A group of three people in graduation attire, all smiling.
Tyriq Clay, Lydia Kyeremeh and Kamyar Sharifi are three of the 41 TRIO participants who will graduate on May 11. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Marketing.)

On the brink of graduation, students from VCU’s TRIO program reflect on their pasts and look ahead to the future

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Chimene Boone, Ph.D., knows firsthand what a difference TRIO Student Support Services, a federally funded program that helps vulnerable student populations navigate college, can make. She is the director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s TRIO program, but also participated in a TRIO program as an undergraduate herself.

“Being a TRIO alum, I’ve been blessed to be able to have the highest educational degree,” she said. “I [would have never] thought about that had I not had people who said, ‘This is possible.’

“It’s very personal for me,” she said of VCU’s program, which enrolls 200 students who meet one or more of the following criteria: they are first-generation, they are low-income or they have a disability.

TRIO provides a wide array of benefits and support mechanisms to make sure these students can succeed at VCU. Participants must meet with Boone or TRIO adviser Michelle Bair three times a semester for advising sessions that go well beyond academics.

“We could start out talking about classes and then move on to, ‘I hate my roommate and I want to move out,’” said Boone. If a student is having a mental health issue, Boone may walk the student over to the counseling office. If they are having a problem with financial aid, she will pick up the phone and call TRIO’s designated liaison in the financial aid office.

“In essence, we make sure the student is in a good place before they leave our office by making all the connections [with other units] that we need to,” she said.

Those connections are many. TRIO, which at VCU is part of the Division of Strategic Enrollment Management, works with the housing office to ensure students are guaranteed spots in on-campus housing should they choose to live on campus. TRIO students also get to register for classes early. They must meet with Money Spot coaches at least once a year to improve their financial literacy. TRIO partners with Career Services and other units to provide workshops throughout the year. And the TRIO office takes students on trips to tour graduate schools in places such as Philadelphia and the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area.

But just as important as the tactical services and resources the program provides is the opportunity for TRIO students to get to know each other.

A group of people, must standing and one using a wheelchair, stand by a lectern reading V C U.
Sociology professor Tressie McMillan Cottom, Ph.D. (front row, third from left), who is an alumna of a TRIO program, spoke at an event celebrating the TRIO students who are graduating from VCU this month. (Photo by Jonathan Dodd, Strategic Enrollment Management.)

“Our office is designed to be friendly to our students to come in, to hang out,” Boone said. “Sometimes they will have lunch in there [or] they will hang out and have study groups. … It’s a way for our students to be connected to each other and to build a community and a family.”

TRIO launched at VCU in January 2015 and this year is graduating its first cohort of students who have been participants since their freshman year. Those years of additional support have paid off for the four students we spoke to about their time at VCU and what lies ahead. Whether it’s becoming a doctor or designing air travel of the future, these TRIO participants have big career goals and the confidence, skills and knowledge to make them happen. 

How have you changed since your first day at VCU?

Lydia Kyeremeh (B.S. in Health, Physical Education and Exercise Science, College of Humanities and Sciences): I’ve definitely become more outgoing and outspoken since my first day at VCU. I remember being so nervous about being away from home, but I quickly adjusted. I’ve learned so much about myself through many trials and tribulations, which has led to accomplishing so many of the goals that I set for myself before graduating

Tyriq Clay (B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, College of Engineering): I started college with a clear mind. I walked on campus with the idea that, “Everything that I will experience from here on out will be something I haven’t experienced in grade school up to high school.” I was going to take a back seat and watch as events and opportunities unfolded in front of me. This mindset gave me the greatest group of friends who loved to hear out my crazy ideas and adventures and we came up with some pretty unique stories, so much so that I can’t recall half of them unless they bring it up in conversation.

Zhakia Scott (B.S.W., School of Social Work): Over the course of my undergraduate career, I have changed by becoming more culturally competent and empathetic with others. As a social work major, my field experience has truly given me the opportunity to see direct interactions with clients and what future daily situations with them will be like.   

A smiling person in a blue dress stands in front of a rooftop garden.
Zhakia Scott said her favorite VCU memory is the semester she joined the Theta Rho Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. "Through this experience I gained 33 sisters, bonds and relationships." (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing.)

Kamyar Sharifi (B.S. in Biology, College of Humanities and Sciences): Well, at first I struggled a little in managing my time and getting things done. I still remember my first semester of college when I didn’t take care of myself and had to sacrifice my hobbies. However, I have learned that self-care is really important. I have quite a lot of things to do every day being a full-time student, volunteering, having a job, working on my Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program project and writing my thesis but I still make sure to study, be happy, socialize, stay active, dance, sleep on time and try new things. 

What are your plans after graduation?

Kyeremeh: I have always had dreams of being part of a team of people who effortlessly dedicate their time to working with individuals in need. Naturally, having the characteristics of a caretaker, I fell in love with the career of nursing. After graduation I will be attending nursing school at Jefferson College of Health Sciences in Roanoke, Virginia. I was fortunate enough to be admitted into their fall 2019 Accelerated Nursing cohort and look forward to earning my nursing degree.

Clay: The first thing I have to do after I walk across that stage is hop on a cruise ship. I need to travel to a bunch of places before the summer is over to get a feel of what some parts of the world look like. College has taught me that opportunities are everywhere, and there are a bunch of doors that seemed locked at first, but were actually open the whole time.

After the summer is over, I will reset my mindset again, as I will be moving to Saint Louis to begin working at a major aerospace company (a quick shout out to the National Society of Black Engineers for that opportunity).

I’m certain that my new hobby will be traveling from here on out, as I learn about the world and its people from all over. 

