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Service minds

Graduates leave legacy of community efforts

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In August of 2009, Mohamed Shaaban stood on the walkway at Monroe Park in a crowd of fellow VCU freshmen, feeling lost and alone. Welcome Week was in full festive swing, but Shaaban didn’t know anyone and felt wary of his rambunctious fellow students, who appeared energized and confident in their new surroundings. They seemed to somehow know each other already. Shaaban had only been living in the United States for a couple of months, his family having emigrated from Egypt in the summer, and he had yet to make any friends in his new country.

That was fine, Shaaban resolved. He would be joining the pre-med track at VCU, determined to follow in both of his parents’ footsteps and become a doctor. He’d be busy enough without a social life. He had much to accomplish without a bunch of distractions.

Four years later, as Shaaban prepares to graduate from VCU, he remembers that brief episode in his life with amused wonder. The urge to go it alone faded fast. Within hours of that low point, Shaaban began to make new friends, and his time at VCU ultimately will be marked both by his academic success and his engagement with his fellow students and the larger community. His legacy includes serving as one of the founders of two vibrant organizations with promising futures – Emerging Health Care Leaders, an organization for undergraduate students with pre-health majors, and United 2 Heal, which gathers surplus medical supplies from area medical organizations and ships them to countries where they are needed.

Isaac Rodriguez speaks at an event for the Virginia Hispanic Youth Institute, a project of the Hispanic College Fund. Rodriguez helped form a chapter of the Hispanic College Fund at VCU. He said the organization works to develop “the next generation of Latino professionals.”
Isaac Rodriguez speaks at an event for the Virginia Hispanic Youth Institute, a project of the Hispanic College Fund. Rodriguez helped form a chapter of the Hispanic College Fund at VCU. He said the organization works to develop “the next generation of Latino professionals.”

“I’m so grateful that things turned out the way that they did,” Shaaban said.

Shaaban is one of the many examples of community-minded students set to graduate from VCU this week. They resisted the temptation to make college a solo expedition, instead finding ways to connect with others through service along the route. The university’s focus on engagement, such as through its Division of Community Engagement, produces what amounts to a force of young volunteers, committed and eager to contribute in communities near and far – from next door to the other side of the world.

Some students, such as Shaaban, create their own avenues to service, tailoring new programs to their vision. Others work within the structure of existing organizations, strengthening them with enthusiasm and fresh ideas.

Isaac Rodriguez, who will receive his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering this week, says VCU student inclination toward service stems in part from a culture that elevates its importance. Rodriguez helped found the Hispanic College Fund chapter at VCU, which provides educational, scholarship and mentoring programs to talented Latino students. He also has mentored at-risk Latino students in South Richmond through a community program; helped found the American Society of Artificial Internal Organs; and served as president of the VCU Alumni Association’s Students Today Alumni Tomorrow program. VCU, he said, “rewards and praises” students who demonstrate a willingness to work on community service efforts.

“VCU surrounds itself with this great environment that is very collaborative,” Rodriguez said. “It’s very easy to get involved. It’s one thing that I really love about VCU. Everyone is supportive, and it’s not just on campus but in the rest of the city of Richmond.”

Nikki Fernandes, who will receive a bachelor’s degree in English this week, found that a VCU community engagement program made her feel closer to her university. Fernandes has volunteered at Church Hill Activities and Tutoring, a program for at-risk youth, and taught at the Richmond City Jail. She became involved in the latter effort through a service-learning course taught by David Coogan, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of English.

Coogan’s project, Open Minds, a collaboration between VCU and the Richmond City Sheriff’s Office, offers dual enrollment classes held at the Richmond City Jail . Fernandes said she was thrilled with the way the project connected the teaching of literature with community outreach, matching her passionate academic interest with her desire to help others. And she also was excited to be part of an effort that sought to “get students to engage with their city.” She embraced the program so much that following the course she interned with Open Minds, providing instruction to prisoners.

