Roughly 2,900 students will receive degrees and certificates from VCU this weekend.
<br>Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing

Meet some of the talented students graduating from VCU this December

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While you are more likely to see holiday cards than graduation cards lining gift shop shelves this time of year, December is graduation season for the roughly 2,900 students who will receive degrees and certificates from Virginia Commonwealth University later this week. Here we highlight a few of the many stellar students who are saying goodbye to their time at VCU and moving forward to promising futures.

Rickki Jones, College of Humanities and Sciences

Rickki Jones.
Rickki Jones.

Growing up, Jones loved watching criminal investigation-themed shows like CSI and NCIS. They inspired her to pursue a degree in forensic science.

“I am a product of the CSI effect,” said Jones, who minored in chemistry and criminal justice.

Following graduation, Jones will work as a lab assistant and plans to go on to a career as a DNA analyst. In the long-term, she is aiming to be a pathologist assistant.

“It makes me excited just thinking I’m a few steps closer to making my dreams come true because this is the field no one wants to talk about — death, homicide, rape and [other crimes] are serious matters that need quality and dedicated people who can help see the cases through until the end to successful completion and [who can] improve justice from the scientific background,” she said.

Jones, who is from Bedford, Virginia, is the first in her immediate family to graduate from college.

“VCU was a drastic change for me,” she said, noting how she was struck by going from often being the only black person in class in her hometown to encountering VCU’s rich diversity of races and cultures.

At VCU, Jones participated in a long list of extracurricular activities, including VCU Club Softball, the Black Awakening Choir at VCU, VCU Forensic Science Club, and the Epsilon Zeta Chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Inc. She was a middle school girls’ softball coach and volunteered at VCU Medical Center in the Department of Emergency Medicine and elsewhere.

“Everyone’s journey is different and the quote that got me through this last year was: ‘Don't compare your life to others, there’s no comparison between the sun and the moon, they both shine when it is their time,’” she said. “After all the tears, Google searches, meetings with my advisors, laughs and memories and friendships, it is my time to shine.”


Heber Aviles, School of Allied Health Professions

Heber Aviles.
Heber Aviles.

As a young father in Chile, Aviles recalls the moment doctors told him his four-month-old daughter, Jarla, had congenital heart disease. “We were told there was no solution and she would die before she reached one year,” he said. “We were desperate for medical care.”

The family came to Chicago seeking medical treatment on visitor visa in 1992. When he wasn’t working odd jobs such as shoveling snow, Aviles was at the hospital. Doctors there did a total repair of Jarla’s heart, and she returned throughout childhood for follow-up appointments. “When my daughter was sick, I was not able to listen to people,” Aviles said. “We were too deeply involved knowing she could die at any moment.”

In December, Aviles will graduate from VCU School of Allied Health Professions’ graduate program in patient counseling. His experience with his daughter’s illness helped inform his work as a hospital chaplain at VCU Health, where he often counsels families who are grappling with a loved one’s illness.

“When I was in that situation, I didn’t want anyone to talk to me,” Aviles said. “Now I understand when I see similar situations. For some people, just my presence is enough. Sometimes a hug is more important than talking.”

Every week, Aviles reflects on his experiences in meetings with his fellow students and departmental faculty. “There is no hierarchy among professors and students here,” Aviles said. “We are a team.”

His classmates and professors were waiting for him in Richmond when he returned from receiving U.S. citizenship in October 2016. “Everyone was hugging and celebrating together,” Aviles said. “It was like everyone received the citizenship certificate with me.”

His daughter is now 26 and pursuing an economics degree in Chicago. He sees his work as a hospital chaplain as a way to give back to a country that has given him so much.

“This is my country,” Aviles said. “I care for this country and I care for these people. I want to be there with them through their most difficult situations.”  


Curtis R. Holloway, School of Business

Curtis R. Holloway.
Curtis R. Holloway.

One of Holloway’s proudest achievements at VCU? Not being named Homecoming King this year.

“I did not win but I learned so much about myself [by] stepping out of my comfort zone and running,” said the fashionable Holloway, who this month graduates with a degree in accounting and human resources.

