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VCU's newest graduates reflect on the moments that mattered

From left: Saleana Copeland, Tuyet Duong, Adalyn Nguyen, Hung Nguyen, and Seth Mitchell.
From left: Saleana Copeland, Tuyet Duong, Adalyn Nguyen, Hung Nguyen, and Seth Mitchell. (Photo credit: Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

For nearly 3,000 Virginia Commonwealth University students, the commencement ceremony on Dec. 8 marks both the end of a journey and the start of something new. After years of juggling class schedules, late nights in the library, meetings with advisers and professors, and writing draft after draft of papers, graduation day is nearly here. They will leave VCU with bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees as well as a wealth of experiences and networks gained within and outside the classroom.

Meet some December graduates who are ready to take flight with their well-earned degrees.

Katherine Matais
Katherine Matais. (Photo credit: Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Katherine Matais, School of Nursing


When Matais diligently took notes during a health assessment class, she had no idea that it would save her life. Matais used her assessment skills to diagnose herself with melanoma on the bottom of her left foot during her first semester in the nursing school’s accelerated bachelor’s program. Survival rates dip severely for the skin cancer after metastasis but Matais fortunately discovered it early.

“During one of the first weeks of the class, we learned how to properly assess a patient for suspicious skin changes. After assessing myself, I quickly found a suspicious lesion,” she said. “I went to the dermatologist right away and because of my health assessment class I caught it in its earliest stages.”

Matais was partially inspired by her experience with cancer to pursue a career in oncology. She was recently hired as an inpatient bone marrow transplantation nurse at Duke University Medical Center, where she will provide care for patients receiving bone marrow transplants. The transplants are used to cure or extend the remission periods for certain cancers such as leukemia.

“These patients really require a lot of extensive and complex care,” Matais said. “My experience would also allow me to provide psychosocial care. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to care for others whether it’s physiologically, mentally or spiritually.” 

Matais, originally from Chesapeake, Virginia, previously earned a bachelor’s degree in exercise and nutrition science from Virginia Tech, which helped in her study of nursing.

“I was able to build a strong foundational understanding of disease development from a physiological and nutritional standpoint,” she said. “This primes me to approach nursing from a complex cellular perspective and heightens my interest in cancer’s cellular pathology.”

Matais deepened her knowledge of oncology by assisting Theresa Swift-Scanlan, Ph.D., director of Biobehavioral Laboratory Services in the VCU School of Nursing, in studies of a gene that has been linked to higher incidences of certain breast cancers and, coincidentally, is associated with melanoma. 

Matais said Swift-Scanlan and other nursing faculty mentored her, as did her mother, who is a nurse.  

“These women were instrumental in shaping me into the confident, passionate nurse I am today,” she said.

Justin Coleman.
Justin Coleman. (Photo credit: Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Justin Coleman, College of Humanities and Sciences


Coleman applied to VCU because Richmond was so different from his rural hometown of Cumberland, Virginia.

“Growing up in a farm town made me want to venture to a bigger city and see what the world had to offer,” he said.

Over the past four years, Coleman has come to love the city and his university.

“My experience here at VCU has been amazing,” he said. “It’s been a pleasure to be a part of such a diverse community. But not only a diverse community that cares for the well-being of its student body, but a community that listens and proactively accommodates in time of need.”

Coleman, an exercise science student in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences in the College of Humanities and Sciences who is minoring in psychology and business, is the first in his family to graduate from college.

“I’m pretty honored and excited,” he said. “My parents have pushed me to be nothing but the best and have instilled such a goal-setting mentality within me that I’m excited for the future.”

While at VCU, Coleman held a variety of jobs and participated in numerous extracurricular activities.

He worked as a physical therapy technician, a facility manager at the Cary Street Gym, an ultrasound technician at the School of Medicine and a brand ambassador for food delivery company OrderUp. He also had internships in sports medicine at the University of Richmond, in cardiac rehab at Chippenham Hospital and with food delivery service Chop Chop RVA.

