VCU bids a fond farewell to a true “alumni star”

Diane Stout-Brown counts the “Tableith” sculpture honoring RPI as a proud accomplishment of her tenure at the university.

By Julie Young

In 1988, Virginia Commonwealth University celebrated the 150th anniversary of its founding with an event known as Founders Day. The VCU Alumni Association subsequently started the Alumni Stars program to honor accomplished graduates during the annual celebration. Since 2008, the Alumni Stars ceremony has been a stand-alone biennial event, recognizing graduates from each VCU school who have a record of professional or humanitarian achievements.

Orchestrating the event throughout the years was an energetic VCU alumna, Diane Stout-Brown (B.S.W.’80/SW). To any colleague or graduate who worked alongside her, attended an event or met her in person, Stout-Brown was the real alumni star.

The senior director of VCU Alumni retires Dec. 20 after 30 years of university service. She began her VCU career as assistant director for student/alumni engagement, working her way up to her current position, even serving as interim executive director of the alumni organization.

Her responsibilities have included student programs, alumni engagement, membership and marketing, volunteer development and coordination, and special events development. Before joining VCU, she developed skills in fundraising, special events and programs with nonprofit organizations, including the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the American Cancer Society.

Before retiring, Stout-Brown shared some favorite memories and her second-act plans, which include selling real estate.

How did your social work degree help prepare you for relating to alumni?

When I came to VCU, I was a suburbanite who grew up in conservative, homogenous Chesterfield County, Virginia. The School of Social Work and VCU taught me that the world is incredibly multicultural. It viewed others with an open and accepting mind, something I value highly. I felt like I was finally in an environment where I belonged.

Tell us how you transitioned from working at nonprofits into alumni engagement.

My field placement in the School of Social Work was with the Voluntary Action Center at the United Way, where I placed volunteers in a variety of service agencies. It led the way to other positions in nonprofits working with volunteers.

I worked with a good number of grass-roots volunteer boards for the American Cancer Society and other organizations. I enjoyed working with people who gave their time, talent and resources because of a passion or cause they believed in. I wanted to return to my alma mater because of the diversity and open-minded philosophy. When I started, the VCU Alumni Association was a nonprofit, run by a volunteer board with numerous committees. There were very few programs in place and so I had the opportunity to create some wonderful programs to engage alumni and students.

Tell us about your favorite event/moment and what made it memorable.

There are a lot of special memories. I think the most special ones are the ones where I’ve been absolutely frantic and nervous and then things came together at the end. Alumni Stars has been fantastic over the years. I especially enjoyed the years when we allowed alumni to speak from the heart because it put special meaning into the event. It showed how much of an impact higher education made on someone who went on to use their knowledge and gifts to make the world a better place. It was also fun to connect with our School of the Arts faculty and put together interesting entertainment.

The core of your success would seem to be how deeply you care about all alumni. How did you ensure that Richmond Professional Institute graduates were not overlooked through the years?

RPI graduates are extremely devoted and passionate. How can we not support this? This group of alumni has a high regard for their education and the experiences they had at RPI. They thirst for engagement and involvement. They cherish their history and want to be a proud part of VCU today. My role has been to help guide and facilitate projects with them so they can have a lasting legacy. I’ve developed some good friends from this group.

In all of the events you’ve overseen, there must have been a few bloopers or crazy tasks along the way.

Where do I begin? I guess the most memorable is when we were planning an alumni Life member reception at Robertson House. It was to be held before a Jay Leno performance in the Siegel Center. Everything was all set, and then a hurricane came through and there was no power in the city. I had to purchase lanterns and battery-operated lights for the bathrooms.  The caterer had to change the menu to cold items instead of hot. It actually turned out to be very nice and certainly gave everyone a conversation topic.

What are your plans and hopes for retirement?

I’m looking forward to giving my 88-year-old parents more of my time. They live independently in their home, and I want them to get the care and attention they gave me over the years.  Whenever I was stressed before some event, my mom would always ask if there was anything she could do to help out. She even volunteered to direct traffic when I was coordinating the state tournament of Odyssey of the Mind. Of course, I didn’t take her up on it, but she has given much to me over the years and allowed me to work a full-time job with peace of mind while my kids were little.

