‘I will always turn up for humanity’: VCU alumnus and refugee wages campaign to lead the South Sudanese people

By Erica Naone

Bol Gai Deng (B.A.’08/GPA) is running for president of South Sudan, but no one can say when the election is or whether it will happen at all.

The east central African nation is the world’s youngest, having gained independence from Sudan in 2011. Less than two years after that moment, however, the country fell into civil war, and armed conflict has been ongoing ever since. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 4 million people have been forced to flee, and the effects on the nation’s infrastructure, economy and food supply have been devastating.

Salva Kiir, South Sudan’s first and only president, has been in power since independence. General elections were scheduled for summer 2015, then delayed until summer 2018. Deng and a handful of others, such as South Sudanese human rights activist Suzanne Jambo, geared up their campaigns, but Kiir’s administration again postponed elections, this time until summer 2021.

Bol Gai Deng sits in an office. In the background are world maps and a poster for the movie "Runaway Slave."

Bol Gai Deng (B.A.’08/H&S) sits in office space used by his campaign. The Runaway Slave poster in the background holds special significance to him due to his own life experience escaping from slavery. Photo by Jud Froelich, Development and Alumni Relations

Deng, who came to the U.S. about 20 years ago as a refugee, has not given up on trying to become president of his home country. He believes that sufficient pressure from the U.S. and the United Nations could push Kiir to hold elections. Deng’s campaign involves holding rallies in Washington, D.C., and near U.N. headquarters in New York City, speaking at churches, traveling to Africa when he can (though he does not enter South Sudan for security reasons), working with refugee and immigrant populations in the U.S. and broadcasting speeches and Q&A sessions over social platforms such as Facebook Live. He recently published “Bol Gai Deng: Legacy of an African Freedom Fighter,” which tells the story of his life and political aspirations.

Deng came from desperate circumstances and now wants to bring hope to his people. At a young age, his village was destroyed, and he was kidnapped. After he escaped from slavery, the U.N. refugee program brought him to the States, where he was taken in by a church and a Virginia family. He attended community college and then VCU, where he majored in homeland security and emergency preparedness and took political science classes.

While at VCU, he became involved in efforts to help Sudanese immigrants and refugees learn to speak and read English, with a particular focus on women and the elderly. (According to the Pew Research Center, Virginia, with a population of more than 100,000 foreign-born Africans, is one of the states with the largest number of African immigrants and refugees.) He founded the Southern Sudan Project, a nonprofit that works to provide education to Sudanese youth, and says he received a great deal of help from professors and fellow students at VCU. He used the university’s facilities to teach classes, and volunteer teachers were plentiful.

Bol Gai Deng stands in cap and gown with a group of fellow African immigrants.

Bol Gai Deng (B.A.’08/H&S) celebrates his graduation from VCU with fellow African immigrants. Photo Courtesy of Bol Gai Deng.

Talking to fellow Africans increased Deng’s awareness of the situation in his home country. “The more active I was, the more active I knew I should be,” he says. Soon he was organizing trips to Washington, D.C., to hold rallies to raise awareness of the plight of South Sudanese people.

“Political science at VCU did not make me become a politician. It had me become a human rights activist,” Deng says. “You realize that you are there to help people and make them also see the future or maybe just the potential they may not have seen before.”

This path eventually led him to launch his presidential campaign in 2016.

In some ways, it isn’t clear whether Deng is truly equipped for the task he has set for himself. For one thing, his presidential campaign requires expensive travel and security setups, and a GoFundMe page falls far short of its listed financial goal. He campaigns largely through social media, but the Facebook page for his campaign has fewer than 4,000 likes. He supports himself through a night job at Lowe’s, which does not give him the sort of international relations credentials one might expect from an aspiring world leader.

Deng, however, has backers. One of the most involved is fellow VCU alumnus Don Blake (B.S.’68/E), who leads the Virginia Christian Alliance, an organization that advocates for conservative Christian policies. Blake sees Deng as a potentially world-changing figure. “If we get him elected president, and we get a good government in there, with a new constitution and a free people and liberty and prosperity and freedom, then that will affect 14 million people,” he says. Blake provides Deng with office space for his campaign, as well as advice and access to political contacts.

Another of Deng’s supporters is freelance journalist Andrea McDaniel, formerly a morning news anchor for Richmond’s NBC12, who has known him for more than eight years. “Bol’s life is dedicated to helping his people back home,” she says. “It is all he thinks about. … He has been through unbelievable heartbreak and persecution, but has not lost his optimism and conviction that things can change.”

In addition to painting a picture of a passionate man who cares about people, McDaniel points to Deng’s “fearless” attitude. She tells the story of Deng’s May 2018 trip to East Africa, when he and his team were threatened and harassed in Uganda by South Sudan’s federal security director and his forces. Deng remained undeterred.

Ironically, if Deng were to succeed at his goal, many more hardships would lie ahead. If Deng could return to South Sudan, he would have to say goodbye to many comforts available in the U.S.

