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Best of times: Some of the stellar students graduating this month reminisce about their time at VCU

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Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing

On May 13, thousands of students will graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University with degrees ranging from bachelor’s degrees to Ph.D.s to medical degrees. They all have their own set of memories, challenges and accomplishments to look back on, but we selected 11 outstanding students from across the university and asked them to reflect on their top moments at VCU.


 

Kaitlin Savage

Kaitlin Savage.
Kaitlin Savage.

During the last week of classes, Kaitlin Savage traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the MIT Sustainability Summit, then hosted a community event for her nonprofit, the Urban Sustainability and Equity Center, at the VCUarts Depot.

A transfer student, she double-majored in urban and regional studies in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs and environmental studies in Life Sciences.

“There are a lot of opportunities to take on projects that are meaningful in the city of Richmond,” she said. “I’m in a better position to catalyze change.”

I’m in a better position to catalyze change.

An independent research project on urban heat islands is a highlight of her VCU experience. There are ties between the hotter temperatures in some city neighborhoods and worse health outcomes, poverty levels, educational attainment and more.

While climate change can seem overwhelming on the global scale, “looking at Richmond and seeing that there are these really huge inequities, this is something that I feel is within reach,” she said.

In addition to continuing to lead the nonprofit, Savage will transition from intern to full-time employee at VA Solar, a developer of utility-scale solar energy projects, after commencement.

Top moment at VCU: My senior seminar in urban and regional studies was a great experience. I worked with a team of students within the undergraduate program to develop a planning proposal for Richmond’s Providence Park community. Our project evolved from what was initially envisioned as an urban garden proposal (to be focused on landscaping/design) into a more thoughtful analysis of existing conditions and community needs. The final project submission utilized an incremental approach to achieving changes in the community that were desired by local residents and based upon stakeholder engagement models. Under this incremental approach, our team proposed several innovative, sustainability-driven solutions to addressing local economic, social and environmental needs. Much of what we learned from community members within this seminar set the framework for USEC’s organizational values over the past six months, and I’m excited for our team at USEC to continue this important work in helping to build dynamic, systems-oriented understandings of the cities in which we live.

Favorite class or professor: I really enjoyed taking Professor [Jennifer] Ciminelli’s environmental data visualization course last fall. While I had some previous knowledge of the software we used in class, her curriculum was very strongly geared toward the applications of these technical skills. For the final project in the course, I developed a GIS model for a transfer of development rights (TDR) program in Central Virginia, which identified priority areas of land for conservation and potential hubs of urban growth, using a wide range of both environmental and urban planning datasets. Being able to step back and work toward evaluating the bigger picture is something I’ve always been drawn to, and Professor Ciminelli’s class really provided an opportunity for me to see what exactly that might look like as I move forward in my career.

Most important thing learned: Attending a public research university in a downtown campus environment has been an ongoing learning opportunity for me. I think my passion really lies in developing solutions to larger systems, and at VCU, it’s hard not to be inspired. During my time here, I hope I’ve learned to approach urban planning and environmental issues from a community-focused perspective; without this foundational understanding of local communities, I think it’s impossible to develop effective long-term solutions. While it’s easy for an academic environment to shut itself off from the surrounding community, I believe that VCU alters that traditional exclusionary dynamic, and the result is more meaningful opportunities and engagement — not only for local stakeholders, but also VCU students.

 

Aaron “Ni’jai” Johnson Jr.

While Aaron Ni’jai Johnson Jr. came to VCU as an art major, this spring he receives a bachelor’s degree in business with a minor in sociology, as well as a baccalaureate certificate in product innovation from the VCU da Vinci Center.

Aaron Ni'jai.
<br>Photo by Nusrat M/Studio 5800.
Aaron Ni'jai.
Photo by Nusrat M/Studio 5800.

Johnson wanted to come to VCU for its diverse and artistic culture and the myriad activities Richmond offers, “from laying on the rocks at Belle Isle and checking out the newest gallery at the VMFA to going to a punk house show or watermelon festival over the summer,” he said.

