A crowd of people walking down a street. In the front of the crowd some of the people are holding instruments.

Unlimited spirit

More than 5,000 new Rams arrived on campus last month. We talked to eight of them to get their unique perspectives and plans for their time at VCU.

Last month new students marched down the streets during Spirit Walk, an annual tradition at the start of the school year. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)
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As with any university, the student body at Virginia Commonwealth University is in constant flux. Every December and May, thousands of students earn their degrees and say their goodbyes. But come August, a fresh wave of students appears on the scene, filling up the classrooms, streets and local restaurants.

The bulk (about 4,200) of the more than 5,000 new faces on campus this year are first-years. Eleven percent of them are from out-of-state. Three in five are minority students, and 35% are first-generation college students, the largest number in VCU history. Along with the first-years, there are new students who are transfers, graduate students and professional students. There are adult learners, international students, students who grew up down the street and students who grew up on the other side of the globe.

We talked to eight of them to get a sense of this newest batch of Rams, what they bring with them to VCU and what they hope to gain while they are here. No two are alike but each one adds to the vibrant, welcoming community that makes up VCU.

Murell Sanders

Memphis, Tennessee; College of Engineering

A portrait of Murell Sanders standing in front of a sign that says \"V C U\"
Murell Sanders. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

First-year Murell Sanders’ interest in VCU piqued when she toured the university’s campus. She liked the inclusive and diverse environment.

“Another major factor was that VCU was affordable and had a specific chemical engineering department, which is hard to find in a college sometimes,” Sanders said. “That was probably the main reason I chose VCU. Also, I wanted new life experiences outside of where I grew up in Memphis, where I have lived my entire life.”

Sanders got interested in chemical engineering her junior year of high school. Her chemistry teacher helped her fall in love with the subject, she said.

“My teacher was amazing,” she said. “I also enjoyed high school calculus very much, which inspired a love for math. I did research on how to combine the two subjects and chemical engineering stuck out to me as a way to combine both of these interests.”

Sanders was also involved in the chemistry lab at school.

“This led me to get involved with tutoring for chemistry as a part of the National Honors Society chapter at my high school, Lausanne Collegiate School,” she said. “I tutored at least three students in rotation for math and sciences on a daily basis.”

Sanders has already joined the American Institute for Chemical Engineers at VCU.

“I got interested in this as it is very well connected to my major, and I saw this club as an opportunity to network not just with VCU students and upperclassmen but also with alumni and other chemical engineers within the society,” she said, adding she hopes to also join the Society for Women Engineers.

Her favorite class so far is Chemistry 102 with associate professor Sherif Moussa, Ph.D., she said.

“I love his teaching style,” she said.

—Joan Tupponce

Cruz Walden

Colonial Heights, Virginia; Robertson School, College of Humanities and Sciences; Honors College

A portrait of Cruz Walden in front of a sign that says \"V C U\"
Cruz Walden. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Cruz Walden transferred to VCU this semester from Brightpoint Community College through the Mellon Pathways to the Arts and Humanities Program. Walden is majoring in mass communications with a concentration in journalism, and is minoring in sociology.

Walden said they wanted to go to VCU because they were impressed with the college’s program in their field of interest.

“I looked at other programs in the state, other colleges, and it just felt like none of them really clicked with me the way that the journalism program here did,” they said.

Walden said they were drawn to journalism because they’ve been a lifelong writer. They took a stab at community college back in 2017, majoring in English, but realized it wasn’t the right fit for them and dropped out.

Walden took a break from school and worked full time for three years while thinking about what they wanted to do with the rest of their life. They learned about mass communications as a college major through Brightpoint’s website. Walden said it seemed like a perfect fit for them because it combined their interests of writing and studying people and society.

“I love the idea of interviewing people and getting to know local culture and being able to tell the stories that are happening and why,” Walden said.

So far, Walden is enjoying the city, which is a very different environment than from where they used to live, Colonial Heights.

“As far as classes go, I think things are going really well, and I’m looking forward to what I’m going to learn,” they said.

This semester Walden is hoping to make new friends and join a student-led publication. However, they also have their eyes set on WVCW, VCU’s student radio station.

Walden will also help give other prospective transfer students a hand up by working as a mentor for the pathways program that helped bring them to VCU. They will be hosting zoom events and sharing their experiences as a transfer student.

—Amelia Heymann

Mychal Young

Henrico County, Virginia; College of Humanities and Sciences

A portrait of Mychal Young
Mychal Young. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

By the time first-year student Mychal Young came to VCU in August, he was already in the habit of giving his friends directions on how to navigate campus.

