Nauje Jones
Nauje Jones is the first VCU student to receive a Newman Civic Fellowship. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Through national fellowship, VCU’s Nauje Jones finds outlet for her commitment to the community

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Nauje Jones has long had a passion for service and a keen interest in public health. She participated in a host of community projects during her initial years as a student at Virginia Commonwealth University, especially through her membership in ASPiRE, the university’s living-learning program focused on community engagement. Still, it wasn’t until Jones became the first VCU student to receive a Newman Civic Fellowship that she found a way to direct her energies in a way that satisfied her. 

The fellowship recognizes and supports community-engaged students at institutions that are members of the Campus Compact, a coalition of colleges and universities committed to the public purpose of higher education. As part of the fellowship, Erin Burke Brown, Ph.D., director of ASPiRE, served as a mentor for Jones, meeting with her regularly this academic year to discuss her career and service interests. Jones shared that she wanted to become a nurse practitioner who specializes in women’s health in low-income urban communities. Brown soon arranged a meeting for Jones with Candace Johnson, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor in the VCU School of Nursing. When Johnson first met Jones, she could tell the undergraduate student was intelligent and driven. She also could see that Jones was “a researcher in the making.” 

“She had a philosophical approach that made me think she would be great for community-engaged research,” Johnson said. “She was an out-of-the box thinker who was very interested in doing something that would be impactful.”

The heart of the matter

Johnson invited Jones to attend a panel discussion hosted by the Association of Black Cardiologists at VCU in October. There, Jones found her purpose. The discussion tackled disparities in cardiovascular disease in the black population, particularly among women, and Jones found the topic engrossing. Forty-nine percent of black women older than age 20 have some form of heart disease, according to the American Heart Association, but only 20 percent of black women believe they personally are at risk. Black women carry almost twice the risk of stroke that white women do.

“I knew this was something that runs in my family, but we’d never talked about it before,” Jones said. “It really hit close to home.” 

Following the panel, Jones investigated the issue more closely, including speaking with friends and family about their personal experience. She also spoke to students in the ASPiRE residence hall, where she served as a resident assistant. It became clear to Jones that the subject of cardiovascular disease in black women was under-discussed and misunderstood. She knew she could do something about that.

After researching the topic, she organized programs for students at VCU to educate them about how stress, eating habits and exercise can affect their chances of getting cardiovascular disease, even at their young age. She also encouraged them to speak with their parents about their family history with the disease to gauge their risk levels.

“It felt like such a relief to find this topic,” Jones said. “I love being in the community and volunteering my time, and I’ve been working on a lot of small things that have made an impact, but I wanted to find one thing and really focus on it and help my community in a bigger way.” 

The Newman experience

Jones, who will graduate this spring with a degree in psychology from the College of Humanities and Sciences, will pursue her new interest next year in the accelerated bachelor’s degree in nursing program at the VCU School of Nursing. She said the Newman experience has helped prepare her for her next chapter of service. In addition to Brown’s mentorship, one of the chief opportunities the fellowship provided was the chance to attend a conference in Boston for the fellows. The experience proved revelatory to Jones.

For two days, Jones and other community-minded students from around the country listened to speakers and participated in a series of activities designed to “broaden our horizons,” she said. The activities not only allowed Jones to network with her peers but also offered a forum for her and her fellow students to speak about their aspirations and bounce ideas off each other.  

Jones found the interactions inspiring.

“My motto has always been that I wanted to create opportunities that otherwise didn’t exist,” she said. “At the conference, talking with the other Newman fellows, we all had the same mindset. We want to create opportunities that aren’t out there already. We want to be creative in how we address issues and we want to make a real difference. I really loved being around them.”

Jones also felt a boost from the conference’s speakers, who included entrepreneurs, nonprofit founders and political officials. Each employed creative thinking to build sustainable solutions to community challenges.

“They showed us that you don’t have to be involved in some cookie-cutter way,” Jones said. “Essentially, your involvement can be anything you want it to be. If you don’t see what you like — if you don’t see specifically how you want to address an issue — then you’re free to come up with something new on your own. I loved that.”

Dreaming big

Jones said ASPiRE, which is part of the Division of Community Engagement, has played a central part in her VCU experience. She participated in the program as a sophomore and junior, working on a range of community projects for organizations such as Shalom Farms and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Richmond, and then returned to be a resident assistant this year. Brown said Jones works hard to support others who are committed to community efforts. She recently held a workshop on compassion fatigue at William and Mary’s Active Citizens Conference, speaking to nearly 40 students from up and down the East Coast, and provided participants tips for self-care.

“She embodies what you look for in terms of leadership and wanting to be a positive agent of change,” Brown said. “She is so focused on helping make her community a better place.”

Brown and Johnson both said it is rewarding to see a student in Jones’ mold find her footing and identify a way to channel her abilities. 

“A big part of what VCU is here to do is help students like Nauje — students with passion and talent — find how they can best direct their skills,” Brown said.

Johnson said Jones has learned that she has “permission to dream big.” 

“It was a beautiful thing to be involved in — to see someone like Nauje figure it out,” Johnson said. “She had that fire burning but didn’t know exactly how to harness it, but now she does.” 

A second Newman fellow

As a member of the Campus Compact, a coalition of more than 1,000 colleges and universities committed to the public purpose of higher education, VCU is eligible to nominate community-minded students for the Newman Civic Fellowship. Jones is the university’s first fellow. Next year, Amani Harrison, a business major with a concentration in management and business administration in the VCU School of Business, will become the second.

During the Newman Civic Fellowship national conference, Jones noted speakers were quick to acknowledge the stumbles they’ve taken, while frequently citing them as instructive and crucial to the ultimate success of their endeavors. 

“They showed that it’s not usually easy,” Jones said. “But if you hang tight and keep working, you can still achieve your goal and that’s really all that matters.” 

For Jones, the lesson seemed particularly instructive. She had been turned down for admission when she applied as a sophomore to the traditional bachelor’s degree in nursing program at the School of Nursing. She didn’t let that be the end of it, though. By the time she applied to the accelerated program this year and was accepted, she knew she was a different, stronger candidate.

“It’s all about the journey and when I think about all of the things that I have done since the first time I applied for the program, I can really see the growth that I’ve made,” she said. “I can see how I’m better prepared to achieve my goals. I feel like I’m going in the right direction.”