Globe-trotter: Esther Johnston travels the world to provide health care to underserved populations

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By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

Esther Johnston, M.D. (M.D.’11/M), has spent more than a decade traveling across continents providing health care for underserved populations.

She dreamt at an early age of becoming an investigative reporter, but as she entered high school, her passion shifted to medicine. She says she knew a career in health care would constantly challenge her and lead to a lifetime of learning.

“From the moment I realized it, I knew it was the right fit,” says Johnston, director of family medicine programs for the Boston-based nonprofit Seed Global Health and faculty member with the Wright Center Family Medicine Residency at HealthPoint in Auburn, Washington. “I wanted to do something where I would wake up feeling good every morning.”

Johnston attended the University of California, San Diego for her undergraduate degrees while working with the Flying Samaritans. The group works with a clinic in Ensenada, Mexico to improve access to health care in the community. It was there that she first witnessed the radical differences in health care outside of the U.S.

After graduating from UC San Diego with bachelor’s degrees in animal physiology and neuroscience and history, Johnston took a year off from school and traveled east to Charlottesville, Virginia. She split her time between working in the University of Virginia’s biomedical department and working as a coordinator for the Charlottesville Free Clinic before enrolling in Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Medicine.

“I chose VCU because there weren’t a lot of schools in the country at the time with programs like the [International/Inner City/Rural Preceptorship program] focused on helping underserved populations,” she says. “Being a part of that laid the foundation for a lot of the work I’ve done since.”

In her first year, one of her lifelong mentors, Mark Ryan, M.D. (M.D.’00/M; H.S.’03/M), assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health and medical director of the I2CRP program, helped Johnston start a Spanish-language learning group, the Spanish Table, to encourage medical students to develop a working understanding of the language so they could better serve patients.

“When I first met her, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to add much to her training because of all the experience she already had, but she was willing to share that knowledge to teach others and strengthen their abilities as well,” Ryan says. “There are some students where one can feel grateful for having been part of their learning, and that you develop lasting relationships, and I am very glad that I can count [Esther] among my friends and colleagues.”

For Johnston, the feeling is mutual.

“[Dr. Ryan] inspired me to work both internationally and domestically with underserved populations,” Johnston says. “I feel like there are so many people around the country who are grateful to have met him and just have him as a teacher.”

That same year, Johnston met Michel Aboutanos, M.D., M.P.H. (H.S.’00/M), the Fletcher Emory Ammons Professors in Surgery in the School of Medicine, chair of the Division of Acute Care Surgical Services and medical director of the VCU Trauma Center, who played a large role in her decision to pursue a career in public health.

After completing her second year of medical school, Johnston left VCU to earn a master’s in public health at John Hopkins University. Her degree focused primarily on international health and for most of that year, she worked on a water quality and safety project within the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand and the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

With her M.P.H. in tow, Johnston returned to VCU, and by her fourth year, she was working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under a CDC-Hubert Global Health Fellowship to develop a pandemic influenza surveillance program in Nairobi, Kenya.

“It turns out, within a few days of arriving, there was an outbreak of measles within the refugee population we worked with, and I had to switch focus to figure out what the barriers to immunization were for those refugees in the capital,” Johnston says. “I was extremely grateful for the strong support I had from VCU to work on this project while I was still finishing school. They did everything possible to make sure I had everything I needed to complete my degree and still finish my work with the CDC.”

Johnston earned her M.D. in 2011 and completed her residency at the University of Arizona’s Continuity Clinic less than 60 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, where she served a large refugee population in a hospital-based training environment. Afterward, she joined the Global Health Service Partnership, run by Seed Global Health and the Peace Corps, to teach pediatrics and child health at Hubert Kairuki Memorial University in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

“It was challenging at times, but it was an incredibly fulfilling experience,” she says. “When I finished the trip, I was given the opportunity to continue my involvement with Seed Global Health, and I love it.”

With her time split between Seed Global Health and the Wright Center at HealthPoint, Johnston still keeps VCU close to her heart as the place where she found her calling with the help of her two mentors, Ryan and Aboutanos.

“It was exhilarating to be surrounded by people who were passionate about the same things I was,” Johnston says. “I’ll never forget my time at VCU.”