“I remember coming back — because I came early for RAM CAMP — and I was pointing out buildings like, ‘Oh, that’s this hall; that’s that hall,’ and my friends were like, ‘Mychal, how do you know this?’ I just paid attention!” Young said with a laugh.

Young has already explored Richmond as a member of You First at VCU, a network of student success programs aimed at first-generation college students that includes a Living-Learning Community, of which Young is a part, and offers students an opportunity to move into their residence hall early through RAM CAMP. He is also part of TRiO at VCU, which supports first-generation students, low-income students and students with disabilities and hosts a weeklong Summer Bridge Program for incoming students.

“TRiO is the best, and the Summer Bridge Program was very cool,” said Young, who recalled game nights and exploration of Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom neighborhood as perks of the program.

Having a place to call home with a community he can trust at VCU has been a welcome change for Young, who experienced homelessness before coming to college. At age 16, Young left home to move in with his cousin, now his guardian. They moved around several times before settling in Henrico County while Young finished high school virtually and his cousin attended University of Richmond.

“She was very shy her freshman year, so she was ready for me to be shy, but I already have multiple friend groups, which I didn’t see for myself. It’s very easy to make friends. I felt like I would have one or two friends, but I’m in a friend group with 10 people. … Looking back to my first week of school, I don’t think I’ve had a moment to myself other than just winding down at night,” Young said with a smile.

Young, a gender, sexuality and women’s studies major, has plans to join student organizations, such as Students Today, Alumni Tomorrow and the sociology club as he takes a sociology course this semester, and to explore a career in counseling, hearkening back to his life experiences before VCU.

“So many people helped me out when I was a kid,” Young said. “In the situation I was stuck in from kindergarten through age 16, I was homeless. I did have people who helped me, so I want to be that person to help other people and other kids like that and give back to the community.”

—Mary Kate Brogan

Eden Pannell

Chesapeake, Virginia; College of Humanities and Sciences

 Eden Pannell leaning against a giant letter \"C\"
Eden Pannell. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

A health care emergency led first-year Eden Pannell to pursue a career in nursing.

Pannell, who grew up in Chesapeake, Virginia, was experiencing chest pain during her junior year of high school. It felt like a heart attack. She went to the emergency room at a local hospital and had an awful experience. The staff did not take her concerns seriously.

“They couldn’t find the vein to draw blood and kept stabbing me,” Pannell said. “I ended up having two or three holes on my right arm.”

A few days later she went to a different health care facility and had an amazing experience. Everyone treated her with respect and made sure she received quality care. She saw nurses were the key, because they provided such a hands-on level of care.

“I realized that the nurses make the world go round, especially when it comes to health care,” Pannell said. “They make sure you are going home in a better condition than you came in. That experience made me realize that I want to embody that same standard of health care.”

Pannell had always planned to go into the medical field, but the experience led her to pursue nursing. She researched nursing schools and realized that U.S. News & World Report ranked VCU’s program 23rd (now 22nd in the recently released 2022-23 Best College Rankings) in the nation. She visited the campus and fell in love with the urban environment and Richmond.

She has settled into her residence hall and started her classes. Her goal is to focus on academics this year and apply to the nursing program next year. She knows that will be a challenge, but she has a goal:

“I’m making sure I stay in good academic standing and have a good GPA,” Pannell said. “I’m doing my volunteer hours and doing community service. I’m also networking a lot.”

In a few more years, she hopes to be providing the same level of care that she received when she was experiencing a medical crisis.

“Nursing really called to me,” she said.

—James Shea

Elizabeth Dooley

Springfield, Virginia; School of World Studies, College of Humanities and Sciences

Elizabeth Dooley standing inside the letter \"v\"
Elizabeth Dooley. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

This semester marks the first time Elizabeth Dooley has been back to attend a four-year institution in over 20 years.

An anthropology major with a minor in environmental studies, Dooley, 39, decided to go back to college to explore “things I wanted to learn,” she said.

“I love to broaden my horizons and see what’s out there; just be able to learn for the sake of learning,” she said.

A native of Springfield, Virginia, Dooley works at WNRN, a nonprofit public radio station based in Charlottesville, as a development assistant.

She decided to go to VCU after her friend Erin Trimmer came to VCU two years ago.

“Seeing her positive experience upon returning to college inspired me. We are able to take one class together this semester before she graduates,” Dooley said.

Dooley became interested in anthropology after taking a cultural anthropology class at John Tyler Community College (now Brightpoint Community College).

“I’m interested in learning more of the behind-the-scenes information related to how humans are affecting the environment and how we can hopefully make positive changes,” she said.

A marathon runner, Dooley will be running her 12th marathon at the end of October. She has also completed one ultramarathon that goes beyond the 26.2-mile mark.