Holloway made the most of his time here, becoming a resident assistant and a member of the National Association of Black Accountants at VCU, Global Brigades at VCU: Business & Public Health, and the Business Student Ambassadors. The latter group’s transparency and inspirational stories influenced Holloway’s decision to attend VCU.

“I admired how, at VCU, it did not feel like a competition,” Holloway said. “Everyone is willing to support each other.”

After graduation, Holloway will move back to his hometown in Maryland to study for his CPA exam. In September, he will join the accounting firm BDO as an audit associate. Before then, he will “continue to practice self-care by doing things I always wanted to do,” such as learning new skills and taking vacations to places he’s always wanted to visit.

He’ll always treasure his experiences at VCU, where he says he learned so much about himself. For instance, he carries with him the wisdom that every obstacle is part of his success story and not to give up when times get hard.

“Overcoming obstacles is what makes the celebration of success more fun,” he said. “Also, know that it is your future, not anyone else’s, so make decisions that make you happy.”


Ayesha Chawla, C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research

Ayesha Chawla.
Ayesha Chawla.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy in Mumbai, India, in 2011, Chawla came to the United States to pursue a graduate degree in biomedical sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The Mumbai native’s interest in cancer research eventually led her to VCU’s Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, where she has been performing intensive research in colon and pancreatic cancer at Massey Cancer Center since August 2013. “Understanding the complexity of the disease is my key interest,” Chawla said. The 28-year-old researcher works in the laboratory of Steven Grossman, M.D., Ph.D., who is chair of the School of Medicine’s Division of Hematology, Oncology and Palliative Care. Grossman is also the deputy director and Dianne Nunnally Hoppes Endowed Chair in Cancer Research at VCU Massey Cancer Center.

Chawla’s favorite memories at VCU have come from the time she spent with VCU’s Indian cultural organization, Tiranga.

“I love this organization,” she said. “I wanted to be a part of it because it would not only bring me closer to the VCU community, but it would also groom my organization and interpersonal skills.”

Through Tiranga, Chawla worked with other students to organize cultural events and participate in International Student Orientation. They also hosted fundraisers and welcomed new Indian students to VCU.

“As part of [Tiranga] I spent time with people from different cultures and organizations,” Chawla said. “It was the richest experience I got at VCU.”

Chawla will continue at VCU as a post-doctoral researcher in the same laboratory where she did her doctoral research. Eventually, she hopes to work as a research scientist at a pharmaceutical or biotechnology company.

“Cancer research is the need of the hour with increasing incidence rates of the disease,” Chawla said. “I want to contribute my part to the science of cancer by developing mechanisms for curing it.”


Thomas Tonapi, School of the Arts

Thomas Tonapi. Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing
Thomas Tonapi. Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing

Graphic design attracts Tonapi because it facilitates communication.

“Design unifies us under a common visual language,” said Tonapi, who receives his B.F.A. in graphic design this month. “Graphic design is everywhere. … Beyond that, it’s beautiful. It's hard to describe, but there is just something exhilarating about creating powerful visuals that grab people’s attention. To see your design and vision come to life is truly magical.”

One of Tonapi’s proudest moments at VCU was working on a Capital One project to make call center agents’ work less stressful and tedious. He was ecstatic to have a real, measurable impact on improving everyday lives.

Pursuing the da Vinci Center’s Product of Innovation certificate was equally amazing, he said.

“I cannot stress enough how great this course was. What made it so unique and memorable was the ardent commitment of each student in the program and the level of cross-disciplinary collaboration,” Tonapi said. “The program taught me how to better work in a team, problem solve and time manage challenging projects. I’m so glad VCU pushes programs that break departmental barriers and allow the university to feel like one big family.”

In the future, Tonapi hopes to continue his education.

“I am always hungry for knowledge and I wish to continue learning and pushing myself to new concepts,” he said. “ … I want to be a positive force, pushing creative solutions and ideas that help people globally to a better life. … I will take what I’ve learned at VCU and proudly represent the university wherever I end up.”


Amy Carlson, School of Nursing

Amy Carlson.
Amy Carlson.