Fulbright scholar Ellen Korcovelos uses computer science and speech analysis to combat dementia

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Ellen Korcovelos.

When recent VCU graduate Ellen Korcovelos (B.S.’16/ LS) emailed her idol, a researcher who is one of the best and brightest in his field, she didn’t imagine he would fulfill her request to meet him, let alone invite her to travel to Toronto to conduct research in his lab.

Korcovelos, who earned an undergraduate degree in bioinformatics from the School of Life Sciences’ Center for Biological Complexity, couldn’t believe she had the opportunity to learn from Graeme Hirst, Ph.D., a leading researcher in the field of computational linguistics in the University of Toronto’s computer science department. Computational linguistics involves the use of computer algorithms to analyze aspects of speech such as sentence structure, parsing and word frequency, with the knowledge that speech is an indicator of cognitive health.

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Fulbright scholar engages the politics and poetics of space and place in Johannesburg

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Levester Williams.

Levester Williams (M.F.A.’16/A) experienced racial profiling firsthand when police stopped him and a friend as they drove to Atlanta.

“They wanted to search the car, and they didn’t find anything,” said Williams, who received his M.F.A. from the VCU School of the Arts in 2016. “They didn’t find any traffic violations … they didn’t find any drugs. And my friend was like, ‘Well, you all just pulled us over because we’re black.’”

It’s easy to be undermined in such a situation, where others have control, Williams said.

“What agency did I have within the space? What rights or what capacity do I have to exist within that space?” he wondered. That question stayed with him and influenced his application for a Fulbright Student Scholarship to study in Johannesburg.

Since November, Williams has been creating sculptures and installations that engage with the politics and poetics of space and place in Johannesburg during its ongoing transformation into a post-apartheid city. He is exploring themes such as identity, memory and community in Johannesburg’s urban landscape.

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Fulbright recipient Fajir Amin studies benefits of ‘looping’ in United Arab Emirates classrooms

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Fajir Amin.

In 2014, Fajir Amin (B.I.S.’12/H&S; M.T’12/E) arrived in the United Arab Emirates to teach English, and was assigned to teach fourth-grade boys at a school on the remote Arabian Gulf island of Dalma. To get there, Amin had to undergo a seven-hour journey from the capital city of Abu Dhabi, and had no idea what to expect.

“Initially I was glad about [being assigned a fourth-grade boy’s English class], as I had taught fourth grade before in the United States, and liked that age group,” said Amin, who received a master’s degree in elementary education in 2012 from the VCU School of Education and taught in Virginia for two years. “However, when people on the island and co-workers asked what grade I had been given to teach, I only got two reactions from people: They would either laugh and chuckle or they would have a somber look on their face and say something like ‘Aww, you poor darling!’”

As it turned out, the students in Amin’s class had a total of five different English teachers the previous year, due to how “rough” the students were and because of the teachers’ inability to cope with conditions on the island.

“Clearly, my students had not experienced commitment for a while and were expecting me to pack my bags and run for the next ferry bound to the mainland,” she said. “I saw a bunch of kids that just needed an advocate and consistent leader.”

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Alumna finds the sweet spot of success

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By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

Professional chef and owner of Ruby Scoops Ice Cream & Sweets Rabia Kamara (B.S.’10/B) whips up small-batch, locally sourced, handcrafted desserts and baked goods that she sells in the Washington, D.C., area. Kamara was recently named one of the top black chefs influencing the capital’s culinary culture by Spoon University and will make her first national TV appearance April 30 on Food Network’s “Guy’s Grocery Games.”

Kamara will take over VCU Alumni’s Instagram the week of Monday, April 24. During that week, she will share her preparations for D.C.’s Broccoli City Festival, set for May 6, and the path she’s taken since graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2010.

What made you choose to attend VCU?

One of my sisters, Sawida (B.S.’99/H&S; M.P.H.’02/M), attended VCU for both her undergrad and master’s degrees. We didn’t grow up together so I didn’t start spending regular time with her until middle school while she was living in Richmond and attending VCU for her master’s. She and her friends all seemed to love the city and school, which really stuck with me.

As I got ready to apply for college, I decided to seriously look into going to VCU. I knew it would challenge me academically, but growing up in Montgomery County, Maryland, I was used to the challenge. I also wanted to be out of state but close enough that if there were an emergency, I could get in my car and drive home.

