‘It allowed me to flourish’: 15 years of the Virginia’s Caring University Scholarship

15 years after its founding, the Virginia's Caring University Scholarship — and the Marquita Agui...
15 years after its founding, the Virginia's Caring University Scholarship — and the Marquita Aguilar Walk-A-Thon that helps fund it — continues to support VCU students. (Photo by Lindy Rodman, University Marketing)

Calvin Cropper Jr. doesn’t remember all the details regarding the scholarship — not even the name of the restaurant he and a close friend ate at to celebrate that he earned it. What he does remember is he was busy. 

It was 2006, Cropper’s third year at Virginia Commonwealth University. He was studying computer engineering, training as a member of VCU’s track and field team, and heavily involved in the National Society of Black Engineers.

His free time was limited, his program was demanding, and the funds in his bank account were low. Cropper remembered spending days at a time working on projects in a computer engineering lab. At one point, to complete a co-op, he had to take a semester off from school just to save money for the next one. So when he learned he had earned a Virginia’s Caring University Scholarship — a new fund created for juniors and seniors in financial need — the first thing he felt was … relief.

“It felt like a weight off my shoulders, knowing that I could afford books and get the supplies I needed and not have to deal with trying to work or take out more loans,” Cropper said. “Just to know that for the next semester or two, when I was finishing up, that I could focus on studying, track and field, NSBE, it really helped. It was really exciting for me.” 

The scholarship helped Cropper pay for books. It also helped him find time beyond studying, training and working to save money to pay for class. Cropper even joined a fraternity.

“It allowed me to get more active,” he said. “Free time [had been] nonexistent. I was hoping and praying that [the scholarship] would be the one that would help me get over the hump, and it was.

“It allowed me to flourish.”

Calvin Cropper Jr. sitting at a desk completing his schoolwork.
Calvin Cropper Jr. spent many hours working on projects in pursuit of a degree in computer engineering. "Going through the engineering program is pretty rigorous, it’s one of the hardest things I’ve done," he said. "And [the scholarship] really helped and allowed me to finish strong." (Photo courtesy of Calvin Cropper Jr.)

More than financial support


Cropper — now an information technology architect in Northern Virginia — is one of more than 150 past recipients of the Virginia’s Caring University Scholarship. Each spring, VCU hosts the Marquita Aguilar Walk-A-Thon to raise money for the fund. The event, now in its 15th year, will be held April 25 outside the University Student Commons.

For Cropper and other past recipients, the scholarship was always about more than financial support — it was about what that support unlocked. Ericka Pemberton, like Cropper, experienced the challenges of pursuing an engineering degree on a tight budget. Pemberton had a small work-study job when she was a student but the demands of the electrical engineering program made it hard to work other jobs during the academic year.

“I was literally just trying to get by,” Pemberton said. “Any additional dollars were budgeted to the max. Any additional funds were great and [the Virginia’s Caring University Scholarship] just allowed me to have a little less stress and focus a little more on my school work.”

Ericka Pemberton at her graduation from VCU in 2010.
Ericka Pemberton at her graduation from VCU in 2010. "I was just determined," she said. "I wasn’t the smartest kid in the classroom, but I was one of the most persistent ones." (Photo courtesy of Ericka Pemberton)

Pemberton, a 2010 graduate who now works as a project engineer for the Naval Air Systems Command, is a case study in perseverance. It took her six years to earn her degree. One semester, she took four electrical engineering courses, failed three of them and had to wait a year to take them again. When she graduated — after retaking the classes and passing them all — it was a day of high emotion, she said.

“It was such a relief and a blessing,” Pemberton said. “I was just determined. I wasn’t the smartest kid in the classroom, but I was one of the most persistent ones. People were looking up to me — I have two younger sisters. I didn’t want to be the big sister who just threw in the towel.” 

Cropper, like Pemberton, remembers his graduation vividly, and the role the scholarship played in helping him get there. 

“It actually was quite unbelievable, because going through the engineering program is pretty rigorous, it’s one of the hardest things I’ve done,” he said. “Just to say I was finally done — words couldn’t explain. And [the scholarship] really helped and allowed me to finish strong.” 

