Dancing into the sunset: Alumna Sheena Jeffers takes a lifelong passion everywhere she goes

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

Dance has been at the heart of everything Sheena Jeffers (B.S.’08/MC; B.A.’08/H&S) has done since she took her first ballet class when she was 5.

“It’s the one thing I’ve never moved on from, and I absolutely love it more than anything,” says the Richmond, Virginia, native. “No matter what city or state I’m in, and even when I travel, I find a drop-in dance class to join.”

From those first lessons, Jeffers danced competitively for seven years and was accepted to the Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk, Virginia, where she graduated in 2004. When it came time to apply for college, Jeffers wanted a school surrounded by art.

Citing the Richmond Ballet, visits from Broadway shows and a budding modern dance scene, Jeffers applied to and was accepted into Virginia Commonwealth University. Though dance was her first love, she chose to pursue a different path in college. Growing up, her grandfather, a Baptist preacher, would frequently encourage her to write by giving her writing journals, and she would often sit in his library and watch him write his weekly sermons.

“I still have journals from when I was younger that recount all the things I’ve gone through,” Jeffers says. “When I got to [VCU], I knew I wanted to explore writing as much as I had [already explored] dance.”

While double majoring in English and mass communications, with a focus in journalism, she made it a point to take as many dance classes as possible and spent three years as a member of VCU’s dance team, Gold Rush. In addition, Jeffers worked as news editor for the student newspaper, The Commonwealth Times, and interned at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“[Sheena] was thoughtful, dedicated and relentlessly upbeat while she was working at the VCU Capital News Service,” says Jeff South, associate professor of journalism and director of undergraduate studies in the VCU Robertson School of Media and Culture. “Reporters often get the door slammed in their face, but she had a keen eye for stories and never let anything discourage her.”

VCU English professor Catherine Ingrassia, Ph.D., echoes South’s praise of Jeffers.

“She was always an enthusiastic and engaged presence in the classroom,” Ingrassia says, “Her infectious good nature and ability to connect with everyone always made her a dynamic part of every class.”

Jeffers blended her passion for dance with her passion for writing after college, first starting an internationally-recognized dance blog and then writing for the Richmond Times-Dispatch as the paper’s dance critic. Then, in 2010, she went back to school to earn a master’s of science in arts integrated education from Old Dominion University, graduating in 2014.

Her dance card has been full ever since. She founded Well Women Inc., a corporation that helps women with personal and professional development, worked as an adjunct professor of dance at ODU and spent nearly three years as arts integration director for Young Audiences of Virginia Inc., where she helped develop school curriculums that integrate literacy with art and dance.

“I know firsthand that having early access to art helps you visualize a better world and become a stronger person,” Jeffers says. “Through art, we’re able to break down barriers and educate, empower and uplift the world around us.”

Now working as a freelance writer for clients such as the U.S. Department of Energy and Answers.com, Jeffers has continued to forge her own path.

Recently, she and her partner restored an aging 43-foot catamaran, and the two live full time on the vessel. They set sail in late November and are sailing down the East Coast to Central America, where Jeffers is writing and teaching yoga to traveling families at ports along the way. Jeffers recently took over the VCU Alumni Instagram account, offering a glimpse into what it’s like to live on the open ocean.

No matter where her travels take her, Jeffers is confident that her hard work has prepared her for this new journey.

“It’s empowering to know that the knowledge I gained at VCU has given me transferrable, global skills,” she says. “I say this often, but it was at [VCU] where I learned it’s OK to take the road less traveled, make bold choices and follow my dreams.”

Heading west with alumnus Will Gilbert

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

Will Gilbert (B.S.’15/MC), a native of Natural Bridge, Virginia, recently worked in the Virginia Commonwealth University Office of Development and Alumni Relations where he produced videos and took pictures of featured donors, alumni and students for various communications campaigns. Next week, he’ll be taking over the VCU Alumni Instagram as he travels to Denver to begin the next chapter in his journey.

What drew you to VCU?

My mother went to VCU so growing up it was always in my head as a school of interest. I was intrigued by the possibilities at a big school in a big city, and I was drawn in by the creative vibe. By my senior year of high school, I knew it was the only university I wanted to apply to, so I put all my eggs in the VCU basket and was fortunate to be accepted.