“Every time you turn around, you see McDonald’s, Burger King, WaWa, 7-Eleven,” he says. “This is a big deal, to leave America and go to a land where there’s nothing. But for the sake of humanity, because you have millions who are suffering, you have to.”

Even if he is not elected president, Deng says he will not give up on the cause of South Sudan. “I will always turn up for humanity, that is my dream,” he says.

Opioid overdose medication provides lifesaving opportunity

Shawn Hammonds, who works with Rams in Recovery through Americorps, holds the kit issued to folks who complete the Revive! training.

Shawn Hammonds, who works with Rams in Recovery through AmeriCorps, holds the kit issued to community members who complete the Revive! training.

In a quiet conference room in the bustling University Student Commons, a group of students and staff is learning about second chances. Specifically, how they can potentially save the life of someone overdosing on opioids.

This group joins other VCU community members who have learned how to deploy naloxone — also known by the brand name Narcan — during REVIVE! training led by Rams in Recovery, VCU’s collegiate recovery organization.

“I know we have trained over 350 people in the year that I’ve been here. It feels pretty good,” said Shawn Hammonds, an AmeriCorps member working with Rams in Recovery.

Tom Bannard, program coordinator for Rams in Recovery, said the training provides “a practical tool for responding.”

“We are hearing a lot about the opiate epidemic, but I think people don’t know what they can do. Naloxone training gives people an entry point to being part of the solution,” he said.

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Alumnus author seeks to deliver ‘that Bruce Lee punch’ with his debut collection

Close-up photo of Xavier Atkins.

X.C. Atkins’ newest work is a debut collection of short stories. “Grace Street Alley and Other Stories” contains 27 interlinked stories, set largely in Richmond.

X.C. Atkins (B.A.’08/H&S), a Virginia Commonwealth University alumnus, is a writer of many interests. He has published works as varied as noir-tinged short stories, comic books about spirit animals who roam a post-apocalyptic Earth, and zines on a range of topics, including a tribute issue dedicated to Rod Stewart that was lauded as “a brilliant masterpiece” by the singer’s oldest fan club.

Atkins’ newest work is a debut collection of short stories. “Grace Street Alley and Other Stories” contains 27 interlinked stories, set largely in Richmond, that follow a character named Levy Bahm “as he navigates education, love, race, work, drink and violence, and strives to understand his place in a universe that is mostly uncaring yet still somehow beautiful,” according to publisher Makeout Creek Books.

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Venuti promoted to associate vice president for public safety for VCU and VCU Health

Headshot of John Venuti

John Venuti

Virginia Commonwealth University Police Chief John Venuti has been promoted to associate vice president for public safety for VCU and VCU Health.

In his new position, Venuti will provide institutional public safety oversight and strategy for VCU and VCU Health. He also will advise the university and health system leadership and partner with the local community on a wide variety of institutional safety, policy and compliance matters, as well as emergency response and planning.

“Under John’s leadership, VCU Police has become known for its responsiveness and strong community partnerships,” said Meredith Weiss, Ph.D., vice president for administration for VCU. “He transformed VCU Police into a national leader in campus safety.”

In Venuti’s nearly nine years as chief, the VCU Police Department has prioritized partnership, collaboration, customer service and engagement. Since 2010, VCU Police achieved accreditation with the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, became the first campus law enforcement agency in Virginia to receive designation as a certified crime prevention campus, was the first in Virginia to implement the “You Have Options” sexual assault survivor program designed to increase reporting of sexual assault, and became the first agency in the Richmond metropolitan area to implement body worn cameras for officers. These and other efforts have resulted in an improved safety culture with more than 95 percent of students, faculty and staff reporting they feel safe or very safe on VCU’s campus and a decrease in officer use of force of more than 66 percent.

Venuti will continue to serve as VCU’s police chief until the position is filled. VCU is conducting a national search to fill the position.

School quiz show inspires alumna’s career in toxicology

Danielle Mackowsky smiles for a photo.By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

Starting Monday, Danielle Mackowsky (M.S.’14/H&S), technical marketing specialist at United Chemical Technologies, takes over the VCU Alumni Instagram account. She will post from the annual meeting of the Society of Forensic Toxicologists in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Why did you choose VCU for your master’s degree?

VCU is the one of the only universities in the nation to have its own forensic science department. Other universities house their forensic science students and classes under the umbrella of another department, but knowing that VCU committed a whole department, and the resources that come with it, to this program spoke volumes to me. In addition, the scholarship opportunities that VCU offers forensic science graduate students is unparalleled.

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VCU GREAT to provide students from underrepresented backgrounds with research training, opportunities

A group of students pose for a photo next to a Spit for Science poster.

VCU Guided Research Experiences & Applied Training, or VCU GREAT, grew out of Spit for Science, an ongoing universitywide research project at VCU that creates unique, cross-disciplinary opportunities for students to work with leading researchers in substance use and emotional health.