The first time I visited VCU’s Monroe Park Campus, it solidified my decision. I was in love. There’s a liveliness to campus that I’d never been exposed to or been a part of before, but as soon as I breathed in the air, I was in.

What’s your favorite memory from your time as a student?

Where do I even begin!? From staying up until 5 a.m. in my dorm and still managing to make it to an 8 a.m. class to parties in the Commons and probates. I remember when I first moved off campus and finally got to experience Richmond and fall in love with the city on my own terms. Above all, it was the relationships I made with the people around me and having the chance to reinforce my relationship with myself that I remember the most.

Did you always want to be a chef?

Food has always been a passion of mine, but when I first came to VCU I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. When I realized I wasn’t going to go to law school as my family wanted, but that I actually wanted to go to culinary school and pursue my passion, it created lot of inner turmoil and tension. It was my friends in the city and at the university who provided me the support system I needed to stick to my guns. They helped me follow my dreams, and I never thought that being at VCU would have led me on that path.

So how did you come to start Ruby Scoops?

I graduated with a B.S. in marketing, which I’ve utilized every day since graduating. I saved the money from my first, and only, noncooking full-time job as a cushion when I started culinary school. I attended L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland and graduated with distinction in 2012. I’ve been cooking professionally for five years now and started Ruby Scoops in 2015. It’s been great because my fellow Rams have been ridiculously supportive, buying and boosting my brand, and the lessons I learned as a student have been extremely helpful on my entrepreneurial journey.

What’s next for you and Ruby Scoops?

Currently we’re partnering with FRESHFARM farmers markets to raise $10,000 through a Kiva microloan to do more wholesale and save for a brick-and-mortar location next year. This summer we’ll be making our RVA debut at the Heart & Soul Brewfest at Hardywood, and we’ll also be at this year’s Broccoli City Festival in D.C.!

I’d really love to come back to Richmond and open up a shop someday near campus. My dream is to live above my shop and show not just my fellow Rams, but also Richmond, what can happen when you follow your dreams and work hard to reach them.

A decade of searching: Hadeer Omar finds her sweet spot among cultures and art

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By Anthony Langley

“I’ve had a passion for art ever since I was a little girl,” says Hadeer Omar (B.F.A.’10/A; M.F.A.’16/A). “Following that passion and coming to [Virginia Commonwealth University] has been one of the best decisions I’ve made.”

In 2006, Omar was finishing high school in Alexandria, Egypt, when she was encouraged by her mother to enter the VCUQatar Design Competition. The annual contest awards five cash prizes from $200 to $1,000, and the winners are eligible to compete for two Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned Scholarships for Creativity, which provide a full, four-year scholarship to attend VCUQatar.

For the first part of the competition, where she was challenged to create a design that communicated the theme of building, cultivating and maintaining bonds, Omar produced a winning design conveying various world cultures and the bond between their past and their future.

She competed next for one of the two scholarships by creating a design based on the theme “Making a change” and won a full ride to VCUQatar. It was a fitting theme as moving to Doha, Qatar, gave Omar the opportunity to explore multiple career paths.

“I want to educate people around me about my culture and where I come from,” says Omar, who worked as a graphic designer in Qatar after she completed her bachelor’s degree. “Being in a multicultural environment allowed me to adapt and accept others and shaped me into who I am today.”

Feeling a responsibility to raise awareness about how artists use their creativity in the Middle East, Omar returned to her home country during an uprising in 2011 where she filmed and produced her first complete production, “Ouda w sala,” a documentary about the Egyptian revolution.

The following year, Omar opened Kroki Design Studio, a nonprofit online art studio with a twofold mission: to provide a portal for artists to collaborate and experiment with one another and to educate the public about the importance of art in culture.

“I research a specific idea then translate it into a proposal and then ask others to work with me,” Omar says. “It helps artists to innovate and gives them constructive feedback from their peers.”

In 2014, Omar returned to VCUQatar to pursue a master’s degree in design studies. Her thesis focused on culture hacking and how Egyptians took the increasingly globalized culture they found themselves in after the political protests and revolutions that spread across the Middle East beginning in 2011, known as the Arab Spring, and applied their own cultural tools to create a unique space in the world around them, a process she calls “Egyptianization.”

