A man with his arms outstretched in front of him, resting on a railing
Oscar Kemp is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in social work with a minor in public policy. He plans to attend law school and work in public policy. (Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Class of 2023: Oscar Kemp’s pursuit of ‘global citizenship’ is now taking him far beyond VCU

Social work major and Fulbright Scholar will teach English in Africa before pursuing law school and public policy.

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For Oscar Kemp, the journey from Southside Virginia to East Africa was marked both by childhood and Virginia Commonwealth University.

Kemp graduates in May with a bachelor’s degree in social work with a minor in public policy, and he plans to attend law school and work in public policy. But first, he will head to Uganda, where — as a Fulbright Scholar — he will teach English.

The path to “global citizenship,” as Kemp calls it, started in Danville, where he grew up and where social workers were a part of his youth. His mother raised him and his sister amid financial challenges, and the family often turned to a social worker to help them navigate.

“At one point, we were evicted from our apartment,” Kemp said.  “A social worker was the first person we went to for help. I saw how that social worker really helped my mother and [I] really saw a smile across my mom’s face again. That led me to social work.”

Kemp was a good student in high school and toured schools across Virginia and as far as Michigan. But after his first visit to Richmond and VCU, he knew he wanted to be a Ram.

“I remember walking through the Welcome Center in Richmond and seeing Broad Street for the first time and thinking, ‘This is how I want to live my college life,’” Kemp said. “I didn’t want to be secluded away from other people. I wanted to be close to other communities. I felt VCU was full of opportunities.”

He originally majored in psychology, but his interests evolved. He read about a meeting of the student-led Association of Black Social Workers at VCU, and after attending, he switched his major to social work.

“I did social work to gain a better understanding of how to build good relationships with people and how to communicate your needs and be a liaison between people who do not want to speak to each other, which is very much needed in this political climate,” Kemp said.

During his junior year, he was president of the Association of Black Social Workers. Kemp said the organization changed his life, as he met students and faculty members who embraced him and helped him navigate the university experience. “I immediately made friends and found mentors,” he said. “They were people who really wanted to lift me up.”

Kemp has been active elsewhere across the university and the country. He was a member of the VCU School of Social Work’s B.S.W. Program Committee and was a fellow with the Radical Alliance for Anti-Racism, Change and Equity, a racial justice task force of faculty, staff, alumni and student fellows. Nationally, Kemp was one of two students to be appointed to the board of directors of the Council on Social Work Education, the association representing social work education and program accreditation in the United States.

Last summer, Kemp completed a public policy and international affairs fellowship at the University of Michigan, where he learned from U.S. diplomats and officials from across the globe. He also has earned a Critical Language Scholarship to go to Tanzania this summer to study Swahili.

With his interest in global issues, VCU faculty encouraged him to apply to the State Department’s Fulbright Program, which offers international educational and cultural exchange programs.

“Not that many people who look like me have that opportunity,” Kemp said. “It’s not very often that you meet a young Black male student who is considering global citizenship.”

Kemp is excited about the next opportunity, and he credits many people at VCU who have helped shape him as a student and as a world citizen. He said their help has facilitated a journey from Danville that is continuing to expand.

“No student,” Kemp said, “is successful without a mentor.”

Verenda Cobbs, senior manager for civic innovation and transformation in VCU’s Office of Government Relations, met Kemp during his internship in the Office of the President at VCU. When Kemp learned that Cobbs was a B.S.W. and M.S.W. graduate of the VCU School of Social Work, he sought her guidance as a mentor.

Cobbs said Kemp is not only a mentor to the other student interns but is “also inspirational to the adults he has worked with” in that role and in community engagement efforts throughout the region. Kemp worked with Cobbs in his School of Social Work field placement.

“Oscar is a bright light,” said Cobbs, who served as Kemp’s field instructor. “He brings a unique passion and energy to every space that he comes into, and I believe that he sees things from a very hopeful perspective but also has identified an opportunity where he can grow and at the same time help other people grow.

“It’s been an honor to watch him build his confidence but also to see him begin to thrive in the community surrounding VCU. I believe we’re going to continue to see great things from him.”