Sept. 8, 2021
How VCU clubs and organizations foster belonging and growth
These students’ involvement in clubs and organizations has made their university experience more relevant and meaningful.
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Virginia Commonwealth University students’ involvement in clubs and organizations helps them connect to the university and others. There are both virtual and in-person ways to join groups to make friends, get a sample of potential careers, help others, explore Richmond, network, create art and more.
But if you don’t see what you’re interested in at first, take inspiration from these students. Some even created their own groups at VCU that spoke to their interests.
Aspiring toward health care together
As a first-year student, Jordan Matamoro-Mejias joined Black Men in Medicine to connect with mentors in a field he aspired to but in which he had no personal or professional connections. “Coming in, I didn't really see too many other Black males going through the same process of becoming a physician like me. So a group with dozens of other Black males was extremely eye-opening and encouraging,” said Matamoro-Mejias, a senior psychology major in the College of Humanities and Sciences and now president of Black Men in Medicine.
“It’s a brotherhood and key to my feeling like I have a sense of belonging at the university,” Matamoro-Mejias said. “Coming to a large university like VCU, it’s imperative for students to find others with similar goals and ambitions. I was fortunate to find that in Black Men in Medicine. They served as a support system because there were members who were upperclassmen and even medical students who had successfully navigated their pre-medical journey. There were also other underclassmen who have navigated this journey with me. Our goal is to continue this cycle knowing that we will go on to help thousands of patients.”
As Matamoro-Mejias connected with peers, mentors, and his adviser, he realized other pre-health students faced the same challenges of finding the right resources and utilizing them. So he joined with those students to form VCU P.R.I.M.E., which stands for Pre-health and Related Interest Mentoring Experiences, focusing on supporting underrepresented students.
“We built it from the ground up,” said Matamoro-Mejias. “A year later, now with over 500 students, we are excited for what is in store for us. We have a group chat with hundreds of students who are always willing to share their resources, opportunities, and experiences with others. Being that the pre-health field is so competitive, this has been one of the most beautiful parts of my undergraduate career. Our goal is to connect students with as many resources as possible to help them achieve their goal of becoming healthcare professionals, so when members tell me they are now in leadership roles of organizations that we led them to, it assures me we are moving in the right direction.
VCU P.R.I.M.E. aims to change the competitive nature of pre-health fields in a friendly club setting and lead pre-health students toward medically oriented student organizations to help them find their place at VCU as he did.
Helping in the community while connecting
Kameron Jones and Grace Smith didn’t set foot on campus last year as first-year students because they were taking all of their classes online. But that didn’t stop them from getting involved in student groups.
Both are in the Honors College and majoring in biology, and they act as co-executive chairs of community outreach for V Cubed (formerly Virtual Volunteers at VCU), which was created by VCU students studying remotely last year. An announcement looking for student executive board members caught the attention of Jones and Smith and they joined to keep active, help others in need and connect.
“When I first started doing Zoom meetings with community organizations, people were so eager to connect and make sure that VCU students had opportunities [to volunteer],” Jones said. “I learned how integrated VCU is with Richmond's community.”
During the pandemic, Jones and Smith felt their contributions made an impact when people were feeling most alone and disconnected, while providing them with a network of friends at VCU.
“I'm able to learn leadership techniques from my peers,” Smith said. “That has been incredibly gratifying and beneficial for my development as a student, but also as a leader. “I'm in college and people start treating me with higher regard. That was really eye-opening, inspiring and definitely empowering. I feel like I can talk or send emails to anyone, and the worst someone can say to you is no. That has been wonderful for my self-esteem.”
Projecting onto the big screen
As a student in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, Samantha Ratliff wanted more video production opportunities. The senior creative advertising major did not want to transfer into cinema because of scheduling issues, so last year she and some friends created New Surge Productions Productions, a student film company.
Ratliff and her team created three films — a thriller, a comedy and a drama — screening them in a student film festival they created that was sponsored by the Arts & Letters Creative Co. and the Virginia Film Office.
“It was kind of crazy because this is the first time any of us had ever done this,” Ratliff said. “We had to build everything ourselves, reaching out to mentors in the industry, trying to figure out what we were doing. We ended up creating several GoFundMe campaigns and getting all of our members to push those out and using those funds as scholarships for the winners of our student film festival as a way for them to get exposure, especially during COVID when a lot of internships were canceled.”
Winners also got interviews with production companies and advertising agencies.
“I thought I was the only one who wanted this organization to exist,” Ratliff said. “This is what I was looking for and I couldn't find it. I thought maybe I'm the only one that wants this [and] that's why it doesn't exist. That was so false. So many people wanted it. We needed each other to encourage us to say, ‘Yeah, this is a valid thing that we want to do.’ It's really hard to do by yourself, but when you have a group of 30 people rallying together it's very possible.”