A photo from Omar’s thesis exhibit on culture hacking and “Egyptianization.”

“I realized I needed to take a step back and look at my position in the world around me,” Omar says. “I have my own questions and observations about the world, and I want to make art that reflects that.”

She currently works as a teaching assistant in the Art Foundation program at VCUQatar. Two days a week, she helps students to find their design process and spends the rest of the week working on research projects and her personal work as a visual communicator and independent filmmaker.

For Omar, having an American institution in the Middle East provides an opportunity to share her experiences with and to learn from students with diverse backgrounds.

“On one hand, I’m able to do research and develop my own methods in academia, and on the other, I can still be a part of the market and complete commercial projects,” Omar says. “Whether it’s sharing my work or sharing knowledge with students, it helps me grow and develop myself.”

Omar took over VCU Alumni’s Instagram last week. Her posts showcase the path she’s taken since completing her master’s degree and the unique perspective that comes from working for more than a decade to find her place in the world around her.

What’s your legacy?

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Students share the importance of being involved while on campus and staying involved after graduation

The legacies we leave tell the stories of the lives we touch. Through their thoughtful commitment to their alma mater and VCU Alumni, thousands of alumni members are creating a meaningful legacy, making a lasting impression on students’ lives.

VCU Alumni spoke to several students whose VCU experience has been enhanced by alumni involvement. Their stories show how members set an example for future alumni involvement and enable our students to pursue their dreams.


Kalyann Kauv

Fourth-year pharmacy student / Bachelor of Science 2013, VCU / National Public Relations Liaison, Student National Pharmaceutical Association / President, VCU Chapter, Student National Pharmaceutical Association / Alumni liaison, VCU Chapter, Phi Delta Chi Inc. / Volunteer, medical outreach trip, Dominican Republic / Volunteer, Healing Eagle Clinic, Mattaponi Native American Reservation / Fellow, Promoting Art for Life Enrichment Through Transgenerational Engagement 

What inspires you to volunteer on campus and in the community?
It centers me. Volunteering unites people from a variety of backgrounds to accomplish one common goal of lending a helping hand, no matter how big or small. By assisting my fellow neighbors, I also benefit by increasing the exposure I have with the good Samaritans of our society.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of your education at VCU?
VCU provides unique programs that allow me to feel like a person in a vast sea of students. As a first-generation college student, VCU’s undergraduate pipeline program through the Division for Health Sciences Diversity helped me acclimate to higher education while providing a support system throughout my journey. Just as VCU invested so much in me and my cohort, I hope I can continue this as a health care professional by sowing the seeds of the next generation so they, too, can understand the ability they have to make a difference.

Will you maintain your connection to VCU after graduation?
I would hope to continue involvement with my alma mater. No matter how big or small, you never know what impact you can make. For me, it is so exciting when fellow Rams share their success stories and continue to embody the VCU spirit within their respective careers!

>> Set an example for future alumni. Join VCU Alumni today.


Yeri Park

Fourth-year medical student / President, School of Medicine Class of 2017 / Co-president, Student Family Medicine Association / Member, leadership board, Women in Medicine Student Organization / 2015 Service by a Medical Student Award, Medical Society of Virginia Foundation / Pharmacy chair, 2014 Honduras Outreach Medical Brigade Relief Effort / Co-founder, Farmworker Health Outreach project / Volunteer, Mattaponi Healing Eagle Clinic / Volunteer, Crossover Healthcare Ministry / Volunteer, Center for High Blood Pressure

What led you to co-found the Farmworker Health Outreach project on Virginia’s Eastern Shore?
My co-founder and I were thinking of different ways to give back to the community. He originally had a vision of working with farm workers during his time in undergrad and had read a lot about them. They are truly at a vulnerable position to receiving inadequate medical care due to the migratory nature of their jobs. We started the organization to create opportunities for medical students to learn about the population, at least to gain awareness in working with farm workers.

