Degrees of achievement: For these master’s and doctoral students on the cusp of graduation, the past few years have been about more than just getting a degree

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Degrees of achievement: For these master’s and doctoral students on the cusp of graduation, the past few years have been about more than just getting a degree.

Every path to an advanced degree is littered with its own obstacles and routed with a unique assortment of twists and turns, but each student’s journey shares certain common characteristics, including hard work, sacrifice and commitment to a particular field of study. Below we highlight three of the more than 700 master’s and Ph.D. students graduating this week from Virginia Commonwealth University, armed with fresh insight earned from their intensive educations.

Sam Burns

Sam Burns
Sam Burns

Sam Burns recently was honored at Madison Square Garden for his military service. As he stood on the court at halftime of a college basketball game, Burns and some fellow veterans were celebrated with a sustained ovation. A collection of Burns’ friends and family joined the applause from the stands. For Burns, who grew up in Mount Vernon, New York, near the Bronx, the moment was astonishing.

This week, Burns, a 22-year veteran of the U.S. Army who retired in 2011, will enjoy another stride into the spotlight when he accepts his master’s degree in adult learning, with a concentration in human resource development, from the VCU School of Education.

Burns, a logistics officer and paratrooper while in the Army, served two tours in overseas conflicts — first during the Gulf War in Kuwait in the early 1990s and then during the Iraq War in 2006. When he retired, he started working at Ft. Lee as a civilian employee.

I still can look out for my buddies, just not on the battlefield.

He soon began to volunteer with the Wounded Warrior Project. Burns found participating in the program’s activities not only served as a way to help fellow veterans — it also helped him deal with his own post-traumatic stress disorder and adaption to life after the military.

“Being able to help this way I don’t have to lose who I am,” Burns said. “I still can look out for my buddies, just not on the battlefield.”

At VCU, Burns has been involved with the Office of Military Student Affairs and the Green Zone program, which works to train faculty and staff to understand the specific issues student veterans face. When the VCU men’s basketball team was looking for a member of the Wounded Warrior Project to accompany it to New York for the 2K Classic, a tournament benefiting the nonprofit, Burns was an obvious choice. Burns embedded with the team, observing locker room talks, practices and other behind-the-scenes activities. He got to know the players and coaches — and he got his moment in the MSG spotlight.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said.

Burns is always looking for ways to grow and learn, and his experience at VCU helps illustrate why. Burns works as an instructional designer at Ft. Lee, designing training for military personnel. When Burns enrolled at VCU in January 2014, he simply hoped to improve his skill set in the area of adult learning. Ultimately, however, the impact was greater than that.

His studies have dramatically altered the way he does his job, inspiring him to involve his colleagues more in the planning and development of programs and prompting him to become more of an active listener. The courses and group work he did at VCU have led to a near overhaul of his approach to his work.

“It’s been one of the most beneficial things I’ve ever done,” Burns said. “It’s been tremendous.”


Shushan “Nika” Lazaryan

Shushan “Nika” Lazaryan
Shushan “Nika” Lazaryan

Shushan “Nika” Lazaryan is set to graduate this month with a Ph.D. in systems modeling and analysis, concluding her eight years at VCU, where she also earned her master’s degree in economics from the School of Business and during which she worked full time as a research analyst with the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.

Lazaryan is graduating from the Ph.D. in Systems Modeling and Analysis program, which is jointly run by the Department of Statistical Sciences and Operations Research and the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics in the College of Humanities and Sciences. Her research focuses on discrete dynamical systems and applications to various other disciplines such as biology and economics.

“I have also applied some of the results of my research to models that capture the evolution of biological species populations,” she said. “While these models are highly theoretical, my results help identify certain conditions under which a population may go extinct, exist in some balance form, or exhibit periodic or aperiodic and chaotic fluctuations.”

Almost everything that I have learned so far to be good at my job and research has been learned at VCU.

Lazaryan, who is from Armenia and moved to the United States as a young adult in 2006, has had an impressive three scholarly articles published jointly with her adviser, Hassan Sedaghat, Ph.D., professor of mathematics, while at VCU.

“Almost everything that I have learned so far to be good at my job and research has been learned at VCU,” she said. “I have had the honor of knowing and working with the most phenomenal faculty in [the economics, math and statistical sciences/operations research] departments. They have been some of the most inspiring, supportive and caring teachers, mentors and friends and they have made the experience of the past seven years priceless.”

This semester, Lazaryan has been teaching as well, running a graduate economics course while the instructor is on sabbatical.

“This has been a tremendous opportunity for me both in terms of the teaching experience itself, as well as learning more about econometrics and statistics,” she said. “Saying that I have greatly enjoyed teaching would be an understatement. I had so much fun teaching and learning with my students. I am hoping to continue teaching in the foreseeable future.”


Anthony Molisani

Anthony Molisani
Anthony Molisani

Anthony Molisani was studying bone marrow transplant education videos for his graduate research at the VCU School of Medicine in the summer of 2013 when a representative from the bone marrow registry nonprofit Be the Match called him with news that he was the perfect match for a child living with lymphoma.

The New York native, who is graduating with a Ph.D. in social and behavioral sciences from the Department of Health Behavior and Policy at the VCU School of Medicine, paused for a moment, considering the fact that his undergraduate college reunion would be a few days after the procedure and that a few weeks following the reunion he would be the best man at a friend’s wedding.

“After that second, I realized how fortunate I was to have those experiences to look forward to and that there was someone that needed me to do this so that they could have the same kinds of opportunities,” Molisani said. “How do you turn down being the potential cure for someone in exchange for a little discomfort and time?”

The procedure was performed in upstate New York, where doctors removed healthy bone marrow from Molisani’s pelvic bone. The 29-year-old was a little sore afterward, but he took Advil to ease the discomfort and was on the road to his college reunion a few days later.

“I studied cancer prevention and control at VCU, so doing this was very much related to my research,” Molisani said. “I had a unique opportunity to be an active part of the procedures and treatments that I had been advocating and researching for the past few years.”


I studied cancer prevention and control at VCU, so doing this was very much related to my research.


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