A smiling person stands while holding a skateboard.
Tyriq Clay wants to travel the world, but Richmond and VCU have set the bar high. "Everyplace I visit from here on will be heavily scrutinized to see if they can compete with what VCU is as a community and as a city," he said. "We’ll see how things measure up from here." (Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing.)

Scott: With personal interest in school and international social work as well as disaster relief, I plan to pursue higher education by receiving a Master of Social Work in an Advanced Standing Program and later in life to hopefully get licensed with my LCSW. As I found the passion for it all when I studied abroad in the Dominican Republic in 2017 with the VCU School of Social Work, I could even see myself in the future after graduate school doing work in developing countries and potentially working for government branches such as [the Federal Emergency Management Agency].

Sharifi: I am moving to Bethesda, Maryland, in June to start my Intramural Research Training Award fellowship with the National Human Genome Research Institute for two years, and I am planning to apply to medical school after that. 

How has TRIO helped you along the way?

Kyeremeh: TRIO has encouraged me to go beyond my normal boundaries and continuously put forth the most effort into achieving my goals. Being a first-generation college student, I’ve dreamt of the day I’d be graduating from a university. TRIO has helped make that possible with their active efforts in helping students who need financial aid.

My adviser, Michelle Bair, has been such an amazing individual who has guided me since freshman year into the driven and hardworking woman I am today. The endless opportunities TRIO has provided throughout my undergraduate years are those that will be forever cherished.

A smiling person in a gray tank top, in front of Cabell Library.
Being snowed in at her freshman-year residence hall is one of Lydia Kyeremeh's favorite VCU memories. "We all went from floor to floor just mingling with each other out of boredom, which actually turned out to be a great opportunity to meet a new and diverse group of people," she said. "I ended up meeting some of my best friends." (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Marketing.)

Clay: TRIO has helped me lay the foundation for striving to my goals. They gave me the basis to always go for things as they come into your life. If it wasn’t for TRIO, I probably wouldn’t have opened half the doors I was presented. 

They make me feel so outgoing and they show me what it’s like to look ahead and grab hold of anything you see, even when at first it looks as if it’s out of reach. I stay in touch with TRIO when I know my mind is cluttered and I can’t think straight, or I lose sight of where I am going. I’ve learned a lot just from watching TRIO grow to what it is now, and I feel like I can grow just as easily. 

Scott: TRIO has been a great support by encouraging me to apply for graduate school, scholarships and more. TRIO is always there when you need them. The office staff continually checks on my progress and academic success as well as my overall well-being.

Sharifi: TRIO has played an important role in assisting students to find the right resources based on their interests. In particular, TRIO enabled me to explore different graduate programs in various schools by having graduate tours.

With the help of TRIO, I was able to get funding to present my research posters in three different conferences in the last years. TRIO’s yearly national McNair Conference helped me get to know recruiters and researchers from different biomedical science programs and be in touch with them. Both Michelle and Dr. Boone are very supportive of students, and they make sure each student in the program is doing well. 

Kamyar Sharifi looks back fondly on his first VCU experience — RAM CAMP — and the leadership skills it fostered. "I still remember when we participated in the challenge discovery program and climbed up the ropes. We were scared, but we trusted each other to finish it." (Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing.)
Kamyar Sharifi looks back fondly on his first VCU experience — RAM CAMP — and the leadership skills it fostered. "I still remember when we participated in the challenge discovery program and climbed up the ropes. We were scared, but we trusted each other to finish it." (Photo by Allen Jones, University Marketing.)

As graduation approaches, what are you most proud of from your time at VCU? 

Kyeremeh: Although there are many things I am proud of, what stands out to me is my growth throughout my time at VCU. I never would have imagined being president of a huge student organization [the African Student Union] or presenting my research at the Undergraduate Research Symposium, but I did it! VCU has continuously given me the opportunity to step out of my comfort zone, meet new people and create connections and help me grow in my future endeavors. 

Clay: As graduation approaches, I must say I feel like what I’ve learned through this degree in engineering is far more than just equations and calculations. I feel like I’ve learned how to obtain results, and whether they are good or bad, I will have learned something in the end.

Some of these classes that I’ve taken have taught me how to learn new concepts and skills completely different from the material presented in class — concepts like time management, perseverance and how to analyze results, good or bad. With this knowledge, I feel like I can tackle any problem in day-to-day life, not just mechanical problems. There are very few obstacles in my path that I can’t work around after studying it for a bit. That realization gives me a lot of confidence each day.

Scott: As graduation approaches, looking back I am most proud of all the accolades I have accrued and the accomplishments I have received from VCU as a whole and the School of Social Work. It has instilled confidence in me like none other. Looking back, I am proud to say I have expanded my leadership skills by serving through the department as a B.S.W. student representative. In addition, throughout my time here I received the Presidential International Scholarship Award, a Phi Kappa Phi Honor Scholarship, an Academic Achievement Award, the VCU Community Engagement Scholarship in 2017 through Business Services and a Black History in the Making Award. Recently I was recognized by the Board of Visitors and the dean of the School of Social Work for outstanding student performance.

Outside the role of a student, I am fortunate to be able to juggle being the sorority president of Alpha Kappa Alpha’s Theta Rho Chapter and a resident assistant for VCU Housing. Through all of these capacities I have had amazing networking opportunities and a chance to build human-to-human connection, expertise and knowledge of person-in-environment skills. 

Sharifi: I am proud to say that I learned how to manage my time so that I did not have to sacrifice anything. I have been quite fortunate to have explored resources in academia, as I was involved in working with quite a few communities around Richmond such as Carver Promise, OAR of Richmond and Saturday Literacy Academy as well as different programs in our school such as VCU Globe, the service-learning teaching assistant program and the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program.