What inspires you to volunteer your time with the community?
Definitely our city and the population that we serve! Especially thinking about student burnout, I believe that volunteering and giving back to the community is one of the best ways to reflect and to build resiliency. I know that during times when I felt stressed, going to student-run free clinics kept me happy and focused toward my goals. It is through volunteering that I learned more about our wonderful city. I have had some of the most memorable and beautiful interactions with my patients through volunteering. Volunteering keeps me humble and thankful for the opportunities that I have received, especially with my patients who share their stories with me when I am simply a medical student.

Will you continue your connection to VCU after graduation?
Yes, of course! VCU has given me variety of opportunities to pursue current and new passions, ample amount of support from other students, faculty and staff and, most importantly, a chance to grow. I am thankful for the people and the memories I have made during my time at VCU, and it will always play a big role in my future endeavors. I think it’s important for alumni to stay involved with VCU because we wouldn’t be where we are today without the support we received from our previous alumni, and we should continue to support new physicians in training.

>> Set an example for future alumni. Join VCU Alumni today.


Tommy Tran

Senior, mass communications major with a double concentration in creative and strategic advertising / Co-chair, Student Government Association External Affairs Committee / Member, VCU LEAD / Co-founder and president, Dominion Place Partnership / Participant, 2016 VCU Qatar Leadership Exchange / Volunteer, Global Brigades at VCU

Why are you involved on campus?
I was a part of the Emerging Leaders Program as a freshman, and the students who were involved in ELP really wanted to make a difference and make an impact on campus. Being surrounded by them and becoming friends with them inspired me to use the time I have at VCU to reach my full potential. I am involved on campus because I want to become someone who matters, someone who makes a difference, someone who has made an impact.

Why is it important for alumni to stay involved with VCU?
It is important to keep in touch with where you came from. Of course, none of us are born into VCU, but I like to think that VCU has shaped us as people and leaders. We were developed at VCU, and it is important to stay connected to ensure that the university continues to foster the success of students who follow in our footsteps.

>> Set an example for future alumni. Join VCU Alumni today.


Emily Tull

Sophomore, health, physical education and exercise science major / Director of awards and recognition, Students Today Alumni Tomorrow board of directors / CASE ASAP chair, Students Today Alumni Tomorrow Leadership Council / Presenter, Regional CASE ASAP Conference and National CASE ASAP Conference / Volunteer, VCU Health

How did you become involved with VCU Alumni’s Students Today Alumni Tomorrow organization?
I became a general body member of STAT at my VCU freshman orientation. I remember it being the most lively student organization there! When the school year started, I attended STAT’s first general body meeting where I met Belicia DeBose, STAT’s vice president at the time. Belicia was an excellent representation of STAT: She took me to coffee and told me how I could progress as a student leader in STAT. Receiving this kind of encouragement prompted me to apply to help plan a state conference hosted at VCU by STAT, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education – Affiliated Student Advancement Programs (CASE ASAP) Virginia. I never could have guessed how this conference would impact my future as a STAT student leader. While still in the midst of helping plan the conference, I applied for a position on STAT’s Leadership Council. I remember being told to wear whatever showed my school spirit for my interview; I ended up wearing a morph suit so, to say the least, I will never forget it. I was selected to serve on the Leadership Council where I was appointed CASE ASAP chair. At CASE ASAP, student leaders in alumni or ambassador groups come together from different colleges to network and help further each other’s organizations. These conferences occur on a state, regional and national level. Being in STAT has given me the opportunity to help plan a state conference and present at two regional and one national conference. I recently became STAT’s director of awards and recognition and am excited to see STAT continue to grow.

Why is it important for students to be involved with an alumni organization?
It’s an excellent opportunity that I think many students don’t realize they have. I know coming into college as a freshman, I was very focused on just simply all the new changes coming and how to deal with them. Once I learned about STAT, I realized the organization is a great way to meet people who have already been in our shoes and prospered through it; those are our alumni. Networking with alumni has not only given me opportunities I couldn’t be more thankful for, but also has given me lifelong mentors.

Will you continue your connection to VCU after graduation?
Go Rams! Of course I will always continue my connection with VCU. This university and everything it has to offer has shaped me into the young adult I am! The atmosphere of Richmond, the spirit of VCU and the people of my alma mater make this place home for me. I think as an alumni it’s important to give back to those following in our footsteps and allowing them to know they can do this, too.

>> Set an example for future alumni. Join VCU Alumni today.