At the same time, Coleman found time to be a member of VCU’s cheerleading squad, cheering primarily at men’s and women’s basketball games; a member of the Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity; and a volleyball player with Stonewall Sports, a sports league for LGBTQIA+ individuals and allies.

After graduation, Coleman will pursue a master’s degree in public health with a concentration in epidemiology at George Washington University. He hopes eventually to work at the National Institutes of Health or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, conducting research on infectious diseases.

“VCU has made me the well-rounded individual that I am today and I owe my attributes to this wonderful ‘Ramily,’” he said.

Tuyet Duong and Hung Nguyen, and baby Adalyn.
Tuyet Duong and Hung Nguyen, and baby Adalyn. (Photo credit: Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Tuyet Duong and Hung Nguyen, College of Engineering


Nguyen became interested in computer science during his undergraduate study in his home country of Vietnam, where he took advanced computer science courses and began conducting research for small projects. Incidentally, that’s also where he met Duong.

“We were in the same class for four years and took most of the courses together,” Nguyen said. “We both got [admitted] to VCU at the same time and got married before coming here.”

The couple feels like they found a family in Richmond and VCU. Nguyen calls the university “diverse but bonded” and said he’s never seen a similar environment elsewhere. Duong recalls a time during their first year when both were sick and missing their family and friends in Hanoi. An American family brought them pho — the traditional Vietnamese noodle soup — making them feel at home. 

That warmth extended to the classroom as well. As an international student who did not speak much English, Duong, at first, was shy and afraid to ask questions during lectures.

“I was very excited at the same time,” she said. “Eventually, I was encouraged by the lecturers and other students in the classes. I truly participated [in] the classes and have learned a lot from them.”It didn’t hurt that she shared some of those classes with her husband.

Both fondly recall the experience.

“Taking the same courses with my husband was the best part,” said Duong, who dreamed of being a scientist as a child. “Like you always have someone to talk to and discuss the lectures and topics you learn from the classes. The disadvantage was that we had to argue a lot more at home.” 

The couple, who finished their doctoral programs this summer, now live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with their daughter, Adalyn — named after the first female computer scientist, Ada Lovelace. Duong is a research assistant. Nguyen is a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University. He plans to apply for a faculty position at the end of the fellowship. His preferred destination is a university in Virginia.

“We have traveled and stayed in some other states and cities,” Duong said, “but Richmond is still our best choice. Here, people are so kind toward each other, the food is great and all of our best memories are here.”

Briana Nelson.
Briana Nelson. (Photo credit: Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Briana Nelson, School of Business


Nelson, a former track and field All-American at the University of Texas, is ambitious — and also realistic. She knows she can’t run forever. She knew it after placing first in the 4-x-400 meter relay at the 2014 NCAA Track and Field Championships, and after signing a contract to run professionally under a Nike sponsorship following her college graduation.

“I think it’s important to keep in mind what’s next,” said Nelson, who is originally from Greenville, South Carolina. “The average female professional track athlete retires around 30 or 32. Sometimes, we as athletes get so consumed in our sport that we fail to think about the fact that the majority of our life will occur after the sport is over.”

After competing professionally for three years and sustaining some back injuries, Nelson decided to begin the transition to life after track last year by pursuing a master’s degree.

“I got my undergrad degree in economics and I knew I wanted to go into finance,” she said. “I live in Newport News and when I saw VCU had a master’s [concentration] in finance I jumped on it immediately.”

Nelson spent the fall of 2017 teaching physical education, training and commuting — four days a week — to Richmond to take night classes at VCU. At the end of her first semester, she decided to put her track career on hold. 

“It was definitely a blessing that VCU had this program. I needed the flexibility to work and train and still get to class,” Nelson said. “[But] I realized what I was putting myself through — trying to nurse an injury, train, go to school full time and work full time — that something had to give.” 