He made the most of his time at VCU, serving as a volunteer at Diversity Richmond, founder and marketing director of Alpha Kappa Psi’s Chi Pi Chapter at VCU, senior fashion editor of INK Magazine and co-host of The Drop on 102.9 and WVCW.org, student radio.

“As a part of the black LGBT community, I wanted to be a voice for many different oppressed individuals,” he said of his hosting gig. “Spreading love, knowledge and positivity through radio.”

After graduation, Johnson will embark on a trip to Europe — taking over VCU’s @thisismyreal Instagram account the week of May 16 — before moving to New York City.

Top moment at VCU: I had a few great moments. My top moment is the study abroad trip to Paris that I did with AFAM 492. Not only was it my first time out of the country, it was my first time on a plane. It really taught me that the sky truly is the limit. VCU helped awaken the traveler in me and is why I’m traveling more this summer.

As a part of the black LGBT community, I wanted to be a voice for many different oppressed individuals.

Favorite class or professor: My favorite class was AFAM 492 (African Americans in Paris) with Dr. Vivian Dzokoto. In this class we explored the experiences of African-Americans who moved to Paris to live, work and create. Not only did we study their work and why they moved, but during spring break we took a trip to Paris and retraced their footsteps.

Most important thing learned: I learned that you get out what you put in. There are some students who want the bare minimum and there are others that have internships, are very active on campus and are using all the resources VCU has to offer. Nothing comes easy. If you have a goal or a dream, work hard for it. That’s one of the keys to “making it real.”

 

Yael Tarshish

Yael Tarshish.
Yael Tarshish.

Yael Tarshish learned a lot during her four years of medical school. The most critical information she learned though, occurred outside the medical center campus.

After she graduates from the School of Medicine this week, she will begin an internal medicine residency at Rhode Island Hospital-Brown University. There, she will be part of a special program that focuses on primary care and women’s health. It’s a course of study similar to a cause she championed while working with the International Inner-City Rural Preceptorship program. As part of the program, Tarshish did a clinical rotation at one of VCU’s offsite clinics, Hayes E. Willis Health Center. She worked with Latina mothers whose children were patients at Willis.   

“We found that the majority of women did not have health care for themselves and that there is a high rate of depression in this population. I worked closely with [the center’s] behavioral team, and they provided necessary services to women and families in need,” Tarshish said. “It is our hope that the findings of this work lead to more awareness and resources for this underserved population.”

VCU appreciates nontraditional medical students.

This type of work is why Tarshish picked and praises VCU.

“My pre-med advisor recommended I apply because VCU appreciates nontraditional medical students. In doing more research, I was impressed by the clinical training and the fact that VCU is a public, safety net hospital,” she said.

Top moment at VCU: My top moments at VCU have definitely been on the clinical side of my training. They involved being part of multiple stages in a patient’s journey.

Favorite class or professor: My favorite block of the preclinical years was the marrow section of “Marrow and Movement” led by Susan Roseff, M.D., and John Barrett, M.D. It was the first chance I got to experience the problem-solving behind medicine. They were both brilliant instructors whose passion for teaching was inspiring.

Most important thing learned: Patients are incredibly (if not the most) valuable teachers.

 

Debbi and Jason Price

Debbi and Jason Price.
<br>Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing
Debbi and Jason Price.
Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing

A journey that started nearly three decades ago culminates this month in a double graduation.

Debbi and Jason Price married when they were young college students — in 1992. A little over a year later, their son Ryan, who has autism and suffers from a seizure disorder, was born.

“He required the bulk of our resources: financial, psychological and time,” Debbi said. “We had to leave college and were not able to return until he had grown. He is 23 years old now and doing very well.”

Both Debbi and Jason will receive degrees on May 13 from VCU’s School of Business — Jason, a bachelor’s degree in information systems, and Debbi, a Master of Business Administration.

We are graduating, opening a business and celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary.

The couple will open Twisted Ales, a craft brewery in the Manchester District, over Memorial Day Weekend. Jason is the brew side of the venture, while Debbi handles the business side. Ryan was a major contributing factor in starting a family business, Debbi said. They wanted “to provide Ryan with safe and stable employment.”

