Two VCU Honors College students awarded Boren scholarships

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Sarah Sweeney, left, and Theresa Dinh.

Two Virginia Commonwealth University students will study language in Asia with support from the Boren Scholarship. Theresa Dinh will study in Ho Chi Minh City and Danang, Vietnam, while Sarah Sweeney will study at Chiang Mai University in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The Boren Scholarship, part of the National Security Education Program, supports undergraduate students who wish to study less commonly taught languages. Dinh and Sweeney will spend an academic year abroad. Participants commit to a year of federal government service upon graduation.

Dinh, an international studies major in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is also a member of the Honors College and VCU Globe. She will study human trafficking and other topics at Hoa Sen University and in the State University of New York-Brockport’s Da Nang program.

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An unexpected journey: Peace Corps takes alumnus from Richmond to southern Africa

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By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

December 2014 marked six months since Anthony Muron (B.S.’14/H&S) had interviewed with the Peace Corps. He spent those months keeping busy, volunteering with Commonwealth Catholic Charities and working the house painting job he had held for five years. In fact, he was 30 feet in the air on a ladder when he got the email.

Muron still remembers the feeling that brisk December day, climbing down the ladder teary-eyed to tell his co-workers that he had been invited to serve.

“I called my mother immediately to tell her the good news,” he says. “If it wasn’t for [her], I would have completely lost my way and may not have even gone to college. All my hard work had finally paid off.”

His father helped him pay his way through college, but it still  took a few years for Muron to strike a balance between studying and working during his time at Virginia Commonwealth University. By his third year, he was so concentrated on work that graduating on time was not an option. He knew that if he didn’t refocus on his schoolwork, his only other option would be to drop out of college.

“That was the moment where I told myself to pull up my bootstraps and put myself on the right track,” Muron says.

Wanting to make the most of his college experience in his senior year, which he paid for himself, he hit the ground running and signed up for every extracurricular activity that came his way. He re-joined Students Today Alumni Tomorrow, VCU Alumni’s student organization, serving on its Leadership Council and later its board of directors. He also became a member of the Student Government Association, Honor Council and Psychology Anonymous.

“Being involved with STAT was a huge turning point in my college career,” he says. “I was constantly working, zipping around campus on my bike, and attending meetings on both campuses right up until my last day as a student.”

Brendan Hood (B.S.’15/B), who worked with Muron on STAT’s board of directors, praised him for his work ethic.

“[Anthony] is a proud VCU alumnus, who always put others before himself and leads the way in showing the world how far loyalty, friendship and positivity can go,” says Hood.

Less than a year after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Muron was on a plane to Mozambique. He has served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the country for the past two years, working closely with local hospitals to council HIV patients about treatment options, to form patient help groups to ease medication distribution, to search for patients who have missed consultation dates and to educate the public about malaria and nutrition.

He also works on the Jovems Unidos no Trabalho do Oportunidades e Successo (United Youth in the Work of Opportunities and Success) project that meets weekly with local youth ages 13 to 23 to discuss health-related topics, to practice theater and to dance and play games. Youth also learn English through the English Theater Network where children from all 10 provinces in Mozambique come together annually to perform a play centered on various health and social topics.

“They’re a great group of kids,” Muron says. “Each one of them is active in their community, and they all have bright futures ahead of them.”

Last summer, Muron had the opportunity to pursue another one of his interests, environmental sustainability, while continuing his work with the Peace Corps. After visiting Mount Namuli in the heart of the country’s Zambézia province, he learned about the work that the Legado Initiative, another nongovernmental organization, was doing to introduce perma-gardening and sustainable agricultural activities in the area.

“Local leadership knows the damage that is being done to the rivers and streams through unsustainable farming methods and that preventing them requires a collective effort and alternative economic resources,” says Muron, who volunteered to help with the initiative. “The Legado: Namuli team realized this as well and wanted to use education as the first step.”

With support from government leaders, the team is working to identify change agents who can stop farmers from using the slash-and-burn agriculture method and recruit them to help introduce sustainable farming techniques.

“So far we’ve held training sessions in each of the six Namuli communities and reached 15 leaders in each, many of whom have already begun to implement perma-farm techniques in their own farms,” Muron says. “The key is perseverance and communication. There will be a lot of resistance and setbacks, but without pain there’s no progress.”

Today, the project has agreements with community leaders to stop the farming and burning of high-elevation forests in exchange for agricultural development, income generation and infrastructure building as well as funding from multiple private organizations that will help Legado accomplish its goals.

