Instructor Ann Marie Gardinier Halstead (left) is teaching Humans of RVA and VCU this semester, a new course that will play a key role in the Honors College's revamped curriculum in the fall.
<br>Photo by Kevin Morley, University Marketing

Honors College revamps curriculum to emphasize collaboration and experiences, and to solve real problems facing Richmond

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As part of a new course in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Honors College, students are working in small, diverse groups to interview Richmond residents and post their stories and photos to social media, with an eye toward gaining a better understanding of the many facets of the community.

Inspired by Humans of New York, the new course, Humans of RVA and VCU, provides students with the opportunity to study the nature of community, as well as community engagement and their role in it, said instructor Ann Marie Gardinier Halstead.

“My students are learning about RVA and its history. They’re learning about community, humanity and social justice, and also about themselves and each other,” Gardinier Halstead said. “They’re looking forward to interviewing RVA residents after spring break. I can’t say enough about our students. They’re bright and inquisitive and thoughtful and creative, and they’re change-makers, too.”        

Humans of RVA and VCU, which is being piloted this semester, will be a key part of a newly revamped curriculum for the Honors College that will go into effect this fall.

Under the new curriculum, students enrolled in the Honors College will have a four-year educational experience that is more collaborative, more experiential and more focused on community engagement.

“Honors students want to make a difference in the world,” said Barry Falk, Ph.D., dean of the Honors College. “Our new curriculum was designed to provide them with the skills and experiences they will need to achieve this goal. In doing so, we were intent on creating new and more effective ways to meet the needs of a new generation of students for whom the traditional modes of delivering higher education are inadequate.”

Incoming Honors students this fall will begin to take a series of new and existing classes focused on learning about and engaging with the Richmond community. By their senior year, the Honors students will undertake capstone projects aimed at addressing a number of real-world problems facing the city and surrounding localities.

VCU students taking Humans of RVA and VCU this semester will serve as mentors to incoming Honors College students this fall.
<br>Photo by Maggi Tinsley
VCU students taking Humans of RVA and VCU this semester will serve as mentors to incoming Honors College students this fall.
Photo by Maggi Tinsley

“Today’s students come to VCU fully appreciating the importance of ‘learning by doing’ while working collaboratively and creatively in a multidisciplinary way to address real problems,” Falk said. “This is the essence of our new curriculum.”

Beginning this fall, new Honors students will be placed into cohorts of classmates, designed to emphasize diversity of race, religion and gender, as well as diversity of thought, major and perspective.

For their first year, the students will take the Honors College’s signature writing program, which trains students to write for scholarly and general audiences. They also will take Humans of RVA and VCU, assisted by student mentors who are taking the class this semester.

“The idea is that they’ll be learning about community and community engagement by learning about their own community,” said Faye Prichard, who led the curriculum task force and is director of writing, assessment and evaluation for the Honors College. “They will be learning about Richmond and the surrounding area, and the people who live in it. The big focus will be on community engagement by figuring out what's this place like, and what's it do and how does it work?”

Also during the first year, students will be introduced to eight priority areas of the Richmond community identified by the Capital Regional Collaborative, a collaboration of local government, business and community stakeholders. The eight priority areas include education, job creation, workforce preparation, social stability, healthy communities, coordinated transportation, quality of place, and the James River.

“In that first year, students will be introduced to those eight pillars and the idea is to ask, 'What are you interested in? What are some parts of RVA that you're interested in?” Prichard said.

The students will begin to hone in on specific interests tied to the priority areas as they explore them in the Humans of RVA and VCU course, as well as a subsequent class called Investigative Inquiry, in which students will receive “engagement points” by participating in activities in the Richmond community.

“They can go to the theater, they can work at a food bank, they can volunteer at a school,” Prichard said. “There's all kinds of things they can do, but all of them will revolve around learning and making our community better.”

By their second year, the Honors students will further define their areas of interest. They will participate in “mocktail hours” with leaders from Richmond’s business, political and nonprofit sectors to learn more about the issues and problems facing the community.

“During these mocktail hours, we hope what those people will be doing is saying, ‘Hey, here's a really big problem that we see,’” Prichard said. “For example, you might have somebody who comes from [the community] and says there are a lot of people who want to work, but they don't have access to transportation that would get them where the jobs are.”

They want to make change. They want to feel that they've had an opportunity to make a difference.

In the third year, the students will begin making plans for their capstone project, tackling a problem within a priority area facing Richmond. And in their senior year, they will implement the capstone and present it at the end of the year.

“Students like the chance to do things. They want to be involved. They want to make change. They want to feel that they've had an opportunity to make a difference,” Prichard said. “What sets our students apart is that they want to come in and they want to do something a little different. They want to take some ownership over their education. And they want to branch out and try things early on. They want to combine their personal desire to do well with a desire to really do things and make change.”

As part of Humans of RVA and VCU, students will be interviewing Richmond residents and sharing the stories on social media, much like the popular Humans of New York. <br>Photo by Kevin Morley, University Marketing
As part of Humans of RVA and VCU, students will be interviewing Richmond residents and sharing the stories on social media, much like the popular Humans of New York.
Photo by Kevin Morley, University Marketing

Over the four years, Honors students also will take a number of electives that lead them toward, or inform, their capstone projects.

“You could easily see that a student might say, 'As part of our capstone, we're going to be doing a tremendous number of presentations,’” Prichard said. “So I might take an Honors topics course on creating professional presentations in order to deliver what we want to do.”

Students will be required to select a course centered on diversity. This course can be about diversity directly, such as a class on issues related to race, class and gender. But it could also explore diversity of thought. For example, a student majoring in biology might choose to take an Honors humanities course. A guiding principle of the new Honors curriculum is to give students more agency and authority over their education, allowing them to grow and build out of their own experience.  

“Our tag line for the VCU Honors program is ‘Defining Experience,’ and we expect that to have a double meaning. Being in the Honors College will be a defining experience for you. But we also mean that you're going to be in charge of defining your experience here,” Prichard said. “You get to decide just how meaningful and deep this is for you.”

The idea, she said, is that the Honors College will serve high-achieving students from across the university who want new experiences, who want to put their education into practice as they are learning, and who want to be a part of the community.

“There will be lots of opportunities for research and community engagement for trying on learning in a different way, for students in the humanities and sciences, in the arts and beyond,” Prichard said. “We want to be more holistic. We want to encourage all kinds of students who are high achieving to try on some of the opportunities that we hope will be made possible through this new curriculum.”