Invest in me

As VCU kicks off an initiative to raise $50 million in student scholarships, meet some Rams who are living proof of the impact scholarships can have.

Invest in me

A scholarship at Virginia Commonwealth University can mean different things to different people. It can mean graduating college without debt. It can mean paying the rent or affording groceries. It can mean devoting your studies to a field that doesn’t always pay well but that is just as valuable to society as the highest-paying jobs.

The value a scholarship has for a particular student may vary, but the impact is real — which is why VCU recently launched the Invest in Me initiative to raise funds for student scholarships.  The initiative, which aims to raise $50 million by June 30, 2022, is part of the Make It Real Campaign for VCU, the largest fundraising effort in the university’s history. 

Funds raised will support scholarships in the initiative’s three focus areas: nurturing talent, opening doors to opportunity and rewarding excellence.

“VCU has a great track record of challenging educational inequities, enrolling an increasingly diverse student population while simultaneously increasing graduation rates and reducing the average time to graduation,” said Tomikia P. LeGrande, Ed.D., vice provost for strategic enrollment management. “The Invest in Me scholarship initiative will help to further level the playing field, especially for our students with particular talents, such as in the arts, athletics or leadership; for those who need a little support to access opportunity, such as first-generation or nontraditional students; and for those who have shown excellence in their fields of study, so that we can continue to attract the very best and brightest to VCU.”   

Donors can make gifts to the Talent VCU, Opportunity VCU or Excellence VCU funds within a specific school or in the same categories to support all undergraduate students. Below are the stories of students who exemplify each of the three focus areas and the difference scholarships have made in their lives.

Focused on the future 

Shivam Gulhar first saw a medical career in his future when he went blind for two weeks because of a misdiagnosed corneal ulcer. 

“I was scared that I would lose my vision forever, and the only person who could calm me down was my ophthalmologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital,” Gulhar said. “Since then, I’ve known I wanted to be a doctor to make others feel as safe as I felt with my physician.”

Gulhar, who earned a B.S. in biology from VCU in 2017 and was part of the Honors College, was even more confident that medicine was his calling when he received the Sarah Snyder Laughon Medical Scholarship upon enrolling in 2017 at the VCU School of Medicine

“Medical school is extremely expensive,” he said. “I’m grateful to receive a scholarship. I work hard every day and I try my best, so to have that positive reinforcement is an acknowledgement that I’m on the right path.” 

Gulhar has used his time in medical school to pursue opportunities to practice patient-centered care in a variety of medical specialties. Scholarship support, he said, has given him a sense of financial security that enables him to shape his career path based on the patients he will serve, not the salary he will earn. 

“The financial burden of medical school can put pressure on a student to pick a high-paying specialty not because they’re passionate about it but because they have debt to pay off,” he said. “That takes away from the sacredness of the job. My goal is to become the best physician I can be. Whatever field I choose, I know that I’m going to give it my all.”

Shivam Gulhar.
Shivam Gulhar. Photo by Jud Froelich.

Bright spark

Derrick Ampadu-Boateng was first drawn to chemistry because it appealed to his inquisitive nature. Now, in the final year of a doctoral program in chemistry in the College of Humanities and Sciences, he uses that curiosity to conduct research that could help save lives on a global scale.

A native of Ghana in West Africa, Ampadu-Boateng came to VCU via a master’s degree in Tennessee with an open mind about his research interests, but the work of assistant professor Katharine Tibbetts, Ph.D., caught his attention right away. He joined Tibbetts’ lab as a research assistant, where he is studying the dynamics of explosive compounds with the goal of improving safety against terrorism.

Ampadu-Boateng receives a graduate research assistant stipend from the Department of Chemistry as compensation for his work, but the father of three said the cost of his education stills puts a strain on his family. Receiving the Albert T. Sneden III Scholarship in Chemistry in 2018 was instrumental in reducing that burden, he said. 

“It was a huge relief,” he said, adding that the award let him buy books and a laptop. “It means a lot because it also makes me feel as if someone is recognizing what I’m doing. It encourages me to put in more effort.”

Ampadu-Boateng’s experiences at VCU and in Tibbetts’ lab, he said, have set him up to realize his dream of being an accomplished chemist. And once he gets there, he intends to pay it forward.

“My ultimate goal,” he said, “is to complete my Ph.D., get a good job and then hopefully start my own scholarship at VCU to help people who are in need.” 

Derrick Ampadu-Boateng
Derrick Ampadu-Boateng. Photo by Jud Froelich.

Back to school

At 45, Stephanie Cattie never thought she would be back in college. However, after her father had a stroke, she noticed a correlation between his communication difficulties and those of her 17-year-old son, Collin, who has Down syndrome. She started thinking about how sensory responses affect behavior and wondered if a better understanding of these responses could help meet patients’ needs on a more holistic level.

The former biology teacher applied to VCU to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing. But it was a tough decision.