VCU has been a huge part of life and now I’m eager to explore other parts of the world. I want to travel, go to museums and concerts, drive to the beach in the middle of the week, read, do crafts, learn to play the violin, hike, organize my house and, of course, take lots of walks with my dog, Andy. Most importantly, I want to enjoy leisure time with friends and family and not have to always be in a rush or worried about not getting something done. I won’t be 100 percent retired because I have obtained my real estate license and will be working as a Realtor, helping people find their dream homes.

What is the one thing you would like to leave with the VCU Alumni staff as you start the second journey of your life?

Our staff is so amazing that I don’t know of anything they don’t have already. I would say to keep the alumni close, always stand behind them while they shine and always embrace VCU for the institution that it is. You are ones who have the benefit of having the most insight when it comes to VCU’s alumni. Don’t hesitate to stand up for them and to help others understand that even things that seem insignificant can blossom into much, much more.

What would you like your legacy to be? 

I think my legacy has been ensuring that the RPI alumni were able to get their sculpture and history wall installed on campus so they will be remembered in perpetuity. Bob Lindholm (B.S.’50/H&S) was the first RPI Alumni Council chairman. When Bob became ill and was dying, I asked his daughter to let him know I was thinking of him. His daughter sent me an email telling me what Bob had dictated to her on his death bed. He dictated the sweetest note and as I think about it, I can still hear his gentle voice. He was so appreciative of me, VCU and the support we had given RPI during his term as chairman. He was extremely grateful that we were able to get the sculpture “Tableith” (to honor RPI) installed. I know Bob would be so proud today if he could see the “RPI” on VCU’s seal.

My other legacy would be the Alumni Stars program, which grew from Founders Day in 1988 into a university tradition that has honored more than 250 alumni who are stars in their professions.

VCU has been a grand journey. I am forever grateful to my VCU family and all of the alumni I have met along this journey. Please stay in touch and feel free to reach out to me at dianesb@comcast.net.

Students, alumni, faculty and deans enjoy an early Founders Day gala, where the Alumni Stars were first honored.

 

Historical marker for ‘Richmond Professional Institute’ to be dedicated Wednesday

A state historical marker issued by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources that commemorates the origins of today’s Virginia Commonwealth University Monroe Park Campus will be dedicated Wednesday.

The “Richmond Professional Institute” marker will recognize the 1917 founding of the Richmond School of Social Work and Public Health, which later became RPI and ultimately merged with the Medical College of Virginia to form VCU.

The dedication and unveiling ceremony for the marker is open to the public and will take place Wednesday, Oct. 4, at 11:15 a.m. at Founders Hall, located at 827 W. Franklin St. Paid parking — cash or credit card — is available in the VCU West Broad Street parking deck, adjacent to the campus Barnes and Noble.

Speakers during the ceremony will include VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D.; Tim Davey, Ph.D., interim dean of the VCU School of Social Work; Joe Lowenthal, chair of the Richmond Professional Institute Alumni Council; and Julie V. Langan, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

Guests will be invited to join a processional to the current location of the VCU School of Social Work at the Academic Learning Commons, where a reception honoring VCU School of Social Work emeriti faculty senate presidents will be held on the third floor lobby. A pedestrian path connects the two locations.

In 1917, the marker reads, “A group of community leaders founded the Richmond School of Social Economy, later known as the Richmond School of Social Work and Public Health.” Initially, the school focused on instruction in the fields of social work and nursing, “but the curriculum soon expanded,” according to the marker.

In 1925, the school relocated to its permanent home at 827 W. Franklin Street as the Richmond division of the College of William and Mary. In 1939, it was renamed the Richmond Professional Institute, and in 1962 it separated from William and Mary.

For most of the 1960s the school operated as an independent state institution “before merging with the Medical College of Virginia in 1968 to form Virginia Commonwealth University.”

The “Richmond Professional Institute” highway marker is sponsored by the VCU Foundation and was approved for manufacture and installation earlier this year by the Virginia Board of Historic Resources, which has authority to designate new historical markers. The VCU Foundation covered the manufacturing costs of the sign. The event is sponsored by the VCU School of Social Work, RPI Alumni Council, VCU Libraries and VCU Facilities Management.

Virginia’s historical highway marker program, which began in 1927 with the installation of the first historical markers along U.S. Route 1, is considered the oldest such program in the nation. Currently there are more than 2,500 official state markers, most maintained by the Virginia Department of Transportation, as well as by local partners in jurisdictions outside of VDOT’s authority such as the City of Richmond.