“The months of May and June will be incredible,” Debbi said. “We are graduating, opening a business and celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary. That is how the Prices make it real!”

Top moment at VCU (Debbi): Our family loves going to VCU basketball games. The “Price Fam Four” really brings the Havoc dressed in our black and gold, ready to lose our voices in the student section! Some of my favorite moments were the family trips to Brooklyn and Pittsburgh to support the team at the A-10 tournaments, but nothing tops the excitement of the NCAA Final Four run in 2011.  My top moment was celebrating with the mob of students and fellow fans in Monroe Park after they beat Kansas in the Elite Eight game.

Top moment at VCU (Jason): It was most definitely celebrating in Monroe Park with the other students when VCU beat No. 1 Kansas to make the Final Four of the 2011 NCAA Basketball Championship.

Favorite class or professor (Debbi): Last summer I studied abroad in Morocco in the VCU International Consulting Program. I was concerned that at that point in my studies no single discipline stood out as a favorite and something in which I wanted to focus. In the consulting program, students incorporate all of the disciplines toward addressing problems and creating strategies to meet the needs of the client. I had finally found my niche! The skill set I acquired in the program will help me tremendously as I embark on a career as an entrepreneur.

Most importantly, I made four lifelong friends in my fellow graduate students, my “Habibis” — Robert, Tyler, Lloyd and Rohan. We spent nearly every waking hour together, seven days a week, for five weeks, and became a fine-tuned consulting machine.

Favorite class or professor (Jason): My favorite class at VCU was Organizational Communications (MGMT 325) because our class project was a canned food drive where we collected 2,670 pounds of food donations for the Central Virginia Food Bank. My favorite professor is my MGMT 434 Strategic Management professor, Robert Kelley. I really enjoyed his class due to his relevant business experience he shared throughout the course.

Most important thing learned (Debbi): John Worth is going to love me for this answer — the importance of networking! No matter what your major is or where your career path takes you, always network with others as much as possible, especially people outside of your field. It is surprising how often a chance connection has played a major role in someone’s career. Connections lead to jobs, collaboration and innovation, and having that skill will give you an advantage in life.

Most important thing learned (Jason): For me, there isn’t really one most important thing I learned while attending VCU. It was a culmination of all courses, which has aided me throughout my professional career. However, if I had to choose one, it would be perseverance. VCU has taught me I can accomplish my goals simply by staying the course.

 

Indira Miller

Indira Miller.
<br>Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing
Indira Miller.
Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing

Like many high school seniors, Indira Miller carefully researched colleges and made a list of top contenders. Virginia Commonwealth University did not initially make the cut until she attended a campus tour with a friend.

“I immediately fell in love with VCU,” said Miller. “I saw the diverse community and the many resources available to support each student on campus. I could participate in any and every activity that I enjoyed and would find a group of students who were just as passionate. You can honestly reach for the stars and achieve your goals at VCU.”

You can honestly reach for the stars and achieve your goals at VCU.

Miller, who comes from a diverse background, chose nursing as a way to give back to the diverse communities who helped shape who she is today.

“I want to be able to use my nursing skills to educate and provide care to my extended family outside of the United States who have limited access to health care,” she said.

Miller has been very active within the School of Nursing, serving as a nursing student ambassador, member of the Global Advisory Council and ambassador in the Student Council for an Inclusive Environment Ambassador Program, as well as a nursing liaison for the Inter Health Professional Alliance, student ambassador for VCU Pipeline programs and president of the student organization Nursing Students Without Borders of VCU.

After graduation, she will begin her career as a full-time registered nurse on the VCU Health Surgical Trauma Intensive Care Unit.

Top moment at VCU: My top moment at VCU was when I got accepted into nursing school. The hard work that I had done in the first semester of college and the endless nights studying paid off. It was the most exciting and joyous time of my life, which I am sure will be eclipsed when it’s time for graduation.

Favorite class or professor: My favorite class and professor were Nursing of Adults II (NURS 425) and Michelle Orr, M.S.N., R.N., clinical assistant professor in the Department of Adult Health and Nursing Systems. She brought a great energy to the class and taught the complex material in a manner that was simple and understandable to all. Nursing of Adults II allowed me to realize where my passion and skills would best fit and what I could specialize in after graduation.