Travis Weimer

Fourth-year dental student / Founder, General Dentistry Club at VCU / Board member,
student membership, Virginia Academy of General Dentistry / Volunteer, Magic Wheelchair

Why are you involved on campus?
Dental school is hard enough. If I can make it easier for others, then they can get as much as they can out of their education. I don’t want to sit on the sidelines and be a problem-finder and not a problem-solver. I started the General Dentistry Club to provide a resource for students like me who are focused on the practice of general dentistry versus a specialty. The club also gives other students an opportunity to be involved and helps prepare them for being a leader within their own practice or company. The experience showed me that with the help of others you can identify a need and fill it.

Why is it important for alumni to stay involved with VCU?
We all want to leave some kind of legacy when we go through our lives, and staying connected to your alma mater is one way. I’d like to remain involved with VCU, especially with the General Dentistry Club, whether it’s providing financial support or advice to the classes coming up after me.

>> Set an example for future alumni. Join VCU Alumni today.


Fred Williams Jr.

Senior, chemical engineering major / President, Activities Programming Board / Squad leader, VCU Ram Camp / Member, VCU Globe / Member, Students Today Alumni Tomorrow / Member, American Institute of Chemical Engineers / PCI chair, National Society of Black Engineers / Participant, 2014 VCU Qatar Leadership Exchange / Member, VCU Rowdy Rams / Resident assistant, VCU Residential Life and Housing

What led you to join VCU’s Activities Programming Board?
After my freshman year, I was looking to get more involved at VCU and stay connected with VCU as I transitioned to my sophomore year. I was looking for something that would enable me to get involved with event planning at VCU but also provide me with an opportunity to learn and grow my network. Fast-forward three years, and I was selected to serve as APB’s first president. I wanted to be president because I was looking for a final opportunity to give back to the VCU community, my peers and my friends.

What are some of the most memorable experiences you’ve had working with the APB?
Some of my most memorable experiences include being able to meet celebrities such as Iyanla Vanzant, Giancarlo Esposito, Tyler Oakley and Party Next Door. Another memory I will cherish is from the monthly bingo nights. I spent so much time interacting with different people, trying to find a new way to make bingo nights fun and engaging, whether it was entertaining for them by playing pranks, Milly rocking and even saying a few bingo jokes. On a much more serious note, one last thing that I will cherish are my memories of the people I have been able to work with, whether it was blasting Missy Elliott in the office or getting a milkshake from Chick-fil-A on Mondays. Together, we have been able to transform APB into the organization that it is today.

In addition to your involvement with APB, you devote time to other organizations and activities, including the National Society of Black Engineers, Ram Camp and VCU Globe. What motivates you to be so involved on campus?
During my freshman year, I was a participant in the inaugural class of Ram Camp students. Ram Camp jump-started my experience here at VCU by enabling me to see everything that VCU has to offer. When I came to VCU, I was amazed to see so many avenues to get involved, and I took advantage of each opportunity along the way. Getting involved is a part of the college experience; however, I got involved with things that I was interested in and wanted to learn more about. I am really interested in getting to know people of different backgrounds, and getting involved was the best way of aiding me in doing that.

Will you continue your connection to VCU after graduation?
I definitely plan to stay well connected with VCU after graduation. I spent a lot of time here on campus between the Commons, School of Engineering West Hall and Club Cabell, each time interacting with different people. I think it’s important for alumni to stay involved with their alma mater because it signifies the importance of a college experience. Personally, I have had so many opportunities afforded to me because I chose to attend VCU. Alumni have the ability to help shape the experience of new students and supporting the university by giving back. I can definitely say that I would not be the person that I am today if a few special alumni didn’t support me along my college journey.

>> Set an example for future alumni. Join VCU Alumni today.


Leave your legacy. Join VCU Alumni.

Membership in VCU Alumni creates opportunities for alumni to have a positive influence on VCU and to ensure a powerful legacy for the benefit of future generations. Leave your legacy. Join VCU Alumni today.

Plus, if you join VCU Alumni or renew your membership by May 15, you’ll be entered into a drawing to win a three-day car rental from Avis/Budget. Memberships must be purchased by midnight May 15 to be eligible to win. Winners will be announced June 15. Rental car voucher good through June 30, 2018. Join or renew your membership now.