With track on the back burner, Nelson completed the two-year program a semester early. She spent the past summer studying in London through VCU’s International Consulting Program, which provides business students an opportunity to work with companies abroad.

Nelson recently accepted a full-time position at Capital One. And though her track career is on hold, she hasn’t ruled out a comeback.

“If I can nurse myself back to health then I would not rule out going back,” she said. “I’m 26. Time is in my favor. With Tokyo 2020 coming up, that would be excellent — it’s always been my dream to make an Olympic team.”

Nicholas Pendleton.
Nicholas Pendleton. (Photo credit: Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Nicholas Pendleton, VCU Life Sciences


Pendleton grew up in Richmond but arrived at VCU after a global detour. His family moved to Bangkok, Thailand, where he attended an international high school. 

“Moving over there it seemed like a relief compared to being seen as the outsider, someone very different or stereotyped. I was able to get more confidence there … and become who I am,” Pendleton said.

While looking for in-state schools back in Virginia, VCU jumped out.

“VCU was very diverse and I was able to connect with people from an international background because I joined VCU Globe,” he said. “Globe has definitely been a powerful thing in what I’m shooting for, because it’s given me a lot of background, support and friends. The skills that you walk away with you can use in any field.” 

Although he came to campus as an undeclared major on a pre-med track, Pendleton found himself drawn to environmental science as a means to serve others while embracing his love of the outdoors and travel.

For two years, he has worked at the Science Museum of Virginia as a gallery educator. Since the summer, he has helped Jeremy Hoffman, Ph.D., climate and earth scientist at the museum, conduct research on the relationship between redlining — a practice of rejecting minority neighborhoods for loans and investment — and surface temperatures today.

“There is injustice happening, even today,” Pendleton said. “If you consider somewhere like [the Richmond neighborhoods of] Carver or Jackson Ward, you can see a major difference in the temperaturecompared to Monument [Avenue] on the same day and time.” 

Pendleton found opportunities to pursue his studies locally and globally. A summer study abroad program looking at two diseases affecting coffee growers in Costa Rica immersed Pendleton in Central American culture and the Spanish language.

“I was able to get out in the field and work with these areas like coffee fields and take my own independent projects,” Pendleton said. “I was looking at ways to help manage these diseases and take a more environmentally friendly approach to it.”

As he prepares to graduate with a B.S. in environmental studies from VCU Life Sciences and a minor in chemistry from the College of Humanities and Sciences, he hopes to pursue a graduate degree. 

I want to focus on research because I want to develop and mitigate climate change for its effects on human health,” he said.

Saleana Copeland.
Saleana Copeland. (Photo credit: Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Saleana Copeland, College of Humanities and Sciences


Copeland first became fascinated by forensic science when she was 12 as a fan of “CSI,” “Criminal Minds” and “NCIS.” 

“I loved all those shows and they really got me interested in the science aspect,” she said. “I was like, ‘I want to study forensics. I want to see how this is done.’”

A college recruiter visited her high school in Wilmington, Delaware, and told her about VCU’s Department of Forensic Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

“I realized that VCU’s forensics program was really good, like one of the top in the country,” she said. “So I applied and got in. And, surprisingly, the first time I came here was for orientation. I was thinking, ‘Oh gosh, I really hope I like it.’ I wound up loving it, thankfully.”

Over the past four-and-a-half years at VCU, Copeland has pursued her dream of preparing to one day work in a crime lab.

Copeland was secretary of the Forensic Science Student Club and a member of the student organization Forensics Uncut. She even had an opportunity to teach forensic science at a Richmond middle school through a service learning class.

“What I love about forensics is that it brings together the law and science,” said Copeland, who minored in criminal justice in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. “I love learning things that can be used to help society and better the justice system.”

She also works as a lab assistant in the VCU Massey Cancer Center’s Goodwin Research Laboratory, assisting graduate students in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology.

Copeland discovered a love of service and volunteering while at VCU, thanks to her participation in the ASPiRE living-learning program that focuses on promoting community engagement.