Most important thing learned: The most important thing I learned while at VCU is that anything is possible when I set my mind to it. I learned that over the past four years, success can’t be measured in one moment in time, one assignment or one project. Success is measured in one’s ability to keep focus on the goal.

 

Kassim Rahawi

Kassim Rahawi.
<br>Photo by Pat Kane, University Public Affairs
Kassim Rahawi.
Photo by Pat Kane, University Public Affairs

Kassim Rahawi, who will graduate Saturday with a doctorate from the School of Pharmacy, will begin a two-year professional development program in July with AbbVie, a Chicago-based biopharmaceutical company. He wants to pursue a career that blends his passion for science and helping others. Rahawi earned an undergraduate degree in biology from James Madison University in 2013, and chose VCU because it had a strong pharmacy school and was reasonably priced.

“I was pre-med for a little while [at JMU] but I thought pharmacy was more focused on the chemistry, and that’s what I was interested in,” he said. “My love for science and chemistry — especially medicinal chemistry — led me to explore how I could impact patients using science. That led me to pharmacy.”

My love for science and chemistry led me to explore how I could impact patients using science.

Top moment at VCU: At the end of our third year, before we went off to rotations, we had this video all the students make called the “phollies.” It makes fun of every student and some of the professors. I remember that was a really great time when we all got together to watch the phollies, even the professors came. It was good to reflect on and laugh at our experiences at VCU.

Favorite class or professor: I really liked Dr. [Jurgen] Venitz. He taught applied pharmacokinetics and I really liked him as a professor because he was very entertaining and humorous throughout his lectures. He always made the lectures very engaging and made it easy to learn the material.

Most important thing learned: I would say communication skills. At VCU I really built my communication skills, whether it be communicating with patients or with professors or other professionals — really being able to present scientific information. I think that’s one thing VCU emphasizes a lot. It was very helpful for me.

 

Tiffany Ahmad

Tiffany Ahmad.
Tiffany Ahmad.

Growing up in Chesterfield County, Tiffany Ahmad always wanted to be a teacher, but it wasn’t until she was an undergraduate student at Radford University that she discovered her love for special education thanks to a job working with a transition program in a nearby school system.

After switching her major to special education and graduating, Ahmad took a job in Hanover County teaching children aged 2 to 5, most of whom have an autism diagnosis or a developmental delay.

They’re always on the go, and they’re always teaching you as much as you’re teaching them.

“When I got the job at Hanover, they introduced me to early childhood — and early childhood felt like home,” she said. “I love working with the little ones, seeing their development … they’re always on the go, and they’re always teaching you as much as you’re teaching them.”

In 2014, Ahmad decided to seek a master’s degree in special education with a concentration in early childhood from the VCU School of Education to gain extra experience and become certified in early childhood intervention.

During the program, Ahmad continued to teach while also taking part in a grant-funded project at VCU that trains early childhood special educators in evidence-based practices that improve learning and developmental outcomes for infants, toddlers and preschool-age children from high-need communities, including children with disabilities.

“It was really interesting to go through the program while also teaching. I could apply everything that I was learning in the classroom and also share experiences with my peers at VCU,” she said.

Yaoying Xu, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Counseling and Special Education, worked closely with Ahmad. Ahmad, she said, she “is passionate but reasonable; organized but flexible; talented but social. These combined qualities has made Tiffany a unique and outstanding professional who has made and will continue to make valuable contributions to the field of early childhood special education.”

Top moment at VCU: In my program, I had the opportunity to go to a statewide conference [in 2015] and present with some of my professors and my classmates. I would say that was one of my big moments to remember from my time at VCU. We presented on [the educational framework called] universal design for learning — and how you can use it to teach all students and all learners, and how it’s easy to do so, even if you don’t have a ton of resources.

Favorite professor at VCU: The one professor who stands out the most was Yaoying Xu. She just knows her stuff, she was supportive, but always pushed me at the same time.

Most important thing learned: The most important takeaway from VCU is to be more reflective about my learning and my teaching.

