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

VCU Alumni Charity Challenge

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oswaldo Moreno, Ph.D.

Oswaldo Moreno, Ph.D.

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

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

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

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

Read more.

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

Hilton Bennett

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

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

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

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

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VCU recognizes veterans

Timothy P. Williams

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

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

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

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

Read more.

Snap and share: Take Rodney with you

Rodney in ParisHere’s your chance to take Rodney the Ram with you! Snap a picture with Rodney wherever you go … on vacation, at work or at the grocery store. Then share it on Instagram or Twitter with #flatrodney. Don’t forget to wear your black-and-gold gear to show your school spirit.

Download Rodney, print and cut him out and take him with you today. We can’t wait to see all the places Rodney goes!

School of Business graduate’s foundation helps communities realize their full potential

Sean Powell

Sean Powell, a 2011 graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Business, founded Engage, the Foundation the same year.

Sean Powell (B.S.’11/B) sees family beyond family.

Powell’s mother began fostering children when he was 10 years old. Interacting with his foster siblings — who battled disabilities and misfortune — awakened in Powell a sense of social responsibility. He didn’t know it then, but this led him to find his passion in life: helping others discover their passions.

Powell champions the concepts of community, fellowship, brotherhood and mentorship — the idea of sticking together and experiencing life’s hardships and celebrations, and passing down new information and values along the way.

“If people around me need something to develop or grow, I always make it my effort to provide them access to the resources they need,” he said. “If I can’t provide that personally, then I’ll look into my network to see who I can connect them with so they can reach their goals.”

Powell, a graduate of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business, founded Engage, the Foundation in 2011. The community-based organization connects college students to their communities, and encourages them to work with families and kids on campus and in the neighborhood. Two of its main goals are developing successive generations who understand their purpose and identity, and reducing the costs of government assistance needed by unstable families. Engage has spurred growth in communities by holding fundraisers, development programs, workforce programs and other special events.

Read more.

Alumni chapters collect food for FeedMore at annual charity challenge

Alumni chapters from all universities in Virginia, as well as several out-of-state institutions, will collect canned goods Wednesday to support FeedMore, the Central Virginia Food Bank.

Virginia Commonwealth University alumni will bring their canned goods and school spirit to the fifth annual Alumni Charity Challenge Wednesday, Sept. 20, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery.

Established in 2013 by VCU Alumni’s RVA GOLD Chapter, the Alumni Charity Challenge engages alumni chapters from all universities in Virginia, as well as several out-of-state institutions, to support FeedMore, the Central Virginia Food Bank, by collecting canned goods. The challenge, part of the annual Day to Serve, brings awareness to Hunger Action Month.

Thirty participating schools aim to collect 20,000 pounds of food, as alumni compete to donate the most canned goods and get their school’s name on a challenge trophy. VCU earned the trophy for the second consecutive year in 2016. The family-friendly event, sponsored by Nationwide and Virginia Credit Union, includes food trucks, giveaways and music from 103.7 Play.

“It is a great opportunity for alumni groups to come together to fight food insecurity in central Virginia,” said Joseph R. Stemmle, a School of Business alumnus, co-chair of the challenge and a member of the RVA GOLD Chapter’s executive board. “Each alumni chapter tries to collect as many cans as possible in three hours, which are then delivered to FeedMore the following day.”

During the past four years, the Alumni Charity Challenge has collected more than 16 tons of food that has benefited 200,000 children, families and seniors in 34 cities and counties across central Virginia.

“One in seven of our neighbors is struggling to put food on the table, and one in six children in our region aren’t receiving necessary nutrition,” said VCU alumnus Tim McDermott, chief development officer at FeedMore. “Events like this help raise awareness and allow us to reach folks who may not be familiar with FeedMore, our mission, our programs and our impact.”

In addition to donating canned foods, alumni can make make a monetary donation online to FeedMore. For every $1 donated, FeedMore can distribute five pounds of food. Online donations are accepted until 11:59 p.m. EST Sept. 20.

Learn more about the Alumni Charity Challenge at

Sharing a common wealth: The AAAC Mentoring Circle connects students to mentors

Students and alumni mingle during the Mentoring Circle's Mocktail event.

Students and alumni mingle during the Mentoring Circle’s Mocktail event.

By Anthony Langley

A few years ago, Jeffrey Roberts (B.S.’87/E) and Gail Coles-Johnson (B.S.’86/B), members of VCU Alumni’s African-American Alumni Council, were looking for ways to create an intergenerational conversation between alumni and current students. But they weren’t sure of the best way they could go about it.

