April 28, 2022
What’s the best class you’ve ever taken?
Students talk to VCU News about classes (and professors) that had an enormous impact on them.
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Sometimes it’s the topic. Sometimes it’s the professor. Often it’s a combination of both. But you know when you’re taking a great class. Whether you learn something new or learn new ways to think, the class leaves you changed. It may help you decide what you want to do for a career, or it may make you change your major or pick up a minor. It may connect you with a lifelong mentor or an internship opportunity that proves incredibly valuable.
Whatever it is that makes it so special, that class stays with you long after the semester ends, sometimes for the rest of your life. VCU News talked with four students about that one class that moved them in ways both big and small toward the person they are today.
‘I made so many amazing connections’
Student: Anna Mitchell
Course name: SPARC: Live Art
Professor: Christine Hoffman
No matter how tired or busy she was, there was one class music education major and Honors College student Anna Mitchell looked forward to every week during the 2020-21 academic year: SPARC: Live Art. Part internship, part service-learning, students enroll in the class for both fall and spring and serve as teaching artists for the Live Art program at the School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community from October through June.
“It’s such an amazing experience for you and for the students,” Mitchell said. “I made so many amazing connections with the students and my teaching team and also the other interns.”
SPARC’s Live Art program offers inclusive performing arts classes to youths aged 10-18 both with and without disabilities. VCU students help teach a weekly arts class in-person at SPARC and attend a weekly seminar (which drops to monthly while Live Art is in session) with professor Christine Hoffman to discuss their work at SPARC and hear from guest speakers.
“As someone who is neurodivergent, being a part of SPARC and seeing this place that’s so accessible for all types of students is really nice because not a lot of students have access to that through their normal school day. … It’s just something I’m really passionate about as a future music educator.”
The Live Art classes are small, with about 10 students each, and cover topics such as dancing and puppetry (Mitchell helps teach a songwriting class). Some of the students have disabilities while others do not.
“It’s so good seeing these students in a place where they can have safe access to everything,” Mitchell said. “It’s all different kinds of students, no two students are the same and they’re all really accommodating of each other. … I love working with kids, and this just confirmed that I love working with kids.”
Mitchell, who plays violin and viola, also appreciates the opportunities she’s had to learn from educators and other artists outside her discipline.
“We’re working with industry professionals both in the disability education and performing arts world so I’m working with tons of cool people and as a musician that’s pretty cool. … We all get to come together to help with this and it’s so fun.”
The VCU class was originally only open to music education majors, but Mitchell, who has also worked at SPARC over the summer and is currently a teaching assistant for the VCU class, has helped ensure it’s open to all majors. She encourages anyone with an interest in pedagogy and performing arts to give it a try.
“You don’t have to have a great deal of expertise; you just have to be passionate about it.”
Mitchell’s passion for SPARC is undeniable; her face lights up when she talks about her involvement there.
“It’s such an awesome experience. … Meeting these amazing kids, getting to improve my skills as a future teacher. I’m so grateful that I got to explore something that I’m passionate about before I’d even made it halfway through my degree. … I really felt a boost in myself confidence-wise.”
‘It’s where I learned to tie a tie.’
Student: Stephen Ogarekpe
Course name: Dynamic Principles for Professional Development for Men of Color
Professor: Carlton Goode
Stephen Ogarekpe made a decision when registering for his first semester that would prove crucial to the rest of his time at VCU: He chose to take Carlton Goode’s “Dynamic Principles for Professional Development for Men of Color.” The course is intended to introduce students to college life and connect them to resources at VCU and beyond to help them succeed.
“Because it was my first semester here at VCU, I did not know this campus at all,” said Ogarekpe, a senior majoring in biology on a pre-dentistry track and minoring in chemistry. “I did not know how to navigate, I didn’t know where things were, I didn’t know who to talk to. This class exposed me to the Writing Center, the Campus Learning Center, the gym. All these different places I had heard of in freshman orientation but I never went inside the building, or asked for their services or resources.”
The class also spends time researching and applying for internship opportunities, and learning how to prepare for interviews.
“That was the most applicable class I’ve ever had at VCU. It taught me how to dress for an interview, it taught me how to tie a tie, it taught me how to shine my shoes,” Ogarekpe said. “This class taught me dining etiquette. … It taught me what an elevator speech is, how to stand out in applications. These are things that I didn’t necessarily learn at home, but coming here I was able to be exposed to it.”
The internship preparation paid off: That semester Ogarekpe applied and was accepted to the Summer Health Professions Education Program and spent six weeks at Columbia University taking classes and getting hands-on dentistry experience the summer before his sophomore year.
While what they learned in class was helpful, Ogarekpe felt the connections he made with Goode and his classmates were equally important. They didn’t just sit in a classroom — they went out and explored places on campus and spent time at the gym playing dodgeball and tug-of-war.
