A photo of four people crouching in the woods behind a dog laying on the ground.
The Finns: Ellen, Kayla, Emma and Michael, with dog Brie. (Courtesy photo)

Family establishes scholarship to thank VCU Brandcenter for giving sidelined students a tremendous opportunity

After Atlanta advertising school Creative Circus announced its closure amid the pandemic, VCU’s graduate program invited affected students to transfer and complete their education.

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When Atlanta’s renowned Creative Circus announced that it would close its doors, Emma Finn received an opportunity to complete her education at the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter. Now, in gratitude, her family has established a scholarship for students in the two-year master’s program.

Michael and Ellen Finn donated more than $400,000 to create the Emma Finn Family Endowed Scholarship to thank the Brandcenter for creating a seamless transfer for students of the Creative Circus. It is the largest gift from parents made to VCU’s graduate school for advertising, branding, design, marketing and innovation.

In April 2022, amid challenges of the pandemic, the advertising portfolio school, where Emma was studying, announced that it would soon close. The Brandcenter stepped up to offer Creative Circus students the chance to transfer and complete their education at VCU. Interested students applied and were integrated into the existing second-year cohort in the fall 2022 semester.

The Brandcenter’s offer “was such a remarkable act of kindness and really so above and beyond” for Emma, who had really wanted the advertising experience and chance to build a meaningful portfolio, Ellen said.

The family, who have lived all over the world but now call Bryn Mawr just outside of Philadelphia home, has always tried to thank the people, places and things that have helped them.

“At different times in our lives, we could say thank you in different ways,” Michael said. “But the best way to say it is to do it for someone else. There’s nothing Ellen and I could have done to help Emma, but Brandcenter did. The only thing that we can do is help Brandcenter with this gift. … When you do good in the world, I hope you get it back 100-fold.”

The Finns credit Vann Graves, Ed.D., executive director of the Brandcenter, for putting himself in the Creative Circus students’ shoes and offering them a lifeline.

“I am honored to have played a part in these students’ educational journeys. At the Brandcenter, we are steadfast in our commitment to helping our students learn, grow and thrive in our program and beyond it,” Graves said. “As a peer institution and with a shared commitment in preparing students for success in the industry, we were in a unique position to offer support to Circus students. For the students who joined us, it was important that we integrate them into every facet of our program and experience and provide them with ample support and opportunities to help launch their careers. We look forward to celebrating them throughout their careers.”

Graves took a catastrophic moment of uncertainty and turned it into an amazing opportunity, Ellen said. “Emma would tell you, it’s one of the best things that could have happened.”

Indeed, the Brandcenter offered Emma experiences that she wouldn’t have gotten even at the Creative Circus.

“At Brandcenter, I was able to partner with strategists and [account] managers just like I would in a real agency,” she said. “We had more time to execute our ideas and build full campaigns. Plus, I knew they had a fantastic career services person, Ashley [Sommardahl, associate director], to help us prepare for graduation and job searching.”

This past summer, Emma moved to Chicago, where she is a junior copywriter at OKRP.

While the Finns know they are lucky that Emma had the means to accept the Brandcenter’s transfer offer and easily move to Richmond, they recognize that not all of her classmates were in the same position.

“People had signed leases, people had bought houses. People didn't necessarily have savings,” Ellen said. “Life gives you lemons, but sometimes your ability to make lemonade, to keep going and to avoid having that completely derail you, has to do with resources.”

The Finns hope the scholarship, which will be awarded based on need and merit, will give students in similar situations the means to keep pushing forward with their goals.