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During annual address, Rao stresses VCU’s real-world responsibilities, announces major curriculum change

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VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D.

In his third annual State of the University Address, Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao, Ph.D., emphasized the essential role that VCU and other universities must play in the 21st century and outlined critical ways that VCU will assert its relevance in rapidly changing times, highlighted by a new experiential learning requirement that will ensure every student receives real-world experience during their college education.

Rao, who spoke in the Commonwealth Ballrooms at the University Student Commons, described the addition to the curriculum as part of VCU’s ongoing evolution. The specifics of the program, which will go into effect for this fall’s entering class, remain under development, but students are expected to fulfill the requirement through internships, externships, service-learning projects and research, among other opportunities. Rao said some departments within the university already have similar requirements while in many other cases individual students pursue those opportunities voluntarily. Now those pursuits will be integrated concretely into the culture throughout the university.

Noting that a survey of prospective and current VCU students revealed that 80 percent of respondents valued practical experience as a key element of their college education, Rao said “these experiences will become part of VCU’s overall curriculum, meaning that every student who earns a degree here will be well-regarded for their thoughtfulness and deep thinking, because they have used their education to make a mark on humanity, even before they hit the job market.”

This experience will help our students develop as scholars who contribute to their field and as servants who contribute to their world.

“This experience will help our students develop as scholars who contribute to their field and as servants who contribute to their world. Its relevancy will be its impact: It gives our students consent to soar, to test themselves, to find themselves beyond themselves. This will change the educational experience at VCU by making it indistinguishable from social issues. And that makes it more relevant.”

Rao said universities have been “unequalled” in their commitment to inquiry, innovation and invention over the years, and the history of higher education ultimately is the history of human progress. However, he said universities have not changed as swiftly as the world has this century. As a result, “we need to re-examine the strategies we’ve used to achieve our mission and ensure that they address the challenges that will confront humankind over the next decade. We must ensure, for example, that the curricula and teaching methods we use to educate our students, the health care we provide, the research we conduct and the ways that we engage our community will transform lives in relevant ways.”

The 21st century is a new era and demands a new kind of university, Rao said. For a university to be relevant today, he said it must work to benefit not just its students but its community and the world at large.

Our students don’t grow up thinking about what job they want to have. They grow up thinking about what problems they want to solve.

Rao praised the VCU student body as one determined from the outset to find ways to engage with the larger world. They are service-minded and intent on creating a positive impact on their communities.

“Our students don’t grow up thinking about what job they want to have,” Rao said. “They grow up thinking about what problems they want to solve. And they are relentless in their quest to solve them.”

Rao said VCU’s seat “at the fulcrum of innovation, creativity, development and health care for our region” positions it to make critical contributions to the local community through research, scholarship, medicine and outreach. “We have the chance to make a difference in the lives of people in ways that other institutions cannot or perhaps will not,” he said.

However, VCU’s reach extends beyond the local community, Rao said.

“Richmond is our home, but we are a global university,” he said. “My vision for VCU is that the world beyond our campus will benefit from everything we do. Whether or not you ever work, study or set foot on the Virginia Commonwealth University campus, your life will be better because we’re here.”

A crucial step in achieving that reach is that diversity and inclusion are central to everything VCU does, “making sure that we look like the world we lead,” he said.

“VCU is resolved that any person from any background can succeed here,” Rao said. “We recognize that what makes our people unique is what makes our university great. We do more than seek out diversity; we seek nothing less. In everything we do at VCU — from cutting-edge research to classroom debate to clinical care, to purchasing and partnering — we include different voices, ideas and disciplines.”

Moving forward, Rao said, VCU will sharpen its focus on making sure the world benefits “from all of our people and all of their perspectives.”

“As the world changes, we have to change too, becoming more relevant for our students, for our community and for our world,” he said. “None of this is easy to do. But let us boldly embrace our potential.”

A full transcript of President Rao's speech is available here.

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VIDEO : 2016 State of the University Address