“I didn’t want to spend money on myself,” Cattie said. “I have three children to put through college. How are we going to pay for that, let alone pay for me?”

The Lettie Pate Whitehead Scholarship reduced her need to work so that she could be more involved in her studies and other activities, such as the School of Nursing’s Leadership Fellows Program. She believes experiences like this have given her a stronger vision of how she can effect change in health care after she graduates.

Beyond the financial assistance the scholarship offers, Cattie finds its mission to support women’s education particularly resonant.

“I like my daughter seeing her mom have this opportunity,” Cattie said. “The things that you dream to do, you can do.” 

Stephanie Cattie
Stephanie Cattie. Photo by Jud Froelich.

Keys to success

Zaiendae Smith always hoped to pursue higher education in some form, but he doubted that a four-year university was in his future.

“I didn’t expect to go to college for a number of reasons,” he said. “I knew my parents didn’t have the resources to pay for my education. Plus, I doubted that I would even pass my audition. I didn’t think I was a good enough musician.”

Now a third-year piano performance major in the School of the Arts, Smith has come a long way. In 2017, he was accepted into VCU’s Department of Music, making him the first person in his family to go to college. VCU has been life changing, Smith said, but navigating higher education as a first-generation college student hasn’t been easy.

“I’m trying to figure things out as I go along,” Smith said. “It just makes the process more difficult. Just getting the money I needed for school was a challenge. If I want help, I have to go and look for it myself. It’s a lot of knocking on doors and saying, ‘Hey, what help is available to me?’” 

Smith filed for federal student aid as an independent student, meaning he wasn’t financially supported by his parents. He received some merit- and need-based grants but not enough to cover all of his first-year expenses without dipping into his personal savings and taking out student loans. 

“Seeing people receive help from their families or support circles and knowing that I don’t have that can be hard,” Smith said. “It makes me question if I should be doing this.”

Relief came the next fall, when he was awarded the Beverly J. Warren Scholarship. He realized he wouldn’t have to drop out of school and could finish his degree program. 

“Receiving this help takes a bit of that weight off and lets me breathe and focus on what’s important,” Smith said. “I’m grateful to have the support to continue my music education, and I have been inspired to someday create my own scholarship fund. I want to have the same profound impact on others that this opportunity has had on me.”

Zaiendae Smith.
Zaiendae Smith. Photo by Jud Froelich.

Seniors’ citizen

Volunteering at an assisted living facility made Alexa van Aartrijk, who earned her M.S. in gerontology from the College of Health Professions in 2019, fall in love with working with older adults. It also made her aware of critical deficits in their long-term care.

“It worried me,” van Aartrijk said. “So I wanted to get a master’s degree that would help me understand the problems older adults face and how we can improve their care and their lives.”

As a gerontology student, van Aartrijk learned about disrupting ageism and became passionate about eliminating the stigmas and stereotypes associated with getting older. 

“I didn’t realize how systemic these problems were in our society,” she said. “Once I started learning about it, it changed my life.”

Receiving the Walters-Wilkerson Memorial Gerontology Scholarship and the Theresa Thomas Health Professional Scholarship allowed her to spend time outside of class volunteering with organizations that serve older adults in the Richmond area.

“A lot of students are working nights and weekends to make ends meet, but I was able to use that time to focus more on community outreach,” she said. “It felt like someone was looking out for me even though they had never even met me before.”

Immediately after graduating last spring, van Aartrijk joined the VCU Department of Gerontology as community education coordinator. In her role, she plans and coordinates evidence-based continuing education training for professionals working in assisted living and adult day care centers.

“Whether it’s through education, research or training, I want to play a big part in making the experience of getting older exciting, fulfilling and healthy for our older population,” she said.

Alexa van Aartrijk.
Alexa van Aartrijk. Photo by Jud Froelich.

On the ball

Mario Sequeira Quesada has been playing soccer since he was 9, including for Costa Rica in the 2017 Under-20 World Cup. “In my country, soccer is almost like a religion,” he said.

Earning a degree is just as important to him. Sequeira Quesada came to VCU in 2017 with the support of a full scholarship to join the men’s soccer team. He is one of the team’s captains and a mass communications undergraduate. Without his scholarship, Sequeira Quesada said he couldn’t juggle the responsibilities of being a student-athlete.

“If I had to work 30 or 40 hours a week on top of going to class and practice and working with my trainer, I’d have to give up time spent sleeping or eating to stay healthy,” he said.

Sequeira Quesada is proud of his achievements on and off the field. His ambition is to combine his passions for athletics and journalism, perhaps in sports public relations.

“Leaving my family and everything I knew behind to come to VCU was hard, but VCU has given me a family and a new place I can call home,” he said. “I’m showing others in the Latino community that opportunities like this are possible.”

Mario Sequeira Quesada.
Mario Sequeira Quesada. Photo by Jud Froelich.

Additional reporting by Margaret Corum.

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