Carver students explore the arts on campus with VCU mentors

Carver students explore the arts on campus with VCU mentors

Want to know what a roomful of happiness looks like? Visit a mentoring session between Virginia Commonwealth University students and George Washington Carver Elementary School students. The room lights up with pure joy.

For instance, on a recent crisp fall day — perfect field trip weather — the VCU School of the Arts Department of Art Education invited 35 Carver students to campus to give them a peek into college life. Not only did each elementary school student get to spend the morning with a personal mentor, but they each also attended an art workshop, toured the Fine Arts Building, visited the Anderson Gallery and ate lunch with the “big kids” at Shafer Court Dining Center.

The children — young and old — could not contain their smiles. During the workshop, they worked on watercolor resist, a technique in which the artist first draws in oil pastel and then paints over it with watercolors. For the theme, which was “The Future of Your Environment,” 9-year-old Myona drew a beach, with clear water and clean sand, while Nyima, also 9, drew a garden.

The assignment dovetailed with the tour they would take later in the day of the Anderson Gallery’s “Forecast” exhibition, which examines the challenges and changes of a planet facing escalating environmental devastation. Concepts include landscape as a bearer of cultural values; the transformation of nature into a commoditized, industrial or synthetic landscape; the complexities underlying geopolitics; and the effects of industry and human behavior on animal habitat and biodiversity.

The best part of the day — and perhaps of the entire Carver Promise, a program of Communities in Schools of Richmond — was that each child had an adult who was there just for them.

“They have to share their teacher with their classmates, and their parents they have to share with siblings,” said Melanie Buffington, Ph.D., graduate program director, Department of Art Education, who along with professor Pam Taylor, Ph.D., coordinated the field trip. “This way, they know that there's an adult who comes and sees them. It sort of builds a special relationship and bond and I think having a college student is particularly helpful to sort of start early thinking about college.”

Of course, VCU students gain from the experience as well. While Buffington noted that the mentors learn quite a lot and that the experience augments their classroom knowledge, it’s also easy to see how much they enjoy interacting with their mentees and making a difference in their lives.

In addition, “they get to see child development over the course of the year and they are able to take some of the things we talk about in class and try them out and apply them and see what works and what doesn't work,” Buffington said.

Symone Simmons, a senior art education student and a teaching assistant for Buffington’s service-learning course, helped plan the event and led the art workshops.

“We want to push that college for them,” she said. “You don’t want them to get caught up in the system of thinking that they’re less. We want to have their possibilities be endless. We want the possibilities to be over the moon. So [this program] is going to show them that it’s possible, and that we're here. And we’re mentoring them to make them feel special and make them think that they can think and learn and be a creator, and they don’t have to be a good drawer to make art.”

VCU has been working with the Carver neighborhood for almost 20 years through the Division of Community Engagement. The partnership strives to create a shared urban community with a commitment to improving the neighborhood’s quality of life, including increasing the academic achievement of Carver students.

Mentors from VCU meet with their mentees once a week.


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Students from George Washington Carver Elementary School enjoy spending time with mentors from the VCU School of the Arts on a recent trip to campus.
Click to view slideshow. Students from George Washington Carver Elementary School enjoy spending time with mentors from the VCU School of the Arts on a recent trip to campus.