Creating New Surge Productions and rallying a group around filmmaking helped Ratliff feel more connected to VCU, especially last year.
“What New Surge did was it gave me a reason to reach out to people,” said Ratliff, who feels proud that she created an opportunity instead of complaining about the absence of one. “I wouldn't have met so many of the people I worked with on the films if I hadn't done this. It was really exciting.”
Ratliff encourages other students to make their own opportunities at VCU. New Surge Productions is accepting applications until Sept. 17.
“You're surrounded by thousands of young people that want to do creative, fun things and this is the most free that you'll be in your life before you get locked down to a job,” she said. “So there's really endless opportunities here.”
Addressing food insecurity
Srinidhi Nemani, a junior bioinformatics major, got involved with Ram Pantry her freshman year because she had an older friend who was helping out there. Nemani’s position as volunteer coordinator suits her preference to work behind the scenes at the food pantry, which exists to fight food insecurity on campus and provide healthy options for students who might be struggling. The pantry runs entirely on donated goods and funds that students like Nemani bring in through partnerships with supermarkets.
“Academically, I realized the importance of the Ram Pantry, the fact that there are so many people out there who are in need of food and that Richmond is actually a very food insecure place,” Nemani said.
Chanel Vuong is also involved with the pantry, as outreach coordinator. The biology and chemistry double major and Honors College member said being involved with Ram Pantry gave her knowledge of social problems beyond what she was reading in textbooks.
“In sociology there was a very brief discussion on food deserts and it did seem to bring the issue to light,” Vuong said. “When I'm reading a textbook, there's a very short tidbit on this massive issue that we have. When you're reading it in the paragraph, it feels like something that you just jot down in your notes and move on. But when you realize that every single paragraph within your textbook comes from a much larger issue that we're facing systematically, it brings the book to life more.”
To become a writing consultant in the Writing Center, Shawn Williams, a junior English and African American studies double major, had to take the writing process and practice class. He said it helped him find his passion and confidence in his own personal and academic writing as well as acquire skills to help other students. The position also brings him closer to his professional aspirations to be published and work in education.
“I feel like being in the Writing Center has also helped me learn that I like helping people learn,” he said.
Williams has also developed friendships within his cohort, which has “a nice camaraderie there,” he said. “It's a very tight-knit community.”
Highlighting health issues
Amala Thomas, a senior and student president of the Peer Health Educators, coordinates a group of students who work with staff at The Well to educate people about mental health, sexual health, alcohol and other drugs and physical health topics.
“Being a social work major, I was able to apply my knowledge to what I've learned as a [Peer Health Educator],” Thomas said. “I understand that people have boundaries. Students, if they come up to the Health Hut, they may not want to speak on certain topics. They may just be looking and browsing. That’s something I learned as a social work major, that people will want to talk to you when they're ready. It's best to just let them come around rather than try and force conversation out of them.”
The job also connects to her work as a resident assistant.
“A lot of the resources that I learned about as a [Peer Health Educator], I'm able to let my residents know about, in a nonjudgmental way, like the condoms concierge program,” Thomas said. “I was really scared and nervous in the beginning. … I didn't really know anyone else going in, but I've made so many friends and am so comfortable. It's been an amazing experience.”
Students in the National Guard and ROTC at VCU believe the military would be a good fit to help them reach their goals.
“Students that take ROTC become very close, going through a lot of different courses, planning, exercises and build camaraderie,” said Staff Sgt. David Sanford. “Everybody's interested in the military. You’re networking and joining an organization that has a bigger goal in mind.”
Students in ROTC focus on overall self-improvement with a “designed lifestyle” focused on developing leadership skills.
“You do get very close with your classmates. You help each other out and hold each other accountable,” Sanford said. “Teamwork is a big focus of the military.”
Helping student leaders
As a commuting student, Behroz Taib was looking for an on-campus job that would help him connect with others. As a leadership involvement ambassador at The Underground: Student Organizations Resource Center, he works with the hundreds of VCU student organizations.
“We help out so student orgs have a certain number of utilities and supplies,” Taib said. “They can do printing or button making in The Underground. We keep track of that, help them with financial or general questions like how an organization can get funding, and show them how to submit forms and requests. We also do one-on-one consultations with students who are unsure about what organization to join or how to get involved. We help them find their fit.”
Taib said the position of leadership involvement ambassador was a good fit for him and helped him get more involved on campus.
“The students that are involved in organizations have a lot more enjoyable experience at the university,” Taib said. “They're better in all aspects of their studies. It teaches a good amount of responsibility. It just helps to be in a student org.”
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