Lisa Winn Bryan outside the Institute for Contemporary Art at V C U.
Decades after she aspired to study art at VCU, School of Education doctoral student Lisa Winn Bryan is poised to graduate from the university. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Class of 2020: Passion for education and art help Lisa Winn Bryan fulfill a longtime dream

Decades after she aspired to study art at VCU, the School of Education doctoral student is poised to graduate from the university.

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Though VCU will not hold an in-person commencement ceremony this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the university will host a virtual commencement celebration May 8 and spring graduates will be invited to participate in the university's formal commencement ceremony on Dec. 12. In these challenging times, thousands of students will earn their degrees this spring. These are some of their stories.

Lisa Winn Bryan wanted to study art at Virginia Commonwealth University when she graduated from high school in 1986. But, her family didn’t have the means to send her there especially with all the supplies a visual arts major would need.

Now, decades later, she is fulfilling her dream of studying at VCU. Winn Bryan, an Ed.D. student in the School of Education, will present her doctoral defense on April 24 — via Zoom instead of in person due to the COVID-19 outbreak — and will receive her doctorate in educational leadership this semester.

As an undergraduate student, she never would have dreamed of this moment. The long, winding path to academia started when, thanks to scholarships, she attended James Madison University where she majored in foreign languages. It was her backup plan and she made the most of it.

It was at JMU that she discovered she loved the university setting, so much so that she wondered if there was a career in college life.

“One of my mentors said, ‘Sure. It's called student personnel and administration. And we have a master's degree [in it] here,’” Winn Bryan said.

She decided to remain at JMU to complete the program. Since earning her master’s degree, Winn Bryan has worked to support students in one form or another and has raised funds for nonprofits. At JMU, she worked in career services, multicultural services, counseling services and residential life — all excellent credentials for her ultimate goal of becoming a university president.

“I've worked at different types of institutions — private, public, [historically black colleges and universities], comprehensive,” she said. “I was at Virginia State [as dean of admissions]. Then I took a break and I went into the nonprofit realm. And that's really where I learned how to raise money and really got into grant writing and learning the best practices of fundraising.”

All the while, she remained connected to higher education. She went to work at Carver Elementary School and became the executive director of The Carver Promise program, which pairs college and high school mentors with elementary school mentees in a one-on-one educational and social relationship. Most recently, Winn Bryan served as the interim vice president of the Division of Institutional Advancement at Virginia Union University. 

This is to me, my love for fundraising, my love for higher ed, my love for all things beautiful and visual. It’s a great combination of things that I love.

Today, she gets to combine her longtime love of the arts with her passion for education and her talent for fundraising. In January, she was named director of development at the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU, where she oversees fundraising and engagement and the ICA’s membership program. 

“This is to me, my love for fundraising, my love for higher ed, my love for all things beautiful and visual,” she said. “It’s a great combination of things that I love. And it's very different from all of the other things that I've had an opportunity to raise money for. It's usually been for me, young people … in challenging communities and raising money for those communities and the children that live in the community.

“So the mission of ensuring that the ICA is open to all and that everyone has an opportunity to be exposed to the arts has brought those two loves together. So I can be on a campus, I can raise money, I can be around beautiful things.” 

The edu-art fusion fits her perfectly. And Winn Bryan never gave up on her own artistic side. As the child of a preacher, she grew up singing and made a side career of it. She’s released two albums — “The Light” and “Source of My Joy” — and has traveled around the world, performing for the likes of Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison

She also, unintentionally, became an internet sensation when her now-husband proposed to her in 2015.

But for now, she’s most focused on finishing her degree (before embarking on a second bachelor’s in African American Studies this fall). Because of COVID-19, the remainder of classes for her last semester are being taught remotely. For someone so passionate about the atmosphere on campus, it’s understandable that Winn Bryan is a bit disappointed.

“I’m bummed about it, but happy that I will defend, finish and graduate, so I won’t complain,” she said. 

“I'm very big on, life is so short and fragile. Whatever it is, whatever desire you have, whatever thing you want to pursue, don't quit. Don't let the money stop you. Don't let circumstance stop you. Just keep trying, keep trying. Don't quit.”