A newly established program at Virginia Commonwealth University will provide undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds with the opportunity to gain research skills training, work in campus research labs and receive mentorship from VCU faculty researchers.

The program, VCU Guided Research Experiences & Applied Training, or VCU GREAT, is funded by a recently awarded $486,000 grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism that has a goal of not only training young researchers but also to diversify the pipeline of scientists working in the fields of substance use and genetics research.

“We know there is a lack of diversity among scientists engaged in biomedical and behavioral research,” said Danielle M. Dick, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences and the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics in the School of Medicine. “This grant focuses on introducing students from a diversity of backgrounds to the research process, with the long-term goal of creating a more diverse scientific workforce.”

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Renowned neuroscientist to speak at VCU about exercise’s benefits to learning, memory and thinking

Wendy Suzuki, Ph.D., posed in front of a blue background.

Wendy Suzuki, Ph.D., is best known for her extensive work studying areas in the brain critical for our ability to form and retain new long-term memories.

Wendy Suzuki, Ph.D., a renowned neuroscientist and author of “Healthy Brain, Happy Life: A Personal Program to Activate Your Brain and Do Everything Better,” will speak at Virginia Commonwealth University on Tuesday, Oct. 9.

Suzuki, a professor of neural science and psychology in the Center for Neural Science at New York University, will deliver her lecture, “Practical Neuroscience for Everyday Life,” at 7 p.m. in the auditorium of Grace E. Harris Hall, 1015 Floyd Ave. The event will be free and open to the public.

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Critics are calling ‘Gavagai,’ a film made by two VCU professors, ‘extraordinary’ and one of the best films of the year

Andreas Lust looks out of a window, in a scene from Gavagai.

Andreas Lust, one of the stars of “Gavagai,” in a scene from the film.

When Rob Tregenza and Kirk Kjeldsen, filmmakers and Virginia Commonwealth University cinema professors, submitted their feature “Gavagai” to the top international film festivals, they were disappointed to be turned down. Tregenza’s first two films, “Talking to Strangers” and “The Arc,” had premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival and his third, “Inside/Out,” had first appeared at the Cannes Film Festival. However, the film industry had changed in the years since the 1997 release of “Inside/Out,” and the largest festivals had become less likely to select independent films and more likely to latch onto more high-profile movies with boldfaced names attached. “Gavagai,” which was shot in Norway, starred three accomplished performers with acclaimed roles to their credit and each of Tregenza’s three previous films had been praised by critics, but the film lacked box-office cachet.

“Gavagai” eventually was selected to premiere at the Maine International Film Festival, but Tregenza and Kjeldsen worried about finding a distributor and getting their film — one they were proud of — in front of audiences. Then Richard Brody, an influential film critic for The New Yorker, learned through Twitter that Tregenza had a new film completed. Brody had written admirably of Tregenza’s previous works, and he asked to see “Gavagai.” Tregenza and Kjeldsen hoped for a short, positive write-up that might give the film a boost.

An editor sent Kjeldsen a link when the review was posted. As soon as he read it, Kjeldsen, who lives in Germany and teaches online much of the year, knew Tregenza needed to hear it. They connected over Skype and Kjeldsen read it aloud to Tregenza. Together, they savored every word.

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How bees carried this patient counselor from Lebanon to VCU

Lea Lahoud holds her children's book "The Sister and the Bee."

Lea Lahoud, children’s book author and pastoral care student.

The French drama “Of Gods and Men” is what initially piqued Lea Lahoud’s (M.S.’18/HP) interest in bees. Watching the film at home in Byblos, Lebanon, with her three brothers, Lahoud recalls being mesmerized by the beekeeping rituals of the eight Trappist monks in the film, which is based on actual events from the Algerian Civil War.

“Bees teach us that the impossible can be reached,” Lahoud said. “Despite their little thin wings, they are able to carry their heavy bodies and fly far away.”

The Virginia Commonwealth University patient counseling graduate grew up on the east coast of Lebanon. A devout Catholic, she joined the Lebanese Maronite Order when she was in her early 20s. At the convent where she lived for 12 years, Lahoud maintained 45 beehives. She studied nursing then switched to graphic design and multimedia, but working with the bees inspired her to dream bigger.

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‘A war on truth’

Bob Woodward addresses a crowd.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Bob Woodward describes a “nervous breakdown” in the Trump administration in his book, “Fear: Trump in the White House.”

Before a crowd of more than 1,300 at Virginia Commonwealth University on Tuesday, legendary journalist Bob Woodward — author of the bestselling “Fear: Trump in the White House” — described a “nervous breakdown” in the executive branch and suggested the Trump administration is waging a “war on truth.”

“What is going on in the White House is there is a war on truth,” said Woodward, the iconic investigative journalist, author and associate editor of The Washington Post whose coverage of the Watergate scandal with Carl Bernstein won the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1973. “You have to deal with truth. Truth is the foundation of how we have our debates and how people make their decisions.”

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