New VCU Honors College course inspires personal engagement with Richmond communities

Featured photo
Carroll Ellis Jr., educator at the Math Science Innovation Center, tells an Honors 160 student group about Northside Richmond's Battery Park. (contributed photo)

Not many first-year college students would eagerly attend a local school board meeting — especially not one that lasts more than five hours. But Jack Wilson, a political science major from Mechanicsville, Virginia, recently did just that.

“He told me that his interest in education and Richmond Public Schools is a direct result of his work with the community this semester,” said Amanda Hall, assistant director of service learning in VCU’s Division of Community Engagement and Wilson’s instructor for Honors 160: Introduction to Community Engagement. The required course, developed by the Honors College in partnership with the Division of Community Engagement, guides entering freshmen to consider their roles in society and serves as a foundation for the contributions they will make as honors students and as citizens.

Honors 160 is not only helping honors students. The course is now available online as an open access curriculum for use by university and high school faculty.

“Our honors community is comprised of students who have the capacity to do exceptionally well, but perhaps more importantly, every honors student has the capacity to do good,” said Jacqueline Smith-Mason, associate dean and director of academic affairs for The Honors College. “Through this course, our students use an interdisciplinary approach to analyze and actively engage in principles and practices of community engagement through a local lens.”

While the course asks students to demonstrate participation in at least five off-campus activities, Wilson honed in on one: Carver Promise, which provides weekly mentoring and educational support for 350 low-income students at G.W. Carver Elementary School not far from VCU’s Monroe Park Campus. VCU has worked in partnership with the nearby school since 1996 — before the current first-year students were born. Carver was named a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education in 2016 for its exceptional Virginia Standards of Learning performance.

Amanda Hall, assistant director of service learning in VCU’s Division of Community Engagement, and Jack Wilson, student in the VCU Honors College.
Amanda Hall, assistant director of service learning in VCU’s Division of Community Engagement, and Jack Wilson, student in the VCU Honors College.

Wilson learned that “elementary education is extremely important in creating a better future for students; however, in Richmond's case, not all kids have access to quality resources to flourish during their elementary years.”

Wilson mentors “D,” whom he calls “an insanely bright boy, with a great future — if he had the proper resources.” In fact, Wilson’s devotion to D and his school prompted him to organize a supply drive to support the students’ academic futures. Wilson’s efforts raised more than $500 in a matter of weeks. He purchased items of need in bulk from Amazon with the funds.

“When I shared with Jack that the VCU Police Department was collecting stocking stuffers for Carver,” Hall said, “he was excited to take his remaining funds and purchase items for the stockings!”

Engagement means working toward real change through sustained involvement, not just one-time volunteering.

Wilson is one of many students making meaningful community connections. Honors student Christine Huynh’s five-hour tour of five Richmond arts spaces, offered in collaboration with VCU’s Institute for Contemporary Art, showed her “how people can use art to bring awareness to different social issues,” she said. Huynh, who is also vice president of the newly-founded Photography Club, helped organize a volunteer event where club photographers made images for Lobs and Lessons, a program of the Mary and Frances Youth Center. The center provides life lessons and tennis practice for underserved children.

“I’ve learned about ways that are available to help,” Huynh said. “Engagement means working toward real change through sustained involvement, not just one-time volunteering.”

Huynh ended the semester with a van tour through Richmond’s Northside neighborhood, an area rich in history yet burdened by economic disparity.

Hollee Freeman, Huynh’s Honors 160 instructor and executive director of Richmond’s MathScience Innovation Center, invited Partnership for Families executive director Veronica Fleming to serve as a guide for the Northside tour. Fleming and the students visited the Gilpin Court subsidized housing community, where 78 percent of the 2,900 residents live below the poverty line with a median annual income of $9,300; as well as the Cannon Creek Greenway, a reclaimed trash dump that now offers cycling and walking trails. They saw new revitalization projects like the Six Points Innovation Center and the conversion of the former Highland Park High School into senior residences. Carroll Ellis III, educator at the MSiC and long-time resident of Barton Heights, also led a tour.

As the students stood overlooking Battery Park, co-instructor Tyren Frazier, Richmond executive director of Higher Achievement, reminded them, “You have a narrative for our community. Now it is up to you to continue your engagement.”


Subscribe for free to the VCU News email newsletter at and receive a selection of stories, videos, photos, news clips and event listings in your inbox every Monday and Thursday during the academic year.