 

Tiffani Louque

Tiffani Louque, at right.
<br>Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing
Tiffani Louque, at right.
Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing

When she graduates this month with a bachelor’s degree from the College of Humanities and Sciences, Tiffani Louque will transition back into Army service. Her goal is to become a doctor.

“Coming out of high school, I knew I wanted to be in the medical field. I went into the Army and focused on medicine,” she said.

After training at Walter Reed Medical Center, Louque served in Texas and Vincenzo, Italy, before moving to Virginia to be close to family. At VCU, she entered the ROTC program and also found friendly faces in the Military Student Services Office. During a meeting with her advisor, she sought a class that would get her outdoors. Testing Ecological Paradigms in Rock Pools with professor James Vonesh, Ph.D., was just the ticket.

To be granted the opportunity to spark interest in potential future scientists was more than gratifying.

“It counted as my capstone, and as a lab as well. We spent a majority of our time out there on Belle Isle on the James River,” Louque said. “We got to turn around and teach it to high schoolers, as well.”

The ROTC student is earning her bachelor’s in biology with a minor in chemistry. Two days after commencement, Louque will be commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the Army and request a medical school program.

Top moment at VCU: I would say my top moment at VCU was when classmates and I were granted the ability to visit a nearby high school and teach students about a few James River invertebrate species we as students collected and studied as part of our class. To be granted the opportunity to spark interest in potential future scientists was more than gratifying and further engendered a sense of pride and fulfillment in myself in being a VCU Ram. 

Favorite class or professor: My favorite class at VCU was Invertebrate Zoology. I enjoyed this class the most because I enjoy scuba diving as a hobby. A good majority of the organisms I see when scuba diving happen to be invertebrate species. I loved learning more about the things that I saw when scuba diving. 

My favorite professor was Everett Worthington, Ph.D. He was my professor for PSYC 101. I enjoyed him the most because he seemed to truly love what he was teaching. His research on forgiveness and self-acceptance genuinely intrigued me to further look inward and see how I could potentially better myself as a student and also as a human being overall. 

Most important thing learned: The most important thing I learned at VCU was to be patient and relax. That might seem cliché, however, I started at VCU after recently coming off of active duty serving in the United States Army. My lifestyle was organized, fast-paced and hard-charged every day. Upon becoming a college student at VCU I increasingly had more free time on my hands, comparatively speaking, and had to learn what to do with myself. I was faced with the new challenge of being around students that were much younger than me and learned to be more patient in handling those situations. VCU Military Student Services made for a safe haven for students in similar situations and offered their help in any way possible, especially in the re-acclimation processes back into civilian life. 

 

Magdalena Llinás

Magdalena Llinás.
Magdalena Llinás.

Community service and outreach is just as high a priority as scholarship to Magdalena Llinás, who will graduate Saturday from VCU’s dental hygiene program in the School of Dentistry. Llinás said the Department of Oral Health Promotion and Community Outreach’s emphasis on community service was a prime motivator for choosing VCU.

“You can even tell by the name of the department that service is an important component to the program. I knew it was the place for me,” she said. “I logged hundreds of hours as a volunteer and had the option to not only grow my skills but more importantly to be able to invest in the community.”

During her time at VCU, Llinás served as a Mission of Mercy dental hygiene project coordinator from June 2016 to April 2017. Mission of Mercy is an initiative of the Virginia Dental Association Foundation that provides free dental care across Virginia. In November 2016 Llinás participated in one of the three weeks of VCU’s Jamaica Project, which provides free dental care to patients in Jamaica.

Top moment at VCU: My week in Jamaica with the VCU School of Dentistry Jamaica Project was the highlight of my time at VCU. It was incredibly gratifying to be able to help patients with no access to care instead of turning them away due to lack of funding or access.

I’ve learned the most important thing is taking the time to listen to the needs of my patients.

Favorite class or professor: My favorite professor is Ms. Christy Casella. She invested her time and energy to understand what motivates and inspires her students, both as a group and as individuals. Her passion for the profession and dedication to her students has had a positive influence on my development as a clinician.