I wanted to study theater in the School of the Arts but after an unsuccessful audition, I looked at programs where I could use the skills I gained in high school theater for something else. In my search, I came across the Robertson School and was immediately interested in studying broadcast journalism. I started the classes not knowing if I’d like them, but by the end, I loved them.

What are some of your favorite memories from your time as a student?

I did my best to be an active student so I involved myself in the Honors College, was an RA in Rhoads Hall, became secretary for the SGA and briefly worked with STAT (Students Today Alumni Tomorrow). One of my favorite activities was working on VCU InSight, the award-winning student newscast. It’s a capstone course in the journalism concentration, and I loved it so much I took it three times! I started out as a reporter and then spent two semesters as an executive producer. It was a great and challenging experience working with my peers and talented advisers to pitch, shoot, write, edit and produce a newscast for Richmond PBS every other week.

I was also fortunate to participate in the VCUQatar Leadership Exchange during my final semester. I spent a week in Doha, Qatar, working with student leaders at VCUQ on leadership techniques and experiencing the culture. I loved the city and the architecture. My favorite day during the trip was when we explored the Souq Waqif, the oldest marketplace in Qatar, walking around the thin, twisting walkways having vendors trying to sell you their wares. I would love to go back some day.

How has VCU tied into your career path?

VCU shaped my entire career path! My work in DAR definitely pushed me in the direction of working in video communications in either higher education or for a nonprofit. Although I don’t necessarily work in broadcast journalism, the skills I learned as a communications major obviously help me when shooting and interviewing. The education I received through the Robertson School and the Honors College is invaluable, and I believe the reason I see myself wanting to work in higher education is I want future students to have the same positive experience at their college or university that I did.

Why are you moving to Denver?

My older brother moved there eight years ago for work and has loved it. I’ve visited three times since then and one of my sisters has moved there as well. I love the atmosphere of Denver; it kind of reminds me of a larger Richmond. There’s so much to do and see there in terms of culture, food and outdoor activities. Denver has also attracted a lot of up-and-coming businesses, so there’s lots of job opportunity right now. Also, I’ve lived my entire life in Virginia, and it’s time for a new adventure!

What’s the last Richmond meal you had before leaving the city?

This was a difficult decision for me to make, but my intention was to have one final brunch at Liberty Public House in Church Hill. I love the food there, and the vegetarian options are great. Instead, I had my final brunch at the Boathouse with my former boss! An amazing meal, with an amazing view and a spectacular woman. I’m going to miss my DAR RAMily very much!

Cheeky greeting cards with a VCU twist

Old Tom Foolery cards designed by VCU graduates Tim Shumar and Jenny Yoon.

If you can’t stand sappy, hackneyed greeting cards, Old Tom Foolery might be your savior. Joel and Lauren Gryniewski founded the tongue-in-cheek greeting card business in 2008, knowing that humor was a stable foundation for relationships and business.

“Lauren and I started Old Tom Foolery because we enjoyed trying to one-up each other with funny greeting cards when we were dating, but we had a hard time finding high-quality letterpress cards that weren’t super feminine looking.” Joel Gryniewski said. “So we decided to create a brand that combined nice letterpress printing with a gender-neutral look and tone.”

Since then, the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter graduates have discovered their brand of humor translates into an acclaimed business. The Greeting Card Association has awarded Old Tom Foolery six LOUIE awards (the greeting card equivalent of an Oscar) since 2008, and awarded the company a Most Humorous award in 2012.

When done well, humor has a way of strengthening the connection between a card giver and recipient,” Joel Gryniewski (M.S.’05/MC) said. “When two people have the same sense of humor, it’s almost like a secret code they share. It’s fun to be able to write cards that help people express their shared, irreverent sense of humor in a way traditional cards can’t.”

In 2016, the Gryniewskis began collaborating with students from their alma matter, allowing them to write and design their own greeting cards. May 2017 graduates Tim Shumar (B.S.’15/MC; M.S.’17/B), Jenny Yoon (M.S.’17/B) and Conor McFarland’s (M.S.’17/B) greetings carry the same strain of humor that make Old Tom Foolery’s cards stand out from the familiar, cringeworthy occasion cards you can find at a drug store or supermarket.