Over the next decade, the Legado: Namuli project will continue toward its goal of protecting one of Mozambique’s most ecologically diverse and important environments while at the same time ensuring that future generations will have adequate access to natural resources and freshwater supplies.

“If you give corn to a community, it will go hungry the following year; but if you teach them to grow corn, they’ll have food for generations,” he says. “We’re not saving these communities. We’re providing them the means to save themselves. That’s the purpose of sustainable development.”

In August, Muron will become Mozambique’s Northern Regional Peace Corps Volunteer leader where he’ll provide Volunteer and organizational support and develop sites for new Volunteers to live. Although he’s leaving the Zambézia province, he knows that the work he’s done will continue and is excited for the next step in building a better future for the country.

“I haven’t changed the world, the world has changed me,” Muron says. “The people I’ve encountered in this part of the world have taught me so much more than I’ll ever be able to teach them.”

Two VCU alumnae to serve in Peace Corps

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Erica Ingram, at left, and Erin Geraghty.

Two Virginia Commonwealth University alumnae will share their knowledge of the English language during stints serving abroad in the Peace Corps.

Erin Geraghty (B.A.’16/H&S) leaves later this month to serve as an English teacher in Madagascar, while Erica Ingram (B.A.’15/H&S) will serve as an English teaching assistant in China.

Geraghty, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English from VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences in 2016, will begin with a three-month home stay in order to focus on language and culture. She sought “the opportunity to break out of the box and see how the rest of the world lives,” she said.

After the home stay, Geraghty will begin a two-year stint teaching middle and high school English and assisting with local teachers’ professional development, according to the Peace Corps.

“I hope to give my community the tools with which to think deeply and effectively and to instill within them a larger commitment to better themselves, their communities and the world around them,” Geraghty said in a statement. “I’m most excited to meet my fellow volunteers, my students and to go exploring around the island.”

Ingram, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 2015, will teach spoken and written English at the post-secondary level.

“I have always wanted to visit China and learn about the people and the culture,” Ingram said in a statement. “I attended an event where I met several returned volunteers who spoke of their experience and how rewarding it was for them.”

Ingram participated in VCU Globe and the Peace Corps Prep Program as a student. The program was launched in 2014 and currently enrolls 250 students, said Jill E. Blondin, Ph.D., director of VCU Globe. Two other prep program alumni are currently serving in the Peace Corps.

Ingram will live for three months with a host family, studying the language and culture, before serving two years in her teaching role.

“I want to become more organized so that this experience can help further my ultimate goal of becoming a professional ESL instructor,” Ingram said.

According to the Peace Corps, there are more than 328 Virginians currently serving around the world. The corps was founded in 1961, while the China and Madagascar programs began in 1993.

VCU students travel to Peru to provide medical assistance, build a much-needed staircase

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The MEDLIFE team, including 23 students from VCU, celebrate the completion of a staircase they built in Peru, alongside community members and MEDLIFE staff.

Twenty-three Virginia Commonwealth University students traveled to Lima, Peru, earlier this month as part of a volunteer trip to provide medical services and education, and to build a staircase that will allow local residents to better navigate their very hilly neighborhood.

The trip was organized by the VCU chapter of Medicine, Education and Development for Low-Income Families Everywhere, or MEDLIFE, which aims to improve the health and welfare of families and communities in Ecuador, Peru and Tanzania by providing medical services and education, as well as community development projects.

The chapter was co-founded last summer by Megh Kumar, a junior majoring in biochemistry and psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, and Shwetha Kochi, a junior biochemistry and bioinformatics major. They both wanted to give VCU students a new opportunity to help provide medical care in low-income countries.

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This VCU graduate is finding ways to improve access to dental care

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Sydney Brown.
Photo courtesy of Posters on the Hill

Affordable and convenient access to adequate dental care is a major public health obstacle in the United States. The U.S. greatly lags behind other industrialized nations with more than 45 million adults and children living in areas with poor access to dental care, according to a 2014 report by The Commonwealth Fund.

That’s a problem Sydney Brown (B.I.S.’16/H&S) is trying to solve through independent research. Brown, who graduated Saturday with a degree in interdisciplinary studies from the College of Humanities and Sciences, was honored at the Council of Undergraduate Research’s annual Posters on the Hill event in April. The competitive research conference featured the work of 60 undergraduate researchers from across the country, chosen out of hundreds of applicants to showcase their work to policymakers in Washington, D.C.

Brown and other researchers shared their findings with U.S. Sen. Mark Warner and U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin.

“It was an honor to be able to advocate for the importance of undergraduate research,” Brown said. “I also wish I could speak to more policymakers about improving access to dental care. It’s amazing how much policy impacts public health.”

