Inaugural class completes ASPiRE living–learning program

Seventy-six graduates honored during campus ceremony

Share this story

The first graduates of Virginia Commonwealth University’s ASPiRE (Academic Scholars Program in Real Environments) program were honored at a ceremony on campus last night. ASPiRE is the university’s first living-learning community and focuses on community engagement through academic course work and co-curricular activity.

“The inaugural class of VCU ASPiRE consists of pioneers who helped to transform a vision for a living-learning community emphasizing community engagement into reality,” said Mary Slade,Ph.D., executive director of VCU ASPiRE. “We now live, learn and engage together in our local community because of the hard work, commitment and compassion of the first student cohort.”

The 76 graduates of the two-year program lived together in the West Grace South residential community, took nine credit hours of course work to earn a community engagement certificate of completion and performed 100 hours of community service. Some graduates committed to much more.

Mark Hairston, who along with Alexis Mathis served as a class speaker at the ceremony, performed more than double the amount of required community service.

“We have accepted every opportunity presented to us. We’ve turned nobody down,” Hairston said. “We’ve been the ‘hands’ who are out there for those who need our help. We’ve learned to nurture the community and we’ve been inspired to look for new ways to serve the community.”

Community partners who participated in the ceremony made it clear they were equally inspired by the work of the students.

Cassie Mathews of Hands-Up Ministries credited ASPiRE students for supporting the nonprofit’s commitment to providing affordable housing in Richmond’s Highland Park neighborhood and elsewhere. She reminded the class of their participation in 20 different instances, offering 1,000 hours of service, which, if the agency had to pay for the help, would have cost $10,000.

“We could not have done it without you,” Mathews said. “Many people volunteer for a day or a weekend but for the last two years, you have been with us. Without you, our nonprofit wouldn’t have survived.”

Mathews then introduced the class to a man named Jessie, who moved into a house renovated by students. She said it was his first house in 28 years and he stood to thank the students.

Among the restoration tasks connected with the project, ASPiRE students painted, laid floor tile, installed a bathroom, repaired leaks and replaced a retaining wall.

And it’s just one of 675 co-curricular activities completed by the class, 361 of them in community engagement. Among the highlights:

·  Every Monday during the spring semester, a group of ASPiRE students mentored students at Woodville Elementary in the Kindergarten Academy.

·  Many times throughout the year, ASPiRE students worked with elementary and middle school-aged students in after-school programs at Friends Association and Peter Paul Development Center.

·  At least twice a month throughout the year, ASPiRE students work at FeedMore to help with food distribution.

·  Several times this semester, ASPiRE students worked with the Habitat Restore Center, helping with the intake and distribution of resources.

·  In January, ASPiRE students traveled to New Jersey to help families rebuild their homes after Hurricane Sandy. Similarly, during spring break, ASPiRE students traveled to Sneedville, Tenn., to work with Baptist Ministries to help repair and restore homes for families with limited financial resources.

In all, the students contributed 10,