Most important thing learned: Throughout my time in the program, I’ve learned the most important thing is taking the time to listen to the needs of my patients. As a dental hygienist, I may work with a patient once or over a lifetime; it is my duty and privilege to ensure that every patient leaves my chair with a better understanding of disease prevention, their oral health status and how it relates to their overall health and proper nutrition for the oral cavity. It is important to encourage and enable my patients to feel comfortable advocating for their own health care because patient self-advocacy is a critical factor in effective preventative health care.

 

Brandon Griffin

Brandon Griffin.
Brandon Griffin.

Brandon Griffin, who is poised to receive a doctorate in counseling psychology from the College of Humanities and Sciences, is a clinical and translational researcher who specializes in positive health psychology.

Under the mentorship of Everett Worthington, Ph.D., a professor of counseling psychology, Griffin has focused his research on how people forgive themselves in the aftermath of violating their values.

Currently a psychology resident at the Veterans Affairs Salt Lake City Health Care System, he provides psychotherapy to combat veterans seeking treatment for PTSD. He soon will begin working at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where he will develop a new psychological intervention for PTSD stemming from killing in war.

While studying at VCU, Griffin was active in serving the Richmond community. After reading a 2015 VCU study showing that people living in his East End neighborhood had a life expectancy of 20 years less than other parts of the city — for possible reasons such as lack of access to health care, availability of food and physical activities, and safe housing — Griffin was inspired to sponsor and coach a soccer team for the neighborhood community center.

“Our team did not solve all of the problems that my players encountered; however, it provided a space where the players developed the interpersonal skills necessary to work as a team, built confidence in themselves by trying a new sport, and were cheered on and even provided with after game lunches by many of my colleagues in the VCU Department of Psychology,” he said.

We supported and challenged each other all the way through. 

Top moment at VCU: When starting at VCU, I never knew how important my fellow graduate students would be to my education. We supported and challenged each other all the way through. Fortunately, with people like those in the VCU Department of Psychology around you, the top moments don’t stop coming.

Favorite class or professor: What an opportunity it has been to work with [Everett Worthington]. As I reflect on the fun and challenging experiences we’ve shared over the last few years, it is the time we spent on our walks that most strongly stands out in my mind. I’m sure each one of Ev’s students has stories from their weekly meetings with him. When we met, Ev and I sometimes talked shop, other times we talked life and still other times we just shared funny stories. But we held this meeting on the move as often as we could. We walked a 3-mile loop from our office on the corner of Franklin and Laurel streets, south toward the James River, through Hollywood cemetery and back to VCU campus.

The first time we ever did this, I stepped into Ev’s office for our weekly meeting and he asked me, “Do you want to walk?” This was a big day for me. I was expecting to see my first patient ever that afternoon, so I was wearing a nice shirt and tie. But, as an outdoorsman, I couldn’t turn down Ev’s invitation. After keeping a swift pace for about a mile and a half, Ev stopped at a bench in the shade. I sat down assuming that we would break to catch our breath. To my surprise, Ev goes around to the back of the bench and starts doing pushups. I’m thinking, Who is this guy? Once he finished his 25 repetitions, we set off back for VCU. I returned to my office that day a sweaty wreck with 30 minutes to spare before my patient was to arrive. So I shut the office door, closed the office blinds and hung up all my clothes on a makeshift clothes line to dry.

I don’t know what I was expecting when I moved to Richmond for graduate school, but I’m sure I didn’t think I’d be answering emails in my office without a shirt on waiting for my patient to arrive. But you know, for years Ev has surprised me with challenges, support and wisdom that I would have never expected.

Most important thing learned: Ev always tells this story of sitting next to an international businessman on a flight and asking him how he makes good business decisions. According to Ev, the man replied, “I always ask if my company will be No. 1 or No. 2 in the market. If not, then it’s not worth it.” Ev loves to illustrate that point by asking what is the No. 1 (Coke) and No. 2 (Pepsi) soft drinks in the world. The punch line is that nobody knows what the No. 3 soft drink is. The most important thing I learned is that the best education will always be earned in the trenches when we take the risk of doing something great.

 

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