Richmond youth who have faced homelessness and housing instability use research and advocacy to help others in similar situations

Advocates for Richmond Youth members Tiffany Haynes (left), and Elaine Williams, a senior social work major at VCU.

Dmitri Blair, a 16-year-old junior at Richmond’s Armstrong High School, began experiencing homelessness and housing instability the summer before he entered the fifth grade when he, his mother, sister, brother and stepfather found themselves living in a local shelter.

“I think I was 11 at the time,” Blair said. “Then I was in a hotel for most of middle school and beginning of high school. Just recently, we’re getting housing and it’s starting to get a little better.”

As a young person dealing with uncertainty over housing, Blair said it was difficult to understand how to navigate the social services system and how to find, ask for, or even be aware of, resources that might be available to help.

Now, Blair — along with a group of other Richmond young people who have dealt with homelessness and unstable housing called the Advocates for Richmond Youth — is working to improve the support of young people in similar situations.

Read more.

Social work students deliver ‘extraordinary’ help to families at pediatrician’s office

From left: Stephanie Lizama, a senior social work major; Ted Abernathy. M.D., of Pediatric & Adolescent Health Partners; and Sarah Presley, a second-year Master of Social Work student.

From left: Stephanie Lizama, a senior social work major; Ted Abernathy. M.D., of Pediatric & Adolescent Health Partners; and Sarah Presley, a second-year Master of Social Work student.

It was one of the worst days ever experienced by the staff at Pediatric & Adolescent Health Partners in Midlothian. That morning, a young patient had died from an illness, and everyone was grieving. And in the evening, a parent losing custody of her children was scheduled to transfer custody to the father at the pediatrician’s office.

“The staff was dealing with the death of this child, we were trying to get all of our work done and at the same time seeing our kids in the office,” said Ted Abernathy, M.D. (M.D.’70/M), who founded the practice and graduated from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. “And then a dad [in a divorce situation] walked in with a stack of medical records that was at least 2 1/2 inches high. He told us that he had concerns that his child was in danger.”

With just a few short hours before the custody transfer and with the staff preoccupied with grief, Abernathy took the stack of medical records and handed them to the practice’s two interns, Sarah Presley and Stephanie Lizama, both students at the VCU School of Social Work.

“We had a full load that day with a lot of emotions,” Abernathy recalled. “I took that stack of papers and I put it on their desk and said, ‘Ladies, I need your help. I need you to go through these records, and figure out how we’re going to help this family.’”

Presley, a second-year Master of Social Work student, and Lizama, a rising senior social work major, dug into the child’s medical records, placing a sticky note on each page to track every medical visit that might be relevant to any possible danger facing the child.

“They jumped right into it as a team,” he said. “When they were done with it, they handed it back to me and I was able to quickly go through the chart and figure out what was wrong. We now were able to report this to the authorities – and they did it all. They talked to the authorities, they talked to the lawyers, they talked to all the people involved.”

“That day, with everything being so horrible, they went to just extraordinary lengths to help these people,” he said.

Read more.

Lost in translation: Social Work student researches how overlooked refugees find ways to cope

Jessica Gaddy

Jessica Gaddy

Jessica Gaddy spent three weeks last summer in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, researching the psychosocial challenges and coping mechanisms of refugees, and she found the experience to be eye-opening. Her interest in the field has not dimmed since her return to the U.S. and Virginia Commonwealth University.

Gaddy — a second-year student in the Master of Social Work Program — became involved in refugee research through Hyojin Im, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Social Work, who trains health care and service providers about mental health care needs for victims of trauma in Kuala Lumpur.

“I soon found so much purpose and interest in this particular research field because refugees are such an underrecognized population that faces insurmountable daily challenges,” Gaddy said.

Among the refugees Gaddy interviewed and studied in Kuala Lumpur were Syrian, Iranian, Afghan, Pakistani, Kachin, Chin and Somali. Gaddy knew very little about the refugee population prior to the research, and her interest continued to grow with her involvement.

“Despite their conditions, I couldn’t fathom … how they were the most hopeful and positive people I ever met,” Gaddy said.

Read more.

Program trains the next generation of leaders in addiction studies from around the world

Kyle Dyer, Ph.D., programme director at King's College London; Mary Loos, Ph.D., program director and leader of the International Programme in Addiction Studies; and Femke T.A. Buisman-Pijlman, Ph.D., senior lecturer in addiction studies in the School of Medicine and programme director at the University of Adelaide.