An interview with Patricia Smith, author of ‘The Year of Needy Girls’

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Patricia Smith’s (M.F.A.’01/H&S) debut novel, “The Year of Needy Girls,” takes place in a small town in Massachusetts upended by the murder of a young boy. In this charged atmosphere, Deirdre, a high school French teacher, loses her job after one of her students surprises her with a kiss. Meanwhile, Deirdre’s relationship with her partner, SJ, is teetering, and SJ herself finds that she has ties to the boy’s killer.

The author Stewart O’Nan called Smith’s novel “a study in hypocrisy and small-town secrets,” and Publishers Weekly said “Smith’s crisp prose and dedication to realistic moral ambiguity make for a provoking read.” Smith received an M.F.A. in creative writing from the Department of English in the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Humanities and Sciences. She teaches American literature and creative writing at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School.

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Behind the scenes: TV executive Korin Huggins talks about following her dreams

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By Anthony Langley

“When I graduated [from VCU], I was scared,” Korin Huggins (B.S.’98/H&S) says. “I spent a good portion of my life aiming toward one goal, but in the back of my mind I knew I wanted to do something different. This was my chance.”

Huggins enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth University as a transfer student from Virginia Union University in her sophomore year. She was a psychology major eyeing a career as a therapist. Though her transition to VCU was tough initially, she immersed herself in campus life, attending basketball games, joining Delta Sigma Theta and taking advantage of the variety of classes offered including acting classes at the School of the Arts and “Personality and Behavior of the African American.”

“My program challenged me, and I truly loved the experience,” she says. “Coming to VCU where diversity is at the forefront of everything we do, I felt proud to be a part of that. It’s about everyone getting an amazing quality education.”

During the first semester of her senior year, Huggins took a capstone course that required her to use the skills and theories she had learned throughout her studies and apply them in a mock therapy session. The goal: get a patient to come to a solution on their own.

“I thought to myself, ‘I will not be good at this.’ I wanted to tell people exactly what they need to say and do,” Huggins admits.

Unsure of what her future would bring, she completed her degree and returned home to New Jersey after graduation. Deciding that she couldn’t just sit around, she started working at a temp agency. One day, she met a friend’s sister who worked as an advertising buyer.

It was this connection that became her first introduction to the TV industry. She interviewed with a company looking for recent college graduates to sell advertising spots. Huggins landed the job and moved to New York City where she crashed on the couches of friends as the company trained her to sell airtime to national TV stations.

Though she enjoyed the work, she soon realized that being on the creative side the industry would be much more exciting to her.

“Television was where I wanted to be, but all the jobs were in Los Angeles,” she says. “I was hesitant at first, but I knew that if I didn’t take the first step in pursuing my dreams I would always regret it.”

In spite of her previous experience, it took some time for her to secure a new job in Los Angeles eventually getting a job at Creative Artists Agency evaluating new and upcoming writers. She used that opportunity to launch herself into a production assistant position at UPN and later coordinator of comedy development at the CW network.

Huggins was next selected for the highly competitive NBC Associates program which trains applicants to be junior executives. She later became NBC Universal’s coordinator of drama development.

“Thousands of people apply and they only pick five, so I was extremely lucky,” she says. “It was an incredible opportunity that allowed me to climb through the ranks and learn.”

While working in NBC’s Universal Cable Productions division as manager for both USA and Syfy, Huggins oversaw the development of scripted shows such as “Monk,” “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” and “Fairly Legal” before taking her experience to Warner Bros. Television Studios to develop and sell projects, including “The Following” and “The 100,” to the major broadcast networks.

Now as head of television for Will Packer Productions, Huggins develops comedy and drama projects through a first-look deal with Universal Television, which provides Universal with early access to the company’s developing projects. She has also co-executive produced ABC’s “Uncle Buck,” NBC’s “Truth Be Told” and the Emmy-nominated “Roots” miniseries.

Huggins credits the lessons she learned at VCU for helping her get to where she is today.

“Being at VCU taught me that it’s OK to change your mind and want to do something else,” she says. “The incredible support I had there helped me to know that if you follow your passion, you’ll be great no matter what. All you have to do is make the jump.”