For Shumar, writing greeting cards has a dual purpose.

“As everyone knows, greeting-card writing is a surefire way to attract ladies,” he said. “I did it for them. … [I was also hoping to bring] world peace or [end] hunger. Whichever.”

These Brandcenter alumni have flexed their creative muscles for a successful company. The Gryniewskis themselves see Old Tom Foolery as a product of perseverance.

“Starting a business [and sticking with it] isn’t easy,” Joel Gryniewski said. “Lots of people talk about doing it. But we actually did it. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been able to keep it going for the past 10 years.”

Making headlines: VCU journalism students are covering the General Assembly for 90 news outlets and feeding stories to the Associated Press

On a recent morning at the General Assembly, a Virginia Senate subcommittee considered legislation backed by the oil and gas industry that would keep chemical recipes used in fracking confidential as trade secrets. Among the lobbyists, activists and others observing the debate, Virginia Commonwealth University senior journalism major Tyler Hammel was listening carefully and taking notes.

Hammel, who was covering the meeting as part of the Capital News Service program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, quickly filed a news article about the meeting, “Panel amends and OKs bills on hiding fracking chemicals,” which was published by the The Daily Progress in Charlottesville and RVA Hub in Richmond.

“Covering the General Assembly is pretty hectic but rewarding,” Hammel said. “It’s almost like triage in a way because there’s no way you can possibly cover everything, so you have to make decisions about what is most important to you and what you think will get the most attention.”

Read more.

Practice makes perfect

Keira Robinson.  Photos by Skip Rowland.

Keira Robinson.
Photos by Skip Rowland.

When Virginia Commonwealth University opened the 62,000-square-foot Basketball Development Center in October 2015, it was a game-changer for the men’s and women’s basketball teams in every way, providing a state-of-the-art space for everything from morning practices and weightlifting sessions to afternoon naps and team meals.

“It’s a place for these athletes to not only work on their craft but to bond as a team,” says Daniel Ludwin, who was introduced to VCU basketball in 2009 by his friend David Boardman (B.S.’91/B). After just one game, Ludwin declared himself a “rabid Ram fan.”

Ludwin and Boardman both made pledges to support the construction of the practice facility. With private donors like them funding $14.5 million of the building’s approximate $25 million cost, the Basketball Development Center was the largest private fundraising project in VCU Athletics history.

“We pride ourselves at VCU in developing student-athletes into the best versions of themselves, and our supporters make that possible,” says Ed McLaughlin, associate vice president and director of athletics. “This facility is one of the top five in the country.”

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How I got the job: Devin Baker, once homeless, is now an art director at one of North America’s largest advertising agencies

Devin Baker.

Devin Baker.

Devin Baker went to New York in 2007 to advance a budding career in the entertainment industry. When he arrived, he found his housing arrangement had fallen through, leaving him without a place to live.

“Some things didn’t work out with family that I had in the area,” said Baker, 32, now an advertising student in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University. “I ended up homeless for a little while until I found a room for rent in Brooklyn.”

It was an early experience in Baker’s long and circuitous path toward a career in advertising. He spent seven years in New York, mostly working at Universal Records, before moving to Richmond and going back to school at VCU. This past spring, he landed a summer creative internship with the advertising agency BBDO, and turned it into a full-time job as an art director by the end of July.

He views it all as a series of steps.

“I worked toward a specific goal — getting into VCU, getting the internship,” Baker said. “I would accomplish that step and keep going to the next thing.”

Read more.

VCU’s journalism program joins Google News Lab University Network

The Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture has joined the Google News Lab University Network, a new initiative by Google that will provide training materials and support to journalism professors and students on topics such as Google tool fundamentals, trust and verification, immersive storytelling, data journalism, advanced search and Google Trends, data visualization, mapping and more.

The initial cohort of 49 journalism schools around the world, including the Robertson School in VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences, will gain access to journalism training and support that Google has provided to professional newsrooms for several years.

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Students from Iraq, VCU develop social media campaigns for Richmond-area nonprofit organizations

Twenty-four Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program students 13 VCU students are taking the VCU Social Media Institute this summer, and developing social media campaigns for local nonprofit organizations.

Twenty-four Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program students 13 VCU students are taking the VCU Social Media Institute this summer, and developing social media campaigns for local nonprofit organizations.