Kyle Dyer, Ph.D., programme director at King’s College London; Mary Loos, Ph.D., program director and leader of the International Programme in Addiction Studies; and Femke T.A. Buisman-Pijlman, Ph.D., senior lecturer in addiction studies in the School of Medicine and programme director at the University of Adelaide.

After graduating from the School of Social Work in 2008, Amira Turner worked as a wellness coordinator at an assisted living facility, and also helped her dad – a licensed clinical social worker himself – with co-facilitating substance abuse group therapy sessions.

Now, Turner is back at Virginia Commonwealth University, pursuing not only a Master of Social Work, but also a Master of Science in Addiction Studies degree from the International Programme in Addiction Studies — a partnership between three of the world’s top research universities in the field of addiction science: King’s College London, the University of Adelaide in Australia and VCU.

“Nearly every aspect of social work involves addiction. You’ve got people dealing with psychological problems they’ve experienced, dealing with trauma and maybe abusing substances as a result,” Turner said. “There are a lot of people who are affected by addiction. So I feel like having a specialized understanding of everything involved in addiction — not just that it causes neurobiological changes or that it’s genetic or that it’s very stigmatized — but it’s such a large issue, that the more I learn, it feels like the bigger it gets.”

As students in the International Programme in Addiction Studies, Turner and her classmates from around the world are taking online courses on such topics as the biological basis of addiction, pharmacotherapies, psychosocial interventions and public health and policy related to addiction, as well as courses focusing on research.

Read more.

Two VCU programs ranked No. 1, Arts rises to No. 2 in updated U.S. News & World Report national rankings

overheadSeveral graduate programs at Virginia Commonwealth University are ranked among the top 50 of the nation’s best in the 2017 edition of U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Graduate Schools,” released on March 16.

Among the graduate schools with updated rankings for the 2017 edition, the School of the Arts is tied for the No. 2 overall fine arts ranking in the nation. Also, the School of Pharmacy is tied for No. 17, the School of Social Work is tied for No. 22, the School of Education is ranked No. 33 and the School of Medicine is tied for No. 40 for best primary care.

Within the School of the Arts, a number of fine arts graduate programs are ranked: Sculpture is ranked No. 1, ceramics is tied at No. 9, glass is No. 3, graphic design is No. 3, painting and drawing is No. 7 and printmaking is tied at No. 10.

Several graduate programs in the School of Allied Health Professions also fared particularly well in the report. In their categories, nurse anesthesia is ranked No. 1 in the nation, health care management tied for No. 3, rehabilitation counseling tied for No. 4, occupational therapy tied for No. 17 and physical therapy tied for No. 20.

Read more.

Botanical art helps professor find fulfillment both inside and outside of the classroom

Judy Thomas, Ph.D.

Judy Thomas, Ph.D.

Judy Thomas, Ph.D., a faculty member in the School of Social Work, splits her time between two passions: teaching the next generation of social workers at Virginia Commonwealth University and creating beautiful botanical illustrations.

Thomas, an assistant professor in teaching, is an accomplished botanical artist and instructor who teaches classes at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, where her artwork is currently on display.

“In addition to my job at VCU, I teach colored pencil for botanical artists in Richmond,” she said. “I am a member of several art guilds: Central Virginia Botanical Artists, the Botanical Art Society of the Capitol (DC) Region and the American Society of Botanical Artists. Oh, and I started the Chickahominy Color Pencil Group and teach drawing as a volunteer at a local library.”

epenthes alata

epenthes alata

Thomas, who was an art minor in college and painted abstracts for years, became interested in botanical illustration and art in 2006 when she took an introductory course on botanical illustration at Lewis Ginter.

Botanical illustration, she said, is a scientific discipline, requiring the artist to measure and draw the botanical specimen with accuracy.

“In botanical illustration, we have many rules, [such as] to draw on a white or off-white background, to depict all parts of the plant, in all stages of development, and to dissect the flower and draw the parts,” she said. “We also try to draw the specimen in all seasons and stages of growth and understand, and depict, the mathematics of repeating botanical structures. The goal is to aid in plant identification and produce a thing of beauty.”

Read more.

VCU valentines: As these couples can attest, love is in the air at VCU

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Universities have a knack for bringing people together, whether it’s to collaborate on a research project, play on a Quidditch team with similarly fanatic Harry Potter fans or pull an all-nighter in the library studying together for an exam. And sometimes, with no advance warning, sparks fly. We hope you’ll enjoy these eight stories from happy couples who first connected at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Jessica Moise and Jowan Burton. Photo by Terri Baskin Photography.

