesota who were graduating high school,” Young-Stone said. “And one of the boys confessed to us that he was gay and that none of his friends knew the truth. He didn’t feel like he could tell them because he thought they wouldn’t be his friend, or that they would be afraid of him.”

More than 20 years later, as Young-Stone attempted to write a love story about two young women, she found a character repeatedly showing up in her notes. That character became Sheffield Schoeffler, a young man who is gay and who is both friend and field guide for protagonist Gloria Ricci as she navigates her own sexuality and sense of self in “Lost in the Beehive” (Simon & Schuster 2018), Young-Stone’s novel about a young woman growing up in the 1960s who fakes her way through gay conversion therapy and charts a path to becoming her own person.

“I didn’t realize [the boy on the beach] was so much inspiration for the novel until I finished writing — it wasn’t until the book was getting ready to print that I understood where Sheffield Schoeffler came from,” Young-Stone said. “This happens in every one of my books — some character will show up and kind of shift the whole focus.”

Read more.

Fulbright scholar develops technology to bring independence to people with disabilities

VCU Engineering alumnus Shawn Joshi in front of Oxford University’s Radcliffe Camera.

When Shawn Joshi (B.S.’12/H&S; B.S.’12/En) was 14, his brother suffered a severe traumatic brain injury. Joshi was able to find technological solutions for the family’s day-to-day life, and has carried that idea with him to this day.

“While I never saw medical science perform any miracles for his condition, I would say there have been remarkable technologies that have made both his life and our family’s lives easier,” he said. “He has a standing wheelchair that can relieve tension and pressure as it stands and supports him. We have put Alexa in our house and have controlled lights and cameras. And while we can easily Google anything that comes to our mind, he too can ask Alexa for answers and play music any time he wants.”

Bringing independence to people with impairments has been important to Joshi ever since.

“I am always trying to use technology to make life easier for any population that may have a harder time than others,” said Joshi, who graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2012 with dual degrees in physics and biomedical engineering.

At VCU, Joshi worked with Paul Wetzel, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical engineering in the VCU College of Engineering, to design glasses that could control a computer mouse via eye blinks and head movements. The device could bring independence to people with paraplegia or other disabilities.

Read more.

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.

She said yes! With help from VCU Libraries’ screen, proposal became a really big ask

Osman Malik (B.S.’15/B) and Faria Ahmed (B.S.’15/H&S) celebrate their engagement on VCU’s Compass outside the James Branch Cabell Library. Photo by Jay Paul (B.G.S.’85/H&S; M.F.A.’93/A)

By Julie Young

His stomach was in knots, and he stumbled over the words he had so carefully rehearsed. But at 2:50 p.m. April 21, with an assist from James Branch Cabell Library’s 400-foot digital screen, Osman Malik (B.S.’15/B) pulled off a surprise proposal to his longtime girlfriend, Faria Ahmed (B.S.’15/H&S), on the Virginia Commonwealth University Compass.

The big ask incorporated more than 50 covertly invited friends and relatives, professional and amateur photographers, a shiny new ring — and the screen flashing their photo and the text, “Will you …”

She will, sometime in 2019.

VCU holds special memories for the couple. They met in 2011 during Welcome Week and have been together since. The proposal had to happen on the Monroe Park Campus, Malik says.

“What better place than the place that started it all?” says Malik, a senior associate at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Tysons Corner, Virginia, where his fiancée works for MicroStrategy.

It took eight months of planning for Malik to hatch his plan, which involved accomplices from both families, their circle of friends and Sue Robinson, VCU Libraries’ communications and public relations director. VCU Libraries, which made a one-time exception to its guidelines and allowed him to use the Cabell screen, vowing it would stray from academics and art images into romance just this once.

He knew it would be easy to lure Ahmed to Richmond without arousing suspicion. What’s more romantic than a springtime visit to campus? The couple left Northern Virginia at 8:30 a.m. that Saturday. Once in Richmond, they hit their favorite restaurant, Thai Top Ten, for lunch, but Malik could only force down a couple bites.

“Why aren’t you eating?” Ahmed asked.

“Probably like a stomachache or something,” he replied.

He checked his phone repeatedly for texts from his “logistics team” at the library. After lunch, Malik suggested they sit outside the dining center, not far from where they sipped coffee and decided to be an official couple on Jan. 26, 2012. He got the text that the screen was ready and they walked toward the library.

Ahmed looked up quizzically at the photo of herself and Malik on the big screen. “And then I just started professing my love to her,” he says. “But at that moment, my memory is completely blacked out. I don’t remember exactly what I said.”

Friends and family members emerged from hiding places as Malik knelt on the Compass. A favorite Indian song played from his brother’s boom box. Ahmed said yes, tears flowed, hugs ensued and cameras clicked. “It was really special,” she says.

“Looking back now, I can see subtle signs,” she says of the surprise. “My friend was really adamant about me getting my nails done and a lot of my friends were asking what I was going to wear.”

What inspired Malik to such an over-the-top gesture? “I want to spend the rest of my life with the person who has not only helped me grow, but the individual who drives me to become the best version of myself,” he says.

 

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.”

Read more.

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.

Read more.

Giving artists’ voices a place to grow

Ashley Hawkins (B.F.A.’07/A; M.P.A.’13/GPA; Cert.’13/GPA) fell in love with printmaking as a student in the VCU School of the Arts. She wanted Richmond, Virginia, to be a place where an education in art was more accessible and where artists would develop and want to stay. She now runs Studio Two Three, a printmaking and private studio space where over 100 artists work and hundreds more visit and take classes.