Copeland will be the first member of her family to graduate from a four-year school. After graduation, she plans to pursue a master’s degree in forensic science. 

“It’s pretty exciting because I influenced my younger two sisters to get into school,” she said. “I don’t think I’m doing the degree just for myself. I feel like part of it is for my family, my parents and my sisters. Being the first one to graduate, get through it and then possibly taking my education even further with my master’s degree is pretty mind-blowing. It’s pretty cool.”

Steven Masiano.
Steven Masiano. (Photo credit: Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Steven Masiano, School of Medicine


Masiano was a statistician at the Reserve Bank of Malawi when he quit his job to join the Ministry of Health. It was his wife, a nurse, who would open his eyes to the number of preventable deaths in their home country, particularly around HIV.

After joining the Ministry of Health, Masiano used his economics and statistics background to assess barriers to health care. 

“The Ministry of Health did not have the capacity to use data in the decision-making process. This ignited my hunger to learn how to use data to drive health policy that increases access to care, particularly HIV services,” Masiano said. 

This December, Masiano will receive a Ph.D. in health care policy and research from VCU’s School of Medicine. His dissertation studies barriers to health care and evaluates interventions that improve access to care.

For example, Masiano looked at the use of conditional cash transfers — money conditional upon a patient receiving certain services — to support transportation costs to and from clinics, which is the biggest barrier to health care in low-income settings.

Although healthcare services might be available and free at the point of delivery in many of these settings, it is the cost of transportation from villages to clinics that makes it difficult to access care. Data tells us that when people have the money to get to health care services, they go. So my dissertation looks at ways to overcome this barrier using conditional cash transfers,” he said.

The former Fulbright scholar said VCU has helped him understand health policy from a 10,000-foot view.

“The program has taught me how to examine and evaluate national health policies. Data can monitor progress and evaluate interventions, but what is most important is that data can influence policies that improve health across the country,” he said. 

Masiano plans to eventually return to his home country, where his work can have maximum impact.

"My hope is that I can use what I’ve learned at VCU to save just three or four lives," he said.

Seth Mitchell.
Seth Mitchell. (Photo credit: Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Seth Mitchell, School of the Arts


For as long as he can remember, Mitchell has loved cars and their designs.

“I’ve always had car models and was constantly doodling my own versions of these supercars,” he said. “I’d say my taste has matured as I’ve gotten older, but I’ve always been a fan of sports cars and their aggressive lines.”  

For instance, Mitchell has admired Tesla Inc. — the cutting-edge electric-car manufacturer — since its inception 15 years ago.

Painting was Mitchell’s other love and took up the majority of his time in high school. When he came to the VCU School of the Arts from Charlotte, North Carolina, as a freshman, he didn’t know what he ultimately wanted to do professionally. He knew he wanted to pursue something that combined technology and art and soon became interested in graphic design. 

He was able to study under Kelsey Elder, who at the time was the VCUarts designer-in-residence, for a year before Elder joined SUNY Purchase College as an assistant professor.

“[Elder] was extremely influential in helping me take my passion for automotive design and apply it to my work throughout my last year of the program,” Mitchell said. “He was supportive and provided thought-provoking conversation and constantly pushed me to try crazy things even though I might fail. The faculty as a whole is a wonderful group of talented individuals. They are eager to help and to share knowledge and push students to do their very best work.”  

Although Mitchell graduates this month with a B.F.A. in graphic design, he’s been a full-time member of the workforce since September — at Tesla’s West Broad Street location. After graduation, he plans to move into a design position. 

Although Mitchell looked at several other programs across the Northeast and the Midwest, he never doubted that VCU was the right place for him. 

“I am confident that I did not make the wrong decision to choose this program — I am a better designer because of it and will continue to push myself to improve,” he said. “Leaving VCU will be a strange transition ... but I am looking forward to applying what I’ve gained from this program into the automotive industry.”