Nikki Fernandes believes literature’s capability “to zoom in and zoom out” on characters – to understand them as individuals and as part of the context of a larger society – broadens and deepens readers' understanding of the world around them. And writing is a way “to put all that clutter in your head on paper and to sort through it. It’s an amazing tool that we have. It allows you to confront things that you wouldn't otherwise be able to confront.”
Nikki Fernandes believes literature’s capability “to zoom in and zoom out” on characters – to understand them as individuals and as part of the context of a larger society – broadens and deepens readers' understanding of the world around them. And writing is a way “to put all that clutter in your head on paper and to sort through it. It’s an amazing tool that we have. It allows you to confront things that you wouldn't otherwise be able to confront.”

“It increased my appreciation for this school,” Fernandes said.

Coogan said Fernandes represents the ideal type of VCU student – intelligent, hard-working and curious about her fellow students and the world around her.  

“She takes seriously her opportunity to do more and to be more,” Coogan said.

Fernandes hopes to eventually attend graduate school, but first she will intern at Church Hill Academy, a private high school connected to the Church Hill Activities and Tutoring program, where she initially volunteered through her church. She said she’s grown too attached to the kids and the Church Hill area to leave them yet.

Through her work with Open Minds, Fernandes met prisoners who have struggled after lacking guidance and opportunities when they were younger. She sees a chance to help prevent similar future difficulties for the kids she tutors and teaches.

“The people I’ve met, and the community I’ve become involved in, are worth fighting for,” Fernandes said.

Shaaban and Rodriguez express similar attachments to the projects and people they’ve devoted time to aiding. They also note how every project is a group project, involving the efforts of many. “You can’t do any of this by yourself,” Rodriguez said. “You need lots of people to make it work.”

For instance, Emerging Healthcare Leaders, one of the projects that Shaaban helped found, has received contributions from hundreds of undergraduate students, including those who have participated in local health education efforts at area schools and community events. And United 2 Heal counts not just students but faculty members among its contributors.

Stephanie Goldberg, M.D., an assistant professor of surgery who has worked with the organization, said the commitment students have made to United 2 Heal has been astounding. The project requires a great deal of its volunteers, who develop partnerships to acquire the supplies, sort the supplies, find storage, arrange the shipments and work with organizations on the receiving end.

Goldberg said the organization, despite the youth of its leaders, has demonstrated maturity and savvy from the outset. Shaaban has been crucial to that.

“There’s something about this kid,” Goldberg said. “You meet him and you just want to help him.”

Students such as Shaaban, Rodriguez and Fernandes do not speak about community service as a sacrifice but as an opportunity, and they’ve proved that ambitious service efforts do not deter academic performance. Shaaban will attend the VCU School of Medicine in the fall. Rodriguez, who is a Gates Millenium Scholar and the author of research manuscripts, conference posters and book chapters, will begin a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond. And Fernandes this week will receive the Philip B. Meggs Memorial Award, a $2,000 prize bestowed on a top English department student every four years.

Rodriguez said he urges those preparing to attend college, including those he has mentored, to make community service and involvement in campus activities a central part of their college experiences. Not only will they create memories that last, they will find new ways to grow. For instance, when a potential employer asks about his leadership background, Rodriguez has numerous cases to cite from his various community service efforts.

“I feel like if you just go to college, get your degree and leave, there’s so much experience that you’re missing out on,” Rodriguez said. “If you get involved, you learn a lot that you can’t learn from a textbook.”

Shaaban recognizes how much he would have missed if he’d stuck solely to individual pursuits. For instance, he’ll never forget the “intense” moment he watched a video screen as a delivery truck arrived at a refugee camp thousands of miles away with medical supplies he had helped procure and ship.

“The coolest thing about my college experience is that I didn’t just look at it academically,” Shaaban said. “If I had, so much would have been lost.”

For more information about community service projects, including a regular schedule of volunteer opportunities,
visit the VCU Division of Community Engagement at www.community.vcu.edu/

 

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Mohamed Shaaban takes a break from loading medical supplies bound for a hospital in Egypt. The hospital treats children with cancer whose parents cannot afford to pay for treatment. Shaaban was working with United 2 Heal, an organization he helped launch.
Mohamed Shaaban takes a break from loading medical supplies bound for a hospital in Egypt. The hospital treats children with cancer whose parents cannot afford to pay for treatment. Shaaban was working with United 2 Heal, an organization he helped launch.