Corey Boone standing at a podium.
Corey Boone speaking at the university's 2018 Presidential Awards for Community Multicultural Enrichment. "I would say that if you were going to support anything, [the Virginia's Caring University Scholarship] is one of the most important things you can support. It helps the students exactly where they are.” (Photo courtesy of Corey Boone)

‘It helps the students exactly where they are’


The Virginia’s Caring University Scholarship was always intended to help students directly. For Aimee Reyes, a 2011 graduate of the School of Nursing, it helped her earn a second degree and make a career change. For Hassen Hafiz, a junior in the School of Business and a current scholarship recipient, it is helping him pursue a dual degree in political science and supply chain management. Marquita Aguilar, who helped establish the walk-a-thon and scholarship program, has referred to it as a way to build bridges, “to connect our students to their goals and their destiny.”

“I would say that if you were going to support anything, this is one of the most important things you can support because it directly touches the students on this campus who you want to see excel,” said Corey Boone, a 2007 graduate of the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture and past recipient of the scholarship. “It helps them finish and it opens opportunities to them. It helps the students exactly where they are.”

Boone currently works in the university’s Office of Events and Special Programs. Twelve years ago, he was six credits shy of graduation — and six credits away from becoming the first person in his family to graduate from college — when he learned he had been selected as a scholarship recipient. That spring, he walked at May commencement with his friends, and then mapped out his final semester at VCU.

Corey Boone with his grandmother, Hilda Tynes, in May 2007 at the Richmond Convention Center. (Photo courtesy of Corey Boone)
Boone with his grandmother, Hilda Tynes, in May 2007 at the Richmond Convention Center following Boone's graduation. (Photo courtesy of Corey Boone)

“I needed to take two additional classes,” Boone said. “I got a $1,000 [scholarship]. And I knew I was probably going to have to sever ties with my work-study job. I had gotten a part-time job at Virginia State [University]. I was living in the west end with a roommate, and commuting [to work]. I just knew money was going to be tight.

“I know [without the scholarship] I probably would not have finished school, or I would have had a tougher time finishing school. It really helped me complete my degree.”

When he finished his classes that fall, Boone — like Cropper and Pemberton — said he experienced gratitude, pride and relief.

“Nobody had ever gone to college before in my family and I remember that pressure,” he said. “My family came [to commencement] in a van, they all came together. And you are the next generation, [doing] something for your family that hasn’t been done before and there are people who have supported you and you are standing on their shoulders. The feeling that comes is a sense of relief that I got this done, and I got it done for my family.

“I’m just incredibly thankful for the scholarship, and that’s why, every year I’ve been able to, I have donated to give back to other students, because I know there is someone, like me, who has another semester to get through to get to the finish line.”

Calvin Cropper Jr., his parents and then-School of Engineering Dean Russell Jamison, Ph.D., standing for a photo
Cropper, with his parents and then-School of Engineering Dean Russell Jamison, Ph.D., receiving a plaque for his Virginia's Caring University Scholarship (Photo courtesy of Calvin Cropper Jr.)

The support to finish … and then give back


Nearly 10 years after graduating, Pemberton said the scholarship played a role in getting her to where she is today — which on some days is aboard U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, where she supervises the installation of radar and GPS systems in her job at NAVAIR. She said the need for funds to help students remains as important now as ever.

“We all have something we want to accomplish and higher education is often the vehicle we take to get there,” she said. “But in order to do that we need funds and resources and support to walk across that stage.” 

Boone agreed. He called the scholarship “a blessing.” 

“There are students who may not have been given a lot of opportunity throughout their lives. Investing in them really allows them to shine, and in their own way, give back to the community,” he said.

“If you were to speak to every student that received this award, they probably all have stories of how this came at an important time for them and how they have been able to use that — and use their education here at VCU — to do some amazing things.” 

Learn more about the Marquita Aguilar Walk-A-Thon and the Virginia’s Caring University Scholarship at walkathon.vcu.edu.