“I found a sense of community there. It was one of the first classes where I looked to my left, I looked to my right, and everybody looked like me. I’m a bio major so a lot of my classes are in [the Trani Building] and they are like 300-plus [students], but Mr. Goode’s class was very intimate. There was 20-25 of us in there.”
Those bonds have stuck with Ogarekpe, who is a big believer in giving back. He’s involved with an affiliated student organization called Developing Men of Color and returns to Goode’s class to help out with tie-tying demonstrations or activities at the gym.
“It’s very hard for [Black men] to stay in university. But if you find a community or a group of people who are driven like you… it’s easier to stick to the fight and graduate. And that’s the goal, right? We come here to get our degrees and graduate. … I know that’s what [Goode’s class] did for me.”
Ogarekpe graduates in a few short weeks and this summer will move to Connecticut to attend the University of Connecticut’s School of Dental Medicine on a full scholarship.
‘I think urban sociology really made me a better human.’
Student: Felicia Ficken
Course name: Urban Sociology
Professor: Laura Boutwell, Ph.D.
As a nontraditional student who works full-time, Felicia Ficken always seeks out online classes, so it was an easy choice to sign up for Boutwell’s online asynchronous Urban Sociology course to fulfill some of the credits she needed to fulfill her sociology major.
“It was one of the first sociology classes I took,” she said. “I was like, ‘This is fascinating. I love everything about this.’ It made me really want to pursue community development, policymaking, something that gives back to the community in a way that I would be proud of.”
The class explores how people use a city and what makes it good or bad, paying close attention to details such as the physical layout, local laws and environmental factors. Boutwell uses cities such as Richmond, Detroit and New Orleans as case studies.
“Dr. Boutwell takes a very social justice, racially informed approach, so we talked a lot about systemic racism and the barriers that really were a huge detriment on this very microscopic level that a lot of people don’t realize.”
Boutwell’s class formatting, assignments and helpful feedback made the course a great experience for Ficken.
“She is the best professor that I’ve ever had. Her assignments were always super fun and informative. Everything that I wrote about in her class, I still have it saved because I’m really proud of it and I’m really proud of what I learned. I retained so much from that class.”
And particularly during the pandemic, her flexibility and concern for her students did not go unnoticed by Ficken, who needed extra time on a couple of assignments.
“She would always check in with us, make sure we were mentally and emotionally doing OK and she was always really flexible. … [When I needed an extension], she would always follow up with me a week later, like ‘How are you doing? Are you OK? Did this situation get resolved? Do you need to talk about it? I’m here if you ever need me.’ She was that person where you feel like you can always talk to [them] about anything.”
Ficken recommends the class to anyone, no matter their background or discipline.
“You will be informed of so much,” she said. “Especially when it comes to injustices that are happening right around you and you can see the effects that it’s having. … I think we as humans tend to just live our lives and we don’t always think about these macro-level forces that make your life the way it is. I think so many people would be so much more understanding and kind to one another if they really truly understood what was going on at microscopic levels that most people don’t even realize. I think urban sociology really made a better human.”
“I just felt really seen and heard in that class.”
Student: Iyana Graham
Course name: Art Education With Disabled Learners
Professor: Jenna Gabriel
For art education majors like Iyana Graham, Art Education With Disabled Learners is a required class, but she wishes it was a requirement for all students.
“It will change your outlook on how you operate in society,” she said.
The class looks at the wide range of disabilities students may have, current educational policies and instructional frameworks and explores ways to make both the physical spaces, such as classrooms, and the lessons themselves more accessible to everyone.
“I just fell in love with the class because throughout my k-12 education, not many things were really accessible for students, even down to having guidance on what exactly to do in class or changing the lighting or seats in class,” Graham said. “We never really had stuff to make things comfortable for students to learn.”
Graham and her classmates learned about how seemingly small details such as lighting can make a big difference for someone with a disability.
“Usually in most schools they would just have one bright default light, but that can cause headaches or trigger someone’s disability or it can just have a gloomy feel and it can be hard to operate in,” she said. “So we looked at examples of how we could use natural lighting instead. … We also learned about these things that you can hang from ceilings to make the light softer.”
The class, which met in hybrid format during the fall 2021 semester, mostly dealt with elementary-level art education but Graham said their learnings could be applied to any level.
“[Professor Gabriel] made the transitions between online and in-class really, really smooth. … Mostly we focused on painting and drawing. We didn’t actually do painting and drawing projects, but we learned how we can make those types of projects more accessible for everyone in every way possible.”
For Graham, her professor’s teaching style and the way she showed that she cared for students made the class even better.
“While the lessons were as helpful as they were, our professor was also extremely helpful and understanding throughout the entire course. While we were learning [about] how to make lessons accessible, she also made that class accessible for all of us. I just felt really seen and heard in that class.”
Editor’s note Course registration for fall 2022 is currently open for all students. Learn more at rar.vcu.edu/registration.
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