“When we were in undergrad, we didn’t have the opportunity to seek out mentors,” Roberts says. “So we wanted to create a way we could give back and students could pay it forward as well.”

During the AAAC’s inaugural Conversations and Cocktails events, Michelle Jones (B.S.’87/H&S) brought in a group of students to get their perspective on what the alumni group could do to help them as they neared graduation.

“I think that in order to create a pipeline of future AAAC members, relationship building and finding out what is valuable to students is the best way to go about it,” Jones says. “I mentor college students at my church; I know how valuable it is for them to have these experiences.”

The dialogue created during that meeting inspired Roberts and Coles-Johnson to found the AAAC’s Mentoring Circle. The program aims to connect students and alumni in a professional environment, which helps them gain the skills needed to enter today’s workplace environment and provide them an opportunity to learn from an alumnus as a mentee.

“This is the ultimate give-back,” Rodney Harry (B.S.’90/H&S), president of the AAAC, says. “It strengthens the bonds between alumni and students showing how prosperous we can be.”

The Mentoring Circle’s premier event is the alumni-student Mocktail party, a simulated networking event where students learn everything from how to approach a potential employer to whether they should eat or drink at catered events.

Kevin M. Smith (B.S.’86/B) generously donated the funds needed to sponsor the event,” Roberts says. “He realized the worth of mentoring during his 25 years in the corporate world and wanted to help.”

The event begins with a presentation on the art and importance of networking, followed by an abbreviated version of the Myers-Briggs personality test, which helps to determine the best ways for introverts and extroverts to handle a networking situation.

“After the presentation, we put the students to the test,” Coles-Johnson says. “As soon as they enter the next room, they are in a networking event.”

After 15 minutes, time is called and the observers, who are trained prior to the event, are asked to give general observations about how the students conducted themselves. The floor is then opened for students to ask questions of alumni about areas in which they can improve. After that, they go back and start the event over.

At the end of the Mocktail event, the student mentees are matched with an alumnus who had a similar major or is in the career field the student would like to be in. He or she becomes their mentor for an entire year.

“I went in thinking that they’d just be conducting mock interviews; I had no idea I would leave with a mentor,” says Riqia Taylor, a rising junior majoring in African-American studies and the first recipient of the Coles-Johnson Mentoring Circle Scholarship. “I was able to connect with a phenomenal African-American woman who was an excellent role model.”

Taylor was matched with Nina Sims (B.S.’93/MC), who provided her with both educational and personal insights, from giving her the resources and advice she needed to decide on her major to supplying Taylor with volunteer and internship opportunities in the Richmond community and even inviting her to several family functions.

“She’s squeezing every drop of experience she can out of VCU, and it’s transforming her into an incredible communicator,” Sims says of Taylor. “She’s taught me so much, and I’m thrilled to learn that I have nurtured a new mentor who will continue the cycle.”

In their time together, Taylor mentored an after-school group at John Marshall High School that hoped to lead teen girls to identify issues in their community and tackle them through social change. Sims provided Taylor with community resources that could help expand and grow the program.

“During our year together she supported me through many life changes and made me feel loved,” Taylor says. “It would be an honor to be a mentor just like Mrs. Sims.”

Although the program is only in its second year, the Mentoring Circle has expanded immensely. The initial 10 students in the first cohort nearly quadrupled to 37 students in the second. Clif (B.S.’89/AHP) and Deborah (B.S.’87/H&S) Porter agreed to serve as the program’s co-managers moving forward and will provide leadership as the Mentoring Circle progresses to its third cohort.

“It grew much quicker than we anticipated, but we do this to help the students, not for ourselves,” Deborah says.

The husband-and-wife team coordinate the Mocktail party event and engage other alumni, match students to their mentors and plan all of the other Mentoring Circle events. They’re looking to create an event during the fall semester, which would give the mentors and mentees an opportunity to come together in between the Mocktail party and their end-of-the-program send-off event. The Roberts also plan to create an internship program with AAAC members that aligns with students’ career goals to give them professional training before they enter the world of work.

“The biggest thing we do is help students come to an accelerated realization that who they are and what they become isn’t defined by the things they studied in school,” Roberts says. “When the rubber meets the road, mentoring is what helps guide young men and women to where they want to be in life.”

Learn more about the Mentoring Circle and how you can volunteer to become a mentor online.