As a full-time nurse, mother of two young boys and wife, Carlson appreciated the flexibility offered through the VCU School of Nursing’s Registered Nurse-to-Bachelor of Science in Nursing program, which is known as the RN-to-B.S. program. The online program allows registered nurses to earn a bachelor’s degree while working full time.

“Students can effectively learn and process course work any time of the day or night to meet the demanding needs of their own schedules, which allows for a good work-life balance,” Carlson said.

The 41-year-old clinical nurse educator who lives in Hampton Roads, Virginia, was also grateful that the online program allowed her to attend VCU remotely. “I chose VCU because of its excellent reputation and the ease of transition for working students,” she said, adding that scholarships she received through VCU, such as the Betsy Bampton RN-B.S. scholarship she received this year, helped her with tuition.

Carlson completed her practicum at Riverside Regional Medical Center, where she works in the Women and Infant Care Services unit. Through the practicum, she helped develop and implement strategies to improve response to postpartum hemorrhages.

“Working on that project was a valuable experience as I was able to see the factors that go into making a quality improvement change,” she said. “It was a wonderful experience for me as well because I currently work on the postpartum unit so I was able to take some of the knowledge gained from this practicum and apply it to my own clinical work environment.”

After graduating, Carlson plans to continue in the clinical nurse educator role at Riverside Regional Medical Center. She is also considering returning to VCU School of Nursing for an advanced degree.

“This degree provides an excellent foundation for further education should I decide to pursue a master’s degree or nurse practitioner program in the future,” she said.


Austin Hobson, School of Engineering

Austin Hobson. Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing
Austin Hobson. Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing

If you want to make a change in life, don’t be afraid to go out and try, Hobson says. After working at Markel with a business degree under his belt, Hobson decided to return to VCU for a post-baccalaureate certificate in computer science from the School of Engineering.

“It was a pretty scary thing changing my career focus 180 degrees, and I definitely had to work hard to achieve it, but the rewards of doing so are more than worth the sacrifice it took to get here,” said Hobson, who joins CoStar as an associate software developer in January. “I am extremely excited to be working in a position that I am passionate about, under mentors who will allow me to grow even more as a software developer. It’s also pretty awesome that they brought these positions to Richmond and are helping to expand the tech scene of the city.”

While juggling a job, an internship and a full course load, Hobson was able to maintain a 4.0 GPA in his computer science classes, something of which he is immensely proud.

“I was not as fortunate in my business degree and it has been very cathartic for me to make amends for that now,” he said.

Hobson credits the guidance of other computer science students for helping him become a better software developer and engineer. In turn, he helped prepare younger students on what to expect in the industry as well as the more advanced classes in the course.


Amber Phillips, Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture

Amber Phillips.
Amber Phillips.

For Phillips, the best part of her time at VCU was the people she met.

“I got very involved in a few very niche communities,” she said. “I have friends who are very active politically. I have friends who are into drag. [Making friends with people from all] different points of the spectrum, I just found it to be so valuable.”

One of her favorite things was to simply sit outside on the Compass and people watch.

“I would just start up conversations with people, people would chat me up, see what books I was reading and things like that,” she said. “The personal interactions are what I enjoyed most about my time here.”

Following graduation, Phillips — who studied creative advertising at the Robertson School in the College of Humanities and Sciences and minored in Spanish and business — has a graphic design internship lined up at a Richmond studio.

Eventually, however, she plans to open her own business. “I have plans to make a cafe of sorts,” she said. “I want it to be geared toward Salvadoran cuisine, inspired by my mom.”

While at VCU, Phillips was involved with the Latino Student Association and Political Latinxs United for Movement and Action in Society, or PLUMAS, an organization focused on uniting Latinx students and allies to enact social action for the rights of Latinxs in the U.S.

She also worked her way through school, serving as a technician responsible for maintaining and fixing equipment for VCU Recreational Sports.

“I went from probably being able to just use a power drill and things like that to now, when I can pretty much troubleshoot anything,” she said. “It gave me the confidence to be more of a do-it-yourselfer, which is pretty cool.”