Dahshti Frya knew how he wanted to spend his summer after talking with some of his close friends back home in northern Iraq — he wanted to travel to the United States.

More specifically, he wanted to attend the seventh annual Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program held at the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in Virginia Commonwealth University’s College of Humanities and Sciences.

When his peers came back from the IYLEP program and shared their stories of coming to the U.S. and being exposed to a new city and a new way of learning how to assist nonprofit organizations achieve their missions, Frya knew he wanted to experience the same thing.

“There was something in me that wanted to come to America,” Frya said, shortly after giving a group presentation in class of his respective region in Iraq. “My friends that had done IYLEP told me about the city and the nice people and also the things they studied. All these things inspired me to apply for the program.”

Frya is one of 24 IYLEP students, along with 13 current VCU students, enrolled in the VCU Social Media Institute this summer. In the course, students help develop and implement social media campaigns for local nonprofits over a three-week period.

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Black History Month at VCU aims to spark dialogue, celebrate black excellence

Keith Knight

Keith Knight

Virginia Commonwealth University will celebrate Black History Month with a variety of events throughout February that are meant to provoke thought and conversation.

“I am truly excited for this year’s Black History Month events and the dialogue that may come as a byproduct of these programs,” said Yolanda Avent, director of the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs in the Division of Student Affairs, which coordinates VCU’s Black History Month activities. “We have a month full of thought-provoking educational and social programs designed to engage and celebrate black excellence.”

All of the events will be free and open to the public, though registration may be required for certain events.

Political cartoonist Keith Knight will deliver the 14th annual VCU Libraries Black History Month Lecture, titled, “They Shoot Black People, Don’t They? From Ferguson to NYC, Political Cartoonist Keith Knight on Police Violence in the U.S.” He will speak on Feb. 4 from 7 to 9 p.m. in the Lecture Hall (room 303) of James Branch Cabell Library.

Knight is known for creating funny, politically astute comics strips that touch on many divisive issues, including racially motivated police violence. His talk will be followed by a book sale and signing, as well as a public reception.

“Keith Knight is a cartoonist for the modern age who deftly uses his humor to address often divisive political, social and racial issues,” said Cindy Jackson, library specialist for comic arts with VCU Libraries, which is sponsoring the lecture. “His comics will make you laugh, but most importantly they will make you think.”

For more details or to register for Knight’s lecture, go to www.library.vcu.edu/about/events/2015-16/black-history-month-lecture-2016.html.

Get the full list of Black History Month activities at VCU.

Next in line: Legacy students forge fresh paths at VCU

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For some parents and other family members who attend Virginia Commonwealth University’s Family Weekend Oct. 23-25, they won’t be visiting campus for the second or third or even fourth time — they’ll be coming home. That’s because many VCU students follow in the footsteps of other relatives who attended VCU before them and make their own memories on their family members’ old stomping grounds.

Legacy students often bond with their relatives through their shared experiences at VCU — all while experiencing the university in their own unique way. Below are a few of their stories.

The Etiennes

Darice Etienne is the sixth member of her family to attend VCU, a tradition that goes back three generations and five decades. The legacy began with Darice’s grandmother, Carol Belton-Bynum, who studied education at what was then the Richmond Professional Institute in 1966, followed by Darice’s mother, Sheronda Bynum, who graduated with a degree in fashion and merchandising in 1999. “Actually, my mother had me while she was going to school here,” says Darice. “I even remember going to her graduation when I was 4 years old.”

Darice’s father and uncle, twin brothers Derrick and Darrell Etienne, studied mass communications and played soccer for VCU from 1995 to 1997 before starting professional soccer careers, while her aunt on her mother’s side, Sheila Bynum-Coleman, graduated with a B.S. in political science in 2010.

You might say Darice was destined to be a Ram, but she wasn’t convinced until her mother gave her the grand tour of campus. On her one-woman guided tour, Sheronda pointed out the highlights that remained from her time at VCU in the ’90s, such as the Pollak Building where she studied and John Chandler and Kat Farley’s Mobile Munchies campus food kiosk. But she also noted the array of new buildings to show her daughter how VCU had developed in the past 20 years.

Read more about the Etiennes and other legacy families.