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An interview with Anna Journey, author of ‘An Arrangement of Skin’

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When Anna Journey (B.F.A.’04/A; M.F.A.’07/H&S) was a student in the master of fine arts in creative writing program at Virginia Commonwealth University, she attracted international news coverage for her discovery of an unpublished poem by Sylvia Plath in the archives at Indiana University. The poem, “Ennui,” was published in November 2006 in Blackbird, an online literary journal of the VCU Department of English and New Virginia Review Inc.

Today, Journey continues to attract attention, but it is her writing rather than her research that is the source of her renown. Journey is the author of the essay collection “An Arrangement of Skin” (Counterpoint) and three books of poems: “The Atheist Wore Goat Silk” (LSU Press), “Vulgar Remedies” (LSU Press) and “If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting” (University of Georgia Press), which was selected by Thomas Lux for the National Poetry Series. Her poems have drawn praise from such luminaries as the film director David Lynch, who called Journey’s poetry “really magical,” and the poet Erin Belieu, who said Journey “brings me surprise after surprise in language so vivid, peculiar, truthful, and moving, that I gulp the poems down, a glutton for their strange energies and observations.”

Journey holds a B.F.A. in art education from the VCU School of the Arts, an M.F.A. in creative writing from the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences and a Ph.D. in creative writing and literature from the University of Houston. She’s currently an assistant professor of English at the University of Southern California. “An Arrangement of Skin,” which was published in March, is Journey’s latest work. In his praise for the book, Mark Doty, the National Book Award-winning poet, said Journey “might be our first Southern Gothic essayist, and she invigorates the form with both a poet’s lyricism and the distinctive signature of her character: a vulnerable heart wedded to an acute, comic, unsparing eye.”

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A SHOT OF COLOR

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Jon-Phillip Sheridan, assistant professor of photography and film, lectures during a class at the Depot.

Commuters and pedestrians at the intersection of Broad and Belvidere streets often gaze up at the gravity-bending Institute for Contemporary Art. Now, those stuck in traffic have something new to admire thanks to the VCU Green Walls Class.

The low-key building shared by VCU RamBikes and the Office of Sustainability has been transformed with vertical planters — commercial, stick built and even made of recycled and adapted materials — in the culmination of a class meshing students from the School of the Arts, School of Engineering and College of Humanities and SciencesDepartment of Biology.

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English professor discovers, digitizes historic slave manuscript in Library of Congress

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Katherine Bassard, a professor of African American literature in the Department of English, found the manuscript in a box tucked away in a forgotten corner of the Library of Congress labeled “African American miscellaneous.”

Fields Cook was born into slavery on a Virginia plantation in 1817, and though he died more than 100 years ago, his life and most intimate thoughts survive and were recently revived.

“A Scetch of My Own Life by Fields Cook” is one of the few, if only, surviving manuscripts written before the Civil War by a slave still in bondage. The historic document recently was discovered by Katherine Bassard, Ph.D., (M.A.’86/H&S). senior vice provost for faculty affairs and professor of African American literature in the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences. She found the manuscript in a box tucked away in a forgotten corner of the Library of Congress labeled “African American miscellaneous.”

With the help of Joshua Eckhardt, Ph.D., associate professor of English, and two dedicated graduate student workers, Bassard is turning the manuscript into a digitized, searchable, and freely downloadable file.

“It’s the first enslaved writer of an autobiography, the first slave narrative with manuscript provenance, and the first African American writer writing primarily for an audience other than white northerners,” Bassard said.

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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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With power of big data, student’s startup aims to halt famine, food insecurity in Africa

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Tatenda Ndambakuwa grew up in Zimbabwe, and vividly remembers the country’s food crisis in 2008 that left her and millions of others facing starvation. Now, Ndambakuwa, a junior double majoring in math and physics at Virginia Commonwealth University, is seeking to prevent future famines in Africa with the power of big data.

Ndambakuwa, a student in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is co-founder of a startup that is developing a mobile application to allow African farmers to upload data about their farm’s livestock and crop management, seed and feed access, milk production analysis, cattle pricing and other data points. The app will allow for real-time analyses of Africa’s food production system, allowing policymakers and others to make the system far more efficient.

“We hear about all these famines or food insecurity or places where there’s not just enough food, but Africa’s a continent where agriculture is the biggest revenue-generating industry,” Ndambakuwa said. “So why are we not producing enough food for the people? For those countries that are producing the food, why aren’t they sending it to those who need it the most?”

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