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VCU ASPiRE Offers a Community-Engaged Living-Learning Experience

On Aug. 1, weeks before other VCU students returned to campus for the start of the fall semester, the corner of West Grace and South Shafer streets was already a busy place with students and their families unloading belongings in preparation for the new school year.

The students are part of the first class of 148 sophomores in the new VCU ASPiRE  (Academic Scholars Program in Real Environments) living-learning community, and they were eager to get a look at their new rooms in the new West Grace Street Student Housing-South.

“ASPiRE provides an outstanding opportunity for students to participate in integrative learning,” said Cathy Howard, Ph.D., vice provost for community engagement at VCU. “Students will combine experiences from the community with class experiences and the living experience they share into an integrative learning experience.”

VCU’s Division of Community Engagement  oversees ASPiRE and students in the program will be involved in projects with community partners to address community-identified needs in four areas: education, health, sustainability and vibrant communities.

“ASPiRE is a unique program in that we are envisioning that we can create a lasting experience that transforms our students into engaged citizens,” said Mary Slade, Ph.D., executive director of VCU ASPiRE. “Our mission is to build capacity for creating positive change, and ASPiRE offers students the tools they need to create change through coursework, co-curricular activities and a vibrant residence experience.”

Read more:
Learning, Living and Giving Back: First Group of ASPiRE Students is Eager to Start

The students, who are pursuing degrees in at least 30 fields of study, also will take four semesters of courses together through ASPiRE. This fall, students will take UNIV 200, a writing and rhetoric course, and CMST 391, a foundational course in community engagement. Slade said both courses will help students gain a deeper understanding of the practice of community engagement.

“And then the students will have three semesters to practice what they’ve learned from those courses in the community as they take additional ASPiRE courses,” Slade said.

Lynn Pelco, Ph.D., professor and director of Virginia Commonwealth University Service-learning , said service-learning and living-earning programs have been linked to greater student success in college and ASPiRE will benefit VCU students and the community.

"Through ASPiRE service-learning classes, students with varying academic interests will have opportunities to work together with community partners to address local, regional, national and international community needs," Pelco said.

Howard said VCU’s longtime engagement with the community played an important role in shaping the program.

“Understanding the community is a key component to the curriculum we’re putting together,” Howard said. “ASPiRE really is a culmination of a lot of lessons learned from the community over the years.”

The program already has attracted the interest of community groups, including nonprofit agencies, schools and government groups. Slade said community partners have long recognized the value of student volunteers and through ASPiRE VCU will deepen its engagement with the community.

“We want sustainable two-way partnerships with the community,” Slade said. “Our students are going to get networking opportunities through ASPiRE that they will maintain for the rest of their lives. They are going to meet people they never would have ordinarily met.  And so I can see a social entrepreneur in business who begins collaborating with a social worker. How cool is that going to be?”

West Grace Street Student Housing-South  includes 112 apartment style rooms with washers, dryers and kitchens; 23 study lounges; 13 common lounges; and more than 6,000 square feet of program classroom, meeting and office space on the first floor.

“The brand-new West Grace Street Student Housing-South apartments were designed to provide a maximum all-around learning-living environment, including classrooms in the building, two courtyards with one featuring an indoor/outdoor fireplace and full apartments that contain washer dryers, two bathrooms and a full kitchen,” said Reuban B. Rodriguez, Ed.D., associate vice provost and dean of student affairs.

The first group of ASPiRE students lives on the first and second floors of the residence hall. As the program grows, additional space will open for sophomore, junior and senior students. By 2014, 420 students will participate in the program.

Two days after the first students moved into the new residence hall, VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., and other university leaders toured the facility and met with staff members and student residents. 

“The ASPiRE program demonstrates to Richmond and to the region what VCU is really all about,” Rao said to ASPiRE staff who had gathered in the lobby. “You will be the face of this partnership and the face of VCU.”

The new residence hall will be joined in August 2013 by another learning-living residence hall with a global education theme directly across Grace Street on the north side. These buildings, along with the current Honors College, located on Grace and Laurel, form the Grace Street Village concept.

Students who will be sophomores or juniors in the 2013-2014 academic may apply to participate in the ASPiRE program until Nov 23. Visit the ASPiRE website at http://aspire.vcu.edu/. Those with additional questions may call 804-827-1759 or send emails to aspire@vcu.edu.

ASPiRE Living ASPiRE Learning
  • 23 study lounges and 13 common lounges
  • 3,500 square feet of first-floor lobby and lounge area
  • Apartment style rooms with washers, dryers and kitchens
  • Community Rooms that promote a family-like atmosphere
  • Access to parking
  • 12-month living contracts with single and double-room options
  • Community engagement-focused living-learning program for sophomores and juniors
  • A four-semester curricular sequence with seven credits of course work
  • Green, youth, health and community-building focus areas
  • Interact with peers from different fields of study
  • More than 6,000 square feet of program classroom, meeting and office spaces on the ground floor
  • In-house study lounges and state-of-the-art classrooms            
ASPiRE students were eager to move in when the residence hall opened on Aug. 1. Photos by Mike Porter, VCU Office of Public Affairs.
ASPiRE students were eager to move in when the residence hall opened on Aug. 1. Photos by Mike Porter, VCU Office of Public Affairs.
President Michael Rao and other university leaders toured the new residence hall on Aug. 3. Here ASPiRE student Mark Hairston shows off his room’s washer and dryer to President Rao during the tour. In-room laundry facilities are a hit with the students.
President Michael Rao and other university leaders toured the new residence hall on Aug. 3. Here ASPiRE student Mark Hairston shows off his room’s washer and dryer to President Rao during the tour. In-room laundry facilities are a hit with the students.