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It wasn’t an ordinary summer break, but students found plenty of ways to make it meaningful

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It was a summer full of uncertainties — particularly for college students. Can I get an internship? Will my summer job fall through? What activities are safe for me to do? Will my classes be online in the fall? How can I support my community during uncertain times? But despite the question marks and challenges, Virginia Commonwealth University students were able to make the most of a most unusual summer thanks to their creativity, passion and hard work.

A person wearing a mask stands holding a cellphone in their hands.
Eduardo Acevedo. Photo by Coleman Jennings, VPM.

Eduardo Acevedo, Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, College of Humanities and Sciences

Acevedo, a junior studying digital journalism who is also the news editor for The Commonwealth Times, spent hours nightly this summer covering protests around Richmond in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Acevedo described the crash course on breaking news reporting as stressful, fast paced, high energy and very adrenaline fueled. 

“I would get teargassed, find somewhere safe, make sure I was good and just continue reporting as much as possible,” Acevedo said. “So it was definitely mind-over-matter moments where you just had to steel yourself, stand your ground and make sure that nothing would stop you from typing on the phone and making sure people at home knew what was going on.” 

Acevedo had to make split-second decisions about whether to follow protests even with threats of being cornered by police. The Commonwealth Times staff watched out for each other as situations changed and marches moved around in the city. 

Acevedo said he can now read the protests’ energy: “I'll make an assumption early in the night, like, this might be the night of tear gas and pepper spray or it'll be a peaceful protest. I've also learned about the community of Richmond, how they feel, what their views are.”

Other news outlets have picked up Acevedo’s work and lauded The Commonwealth Times staff for their stamina, tenacity, attention to detail and consistency. 

His most memorable summer moments? Witnessing Confederate and Columbus monuments being taken down. 

“I couldn't believe I was able to document and see it happen before my eyes,” Acevedo said. “When the Wickham statue was removed at Monroe Park, I was live tweeting. People started surrounding it and they got it down in less than 10 minutes. The energy was crazy. We got that story out so quickly with just sheer teamwork.”

Three people sitting in a classroom wearing telephone headsets and masks.
Audra Iness.

Audra Iness, School of Medicine

Cold calling strangers is never easy. Especially now, when the world is on edge and tempers are flaring. And when you’re calling those strangers to deliver bad news, it can be downright nerve-wracking. 

But as a COVID-19 contact tracer, Iness, a student in the final year of the M.D.-Ph.D. dual degree program, spent her summer doing just that. Because of the pandemic, medical students could not work directly with patients in a clinical setting. 

“All of us were really eager to try to contribute in any way that we could, especially as medical students, because at that time we were not in the clinical environment anymore,” Iness said. “[We] were just thinking, how can we help if we’re not there actually caring for patients or helping to care for patients?” 

When the Virginia Department of Health is notified that an individual has tested positive for COVID-19, it conducts an interview asking where that person has been, whom they’ve been in contact with, and if they’re able to provide any additional information such as phone numbers. 

That’s when the contact tracer comes in.

“The contact tracers need to call that list of contacts and make sure that the contact is aware that they were exposed,” Iness said. “And of course, this is all under HIPAA privacy [laws], so we can’t disclose too much. The main purpose is for us to educate and answer any questions.”

It takes some practice, Iness said, to approach people in a way that’s more inviting of discussion rather than merely delivering news. 

“Although we’re calling to get information about their social situation and trying to assess that, we’re also serving as a resource to them,” she said. “With all the COVID pandemic information everywhere, I think a lot of people actually found it quite helpful to have a discussion.” 

Iness said she was fortunate that everyone she called was receptive. Plus, it felt good to talk with people, especially in such an isolating time. 

“It was a really, really good experience. It felt good just to help out.”

A person sits on the back of a car on the side of a highway.
Trinitee Pearson. Photo by Destiny Martinez Photography.

Trinitee Pearson, School of the Arts

As president of the Black Theatre Association, Pearson spent her summer working for racial equality in the theater world. She and other group members carefully crafted a list of demands for VCUArts faculty, asking for acknowledgement of the systematic racism encountered by Black artists in their work and study. 

In addition to her work with the Black Theatre Association, Pearson also participated in a forum on racism with the Broadway Advocacy Coalition in New York, which includes several VCU alumni. 

Pearson, a senior majoring in theater performance, co-founded the Black Theatre Association last year as a campus club where minority students could find fellowship. “When the protests started, we wanted to have a different impact,” she said.  

The group’s concerns included everything from equity in casting main stage productions to racial bias training for faculty, which prompted meetings with department faculty. 

“We’ve gone to work as a department to answer all their questions,” said Sharon Ott, chair and artistic director of the Department of Theatre. 

As a result, the department issued a VCU Theatre Anti-Racism Statement that includes condemning all forms of bigotry, racism and anti-blackness and developing an anti-racist curriculum and production season.   