“I would like to do another ultramarathon when I turn 40 next year,” she said. “I ran my first marathon in 2013, just after I turned 30. I ran cross-country in high school, but got back into running in my late 20s as a way to get back into shape.”

Dooley also participates in Olympic weightlifting.

“Despite the name, I have not competed in the Olympics. It’s a strength sport discipline,” she said, adding, “It’s awesome being strong.”

—Joan Tupponce

Thomas Mussomeli

Vienna, Virginia; School of the Arts; College of Humanities and Sciences; Honors College

Thomas Mussomeli sitting and leaning against a giant \"U\"
Thomas Mussomeli. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Ever since he was in elementary school, Thomas Mussomeli has been fascinated with education, and has dreamed of becoming a teacher.

For the past two summers, the 17-year-old taught art at an art-based summer camp program.

“I really enjoy working with children in their early years of child development,” he said. “Having the opportunity to work as an art teacher solidified my passion to pursue a life path in which I am able to combine a career working with children as well as my interest in art.”

That experience led the Vienna native to consider art therapy, which combines art and psychology. Double-majoring in psychology and art education at VCU allows him to do both.

“Understanding mental health is so complex as each individual has a different experience, which might pose itself difficult to articulate or express in a more traditional manner,” Mussomeli said. “Additionally, some people would rather not explicitly relay internal struggles or past trauma. Personally, I find art extremely cathartic as I am able to express emotions or thoughts which I otherwise might be unable to express with words.”

Mussomeli fell in love with many aspects of VCU when he toured the campus. Its location within the city offers opportunities to branch out and explore, “which is arguably one of the most important things about college,” he said.

Opportunities to build connections and gain hands-on experiences within, and outside of, his chosen fields also factored into why he wanted to come to VCU.

“I felt as if VCU truly fostered a tight-knit community for all students — regardless of major, or interests, or even more personal identities such as race, gender, etc.,” he said. “I feel as if the college atmosphere is one in which everyone is able to feel comfortable and welcome.

“By the time I graduate, I hope to make lifelong connections. Whether it be with professors or administrators from VCU or job opportunities, which are able to help me get a foothold within the professional world, or simply friends whom I am able to rely on. Making connections and forming relationships is extremely important to me.”

—Leila Ugincius

Kendall Loch and Kirsten Loch

Virginia Beach; School of Dentistry (Kendall); School of Pharmacy (Kirsten)

A portrait of two women in medical scrubs
Kirsten (left) and Kendall Loch. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Kendall and Kirsten Loch are not technically new to VCU. They received their bachelor’s degrees from VCU this past spring —Kendall in sociology and Kirsten in chemistry. Yet this fall, each is a first-year student in their chosen graduate schools: Dentistry and Pharmacy, respectively.

In another first, the 22-year-old sisters — twins — are pursuing completely different interests.

“We are very close and as a result, we are usually together,” Kirsten said. “We just tend to have the same interests and somewhat similar personality traits — which I suppose is normal for identical twins — so I think that leads us to the same activities and hobbies.”

They’ve always done everything together, such as playing on the same field hockey and soccer teams, and worked together to achieve success. Even in individual sports, such as swimming, where they competed against each other, they always thought a win for one was also a win for the other.

“I would be just as happy losing if she is winning,” Kirsten said. “And if I am winning, it would be no fun if she is losing.”

So, attending different graduate schools is a little daunting, if not surprising.

“We have always had the same hobbies, activities, and been part of the same friend groups so it is weird to be in a different environment from each other now, despite still being at the same [university],” Kendall said. “I think it was just the way things played out. … We have both been pursuing these separate fields for a while.”

They knew their paths would diverge eventually. Kendall has wanted to be a dentist since they were very young.

“I have always loved going to the dentist and my aunt is a dental assistant so I have been interested in the dental field for as long as I can remember,” she said. “The part that interested me from the beginning was getting to work with my hands and interact with a lot of different people each day.”

Kirsten was influenced by family members afflicted with multiple chronic health conditions, which they manage with several medications.

“I was always interested in how they could take all these medications without any of them interacting or limiting the effects of one another,” she said. “Plus, I have been interested in science for a while now and like to help and interact with people so, ultimately, pharmacy seemed like a great fit.”

The Lochs love that Richmond is close to their family in Newport News and that the schools of Pharmacy and Dentistry are part of a large academic medical center, with many opportunities to meet like-minded professionals, potential residency opportunities, and getting to work with other health professionals such as medical students, nursing students and other allied health professionals.

They are both also excited for the chance to continue to explore Richmond and all it has to offer for four more years.

—Leila Ugincius