Jessica Moise and Jowan Burton. Photo by Terri Baskin Photography.

Jessica Moise (B.S.W.’08/SW) and Jowan Burton (B.S.’06/H&S)

At a Friday night dodgeball game at the Siegel Center in fall 2006, a team of regulars led by then-VCU junior social work major Jessica Moise was joined by a new player, criminal justice major Jowan Burton.

“One of the rules was that you had to sit down if you were hit by the ball. Well, Jowan didn’t sit, he would kneel down,” Jessica recalled. “For some reason this bothered me like crazy because he was breaking the rule. Talking about it now makes me realize how silly it was but at the moment I was annoyed at this new guy messing up the game.”

That chance meeting, Jowan jokes, turned out to be “power struggle No. 1” in what would eventually grow into their relationship.

“Jessica stood out, mainly because she was the ‘medic’ and she was yelling commands at her teammates,” he said. “I joined her team just to enrage her and to disregard her commands.”

Fast forward a few months, and the two met again at a party. And after attending a step show — Jessica is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. and Jowan is a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. — they became a couple.

“I believe she sang a song during the step show and afterwards she was very concerned if I believed she did well,” Jowan said. “I couldn’t break her heart and tell her no, so I told her that I thought she sounded great … [Later on, we went out with] with a group of friends at what was formerly New York Fried Chicken. After seeing her eating fried chicken late night, I was very impressed and believed she was very down-to-earth and funny.”

This past April, Jowan, a probation officer and high school football coach, took Jessica, who works for child protective services, to Tarra Winery in Loudoun County to ask her to marry him.

“As we were getting ready to leave, Jowan came around the table, got down on one knee and proposed,” she said. “He gave a wonderful speech, which I don’t remember because I was too excited and crying at the same time. After I said yes and stopped crying he proceeded to tell me how he’d made several attempts to propose but I — unknowingly — blocked every attempt.”

“No matter what she tells anyone, I was NOT nervous,” Jowan added. “I was cool as a cucumber … Her not hearing my speech isn’t so bad because that means I get to ignore a few of her speeches.”

The couple visited VCU in the fall for an engagement photo shoot.

“VCU is the place where I forged great relationships with VCU students and within the community of Richmond through working with the Phi Delta Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc.,” Jowan said. “I received my first promotion at VCU working for Rec Sports, I met my best friends and the woman who I intend to marry at VCU. VCU will always be the place that made Richmond a home away from home for me.”

For Jessica, VCU was where she joined her sorority and made memories living in Johnson Hall, eating at Shafer Court, hanging out in the Fan and playing dodgeball every Friday night.

“I learned a lot about myself, made some amazing friends and met my future husband,” she said. “I can’t wait to say ‘I do’ on March 5.”

Read more VCU love stories.

New agreement between VCU and Reynolds Community College to make social work degrees more accessible, affordable

Jenni Church transferred to the VCU School of Social Work under an articulation agreement with John Tyler Community College.

Jenni Church transferred to the VCU School of Social Work under an articulation agreement with John Tyler Community College.

Virginia Commonwealth University has signed a deal with Reynolds Community College to allow eligible Reynolds students who earn an associate’s degree in pre-social work to transfer to VCU and complete their bachelor’s degree at the School of Social Work in as little as four semesters.

The School of Social Work’s new articulation agreement with Reynolds Community College is the second such agreement with a Richmond-area community college. The School of Social Work entered into a similar agreement with John Tyler Community College in 2012, and the first cohort of transfer students from JTCC is currently studying at VCU.

“Our articulation agreements with both JTCC and Reynolds provide a direct pathway or bridge for students to begin their social work degree at the community college level and then transfer to VCU School of Social Work in the B.S.W. program,” said Ananda Newmark (M.S.W.’02/SW), B.S.W. program director for VCU’s School of Social Work.

So far, 12 graduates of JTCC’s Human Services, Pre-Social Work Specialization Program, have transferred to VCU and are pursuing a B.S.W. degree.

“Many students who begin their college coursework at various community colleges do so for a variety of reasons: convenient geographical locations, flexible schedule of classes to accommodate life, online courses and cheaper tuition,” Newmark said. “These agreements decrease the amount of time and money needed to earn their B.S.W. degree, ultimately contributing to increasing retention and graduation rates.”

Read more.