A photo of two men hugging. The man who's face is visable is smiling.
Thomas Chatman, who is graduating from VCU this month with a degree in information systems, at the third annual art gallery auction he hosts for Senegalese and local artists. (Courtesy photo)

Class of 2024: Thomas Chatman leaned toward dropping out, but Developing Men of Color helped him lean in to VCU

Information systems major found support that propelled his interest in business, art, technology and his ties to Western Africa.

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Last year, Thomas Chatman was selected to speak at a reception for Michael Rao, Ph.D., president of Virginia Commonwealth University. It was the information systems major’s proudest moment at VCU, though not because he was speaking in front of the president.

It was a chance to deeply consider how far he’d come while a student here.

“It was really awakening for me because I was able to just sit, reflect and share my story,” Chatman said.

Chatman’s accomplishments include making the Dean’s List, starting an exhibition to help artists in Western Africa, landing an internship that led to a full-time position — and not dropping out of college.

As a sophomore, Chatman didn’t feel like school was the right place for him.

“I was in a really interesting place … trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do,” he said. “It was weighing on me a lot.”

He called Carlton Goode, Ed.D., who had taught “easily the most impactful class that I’ve ever had,” Chatman said, and told him he didn’t know if he could continue at VCU.

During Chatman’s freshman year, Goode had led the “Dynamic Principles of Professional Development: Men of Color” course, which is part of VCU’s First and Second Year Experiences program that supports student success. Goode, who also serves on the universitywide task force for the Men of Color initiative and is faculty advisor for the Developing Men of Color student organization, provided Chatman with resources and encouraged him to become more involved with the DMC.

“I trusted him,” Chatman said. “What DMC offered for me from that point was a space. They met me where I was at. It wasn’t like an organization where I had to come in with these prerequisites or I had to be ready to take on a lot of different things. They met me where I was, and that was someone who was ready to leave. And they gave me an opportunity to find myself and also an opportunity to work on my passion and figure out how much I enjoy giving back to the community.”

Chatman’s passion includes the art business he started after visiting his aunt in Senegal three years ago.

“She asked me to come out there and take some pictures and display what the culture is like in Senegal,” he said. He was struck by the rigors of what he saw.

“However, through all the hardship, there were a lot of artists that would sit outside in 87-plus-degree weather trying to sell all of their artwork, day in, day out,” Chatman said. “Before I wake up and after I’m already asleep, they’re still outside doing it.”

A photo of a man wearing a suit standing next to an abstract painting.
Thomas Chatman, pictured here at the art exhibit he hosted this year, will move to Texas after graduation to work for Dell Technologies, where he interned as a junior. (Courtesy photo)

Complementing his interests in business and technology, Chatman has always been drawn to art, which he sees as a form of communication. From a business perspective, he found it strange that these artists were bargaining with potential buyers.

“It’s so different in the United States where you put the value on your artwork, and that’s what it is,” he said. Then and there, he said of seeing the Senegalese artists, “I gave them my word that I would go to the States and help them sell their artwork.”

Indeed, soon after returning, he met fellow student Kendahl Bell at a DMC event. “The first conversation we had, I asked him if he wanted to hold an art exhibit,” he said. Neither had ever planned such an event before, but they were undeterred. The inaugural event, a charity auction featuring work by Senegalese and local artists, went “surprisingly well,” Chatman said. “Like really well.”

So well, in fact, that he expanded the event into a nonprofit organization, Catalyst, a year-round multicultural, multicontinental art exhibit.

“Now it’s bigger than I could have ever imagined,” Chatman said.

This summer, after receiving a degree in information systems from the VCU School of Business, Chatman will move to Texas, where he has accepted a full-time position with Dell Technologies, the company where he interned with as a junior.

But he won’t leave the spirit of VCU behind: Chatman said he wants “to take every opportunity that I can to give back, to help out however I can,” he said. That includes plans to take DMC nationwide.

“I was ready to leave college. I didn’t feel like it was for me. And even through that, I was given an opportunity to figure out who I am and how that can work out,” Chatman said – with the impact of VCU and DMC “so monumental that I feel like the burning passion in my body to give back has been ignited.”