Pearson felt good after meeting with faculty and seeing the changes being made. 

“I feel like it’s not just a one-sided thing. The faculty embraced us with open minds and hearts,” she said. “They have assured me they are on our side, and they want things to be better. I am excited for the changes to come.” 

The group’s paramount demand is focused on diversity and inclusion training. “I think that’s the thing we will see the soonest. It’s definitely most important to us,” Pearson said.  

Leading the Black Theatre Association in this effort was empowering, she said. 

“Before this, I wouldn’t have necessarily considered myself a leader,” she said. “I think this turned me into one and gave me a new confidence in myself.”

A person standing in a park.
E'Lora Spencer.

E’Lora Spencer, School of World Studies, College of Humanities and Sciences

Internships were scarce this summer, but with help from Anita Nadal, an assistant professor of Spanish in the School of World Studies, Spencer was able to cobble together what turned out to be a great experience, completed from her home in Virginia Beach. 

Spencer, who needed internship credits to graduate in August with dual degrees in international studies and foreign language, devised a three-part internship that combined her Spanish skills and passion for human rights.  

First, she assisted Nadal with a service-learning course providing support to students as they created materials for Casa Alitas, an Arizona nonprofit that assists migrant families. In addition to helping the students, Spencer got hands-on experience making a video in Spanish and English that shows migrants how to maneuver around in airports.  

Nadal also connected Spencer with Susheela Varky, a lawyer at the Virginia Poverty Law Center who helps immigrants who are victims of sexual and domestic abuse. Spencer translated documents, listened to audio recordings of client statements and helped implement a client survey. 

“I still am calling [clients] even though I’m technically done [with the internship],” she said. “It’s been an investment this whole summer, so I would like to see it through to the end.” 

For the most part, completing the internship remotely went smoothly, particularly because so much of the work was independent in nature.

“I think my experience would have been pretty much the same even if I had been physically there in Richmond,” Spencer said. 

Next up, Spencer plans to take the LSAT law school aptitude test, though she’s not entirely convinced she wants to be a lawyer. She is also applying for a Fulbright scholarship that she hopes will allow her to earn a master’s degree in human rights. Either way, Spencer knows she wants to be an advocate for others, and her internship put her one step closer. 

“I definitely want to pursue a career in human rights. Where that takes me or how I go about it is still flexible. … Working with Susheela [Varky] at [the Virginia Poverty Law Center] was a really great culmination to my degree.”

A portrait of Steele Farnsworth.
Steele Farnsworth.

Steele Farnsworth, College of Engineering

Farnsworth never figured he would spend the summer delving into the world of computers and their understanding of human language. But that’s exactly what he did thanks to a grant from VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. Working with Bridget McInnes, Ph.D., an assistant professor of computer science, Farnsworth developed a program to help medical professionals better understand potential adverse drug reactions.

“The goal is for the computer to recognize multiple entities when they represent the same category,” Farnsworth said. 

For the project, Farnsworth added a batch of clinical and biomedical information to a database. He wrote a computer algorithm that analyzes the data and identifies examples of adverse drug reactions. The computer looks for patterns and tries to identify similar relationships. The goal is to find circumstances where adverse drug reactions might occur, but the medical community is currently unaware. The work is important, McInnes said, because 30 percent of all adverse events in a hospital are connected to drug reactions. 

Farnsworth, a computer science major with a data science concentration, started his college career in Utah as a linguistics major but quickly realized that most careers in the field were in computer science. He transferred to VCU and connected with McInnes, whose research focuses on natural language processing. 

Farnsworth lived in Richmond over the summer, but said it was a little odd not being able to go into the lab on a daily basis, as campus was closed. He was able to do the work and communicate with McInnes, but the experience was different.  

Farnsworth and McInnes are planning to continue working together on the project this fall. They hope to develop a paper and submit it for publication. Farnsworth said he plans to enter the computer science industry after graduation but has enjoyed working in research. 

“It’s been surreal,” Farnsworth said. “I had no idea I would be doing research and that it would possibly be published.”  

A portrait of Lauren Thomas.
Lauren Thomas.

Lauren Thomas, Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, College of Humanities and Sciences

Thomas graduated in May with two bachelor’s in mass communications, one with a concentration in advertising/creative and the other with a concentration in advertising/strategic, but she didn’t pause to take a breath. She participated in an advertising boot camp with global reach, scored a remote copywriting internship with the California-based RPA advertising firm and attended a Black Lives Matter protest in Washington. 

A person holding a sign in front of plywood boards with Black Lives Matter posters. The held sign reads "Y'all haters corny with that RACIST MESS! or whatever Beyonce said."
Thomas participated in a protest in Washington, D.C., this summer.

The two-month online Camp ADventure, organized by the VCU Ad Club to address the lack of training opportunities due to COVID-19, involved hundreds of students, mentors and industry leaders. For Thomas it was a chance to connect with professionals in advertising, develop hands-on skills and build her portfolio. 

After delays, Thomas wasn’t expecting to have the internship she applied to in the spring, but that came through in July.

“I learned to be flexible since it’s online and I’m on the East Coast,” Thomas said. “I like to work in person, and with advertising you typically have a partner you collaborate with, especially when it comes to brainstorming.”

But a career in advertising wasn’t the only thing on her mind. As the protests following George Floyd’s killing intensified, she knew she couldn’t sit on the sidelines. When Thomas’ church held a protest, she led chants and helped energize the people around her. Attending a Black Lives Matter protest in Washington was especially meaningful to Thomas. 

“I felt like it would be a super important moment in history that I didn't want to miss out on,” Thomas said. “I feel very strongly about Black lives as a Black woman. Going to a protest in D.C. was super significant with Black Lives Matter Avenue in big yellow words painted on the road, and being the government center of the United States. The march towards the White House was significant and symbolic to me. I caught a drone view of us walking on CNN, small as ants, carrying a Black Lives Matter banner. Being right outside of [President Donald] Trump's front yard makes a statement.”

A portrait of Patrick Davis.
Patrick Davis.

Patrick Davis, School of World Studies, College of Humanities and Sciences 

Davis, a post-graduate student, began pursuing a certificate in Spanish-English Translation and Interpretation while working in VCU’s Office of Admissions in 2017. As part of the certificate program’s requirements, Davis needed to complete an internship where he would provide Spanish interpretation services. 

“Typically, the internship is meant to be an interpreting position in a legal or medical setting, but due to COVID-19 I had to opt for a translating position that allowed me to work completely remotely,” Davis said.

With the help of Indira Sultanic, Ph.D., an assistant professor in VCU’s foreign language program, Davis found a summer internship with Read to Them, a Richmond nonprofit organization that encourages reading and literacy.

Davis’ role was to translate documents to Spanish to support students and their families in the program. Among the documents he translated were vocabulary sheets and suggestions for activities that promote reading among children and parents.  

“I enjoyed the work that I was completing and it helped improve my vocabulary and grammar skills, as well as instill necessary nuanced skills that are a part of the translating profession,” he said.

Davis is now working as a Spanish teacher, and his summer internship gave him an opportunity to not only help the community but also practice Spanish in a different way. 

“With the certificate, I hope to take on additional work translating documents on the side as well as potentially getting placed in a clinic or court during the summers where I can act as an interpreter,” he said. “I would highly recommend this program to any student who is looking to major or minor in Spanish. It helps push you to a higher level of thinking in Spanish that differs from normal upper-level classes and is honestly a fun and interesting program with great professors.”

A portrait of Destyni Kuhns-Gray.
Destyni Kuhns-Gray.

Destyni Kuhns-Gray, School of Education

Kuhns-Gray, a senior majoring in early education and an amateur photographer, spent the summer documenting Black Lives Matter protests.

“When I began going to the protests, I wanted to capture people’s raw emotions,” she said. “Everyone had many different emotions: grief, anger, confusion, happiness, etc. and I focused on portraiture and I thought it would be great to capture people’s raw emotions.” 

Kuhns-Gray, who shares her photos on Instagram, said her summer experiences were life changing.

The Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, Virginia.
Kuhns-Gray took this photo of the graffiti-covered Robert E. Lee Monument.

“We are watching and participating in moments of history,” she said. “When I look back on my summer, I’ll remember the first time I went out until now and how different it was. Listening to speakers, advocates and people who have been personally terrorized and brutalized is an eye-opener.” 

Among the photos she took this summer, her favorite is of the Robert E. Lee monument covered in graffiti. “I think all of the artwork on it is amazing to look at. I look at pictures I took of it when it was bare to now and it’s just amazing to see the progression. Even to this day, every time I go to Marcus-David Peters Circle I feel like there is even more things on it than last time,” she said.

When someone checks out her photography from this summer, Kuhns-Gray wants them to understand that the people depicted are real people trying to bring about a more just society. 

“These are real images, and people’s genuine emotions and feelings,” she said. “This is an extremely important moment in history and I am extremely lucky to be able to document it.” 

Kuhns-Gray’s photography has been garnering notice. It was highlighted in a recent Richmond Times-Dispatch article that also ran in The Washington Post. And she was recently interviewed by RVA Magazine. 

Following graduation from VCU, Kuhns-Gray plans to work as an elementary special education teacher. In one way or another, she said, photography also lies in her future. 

“I am honestly just seeing what happens from here and will continue to shoot and seek out new opportunities,” she said.

Elinor Frisa, Brian McNeill, James Shea, Joan Tupponce, Leila Ugincius and Dina Weinstein contributed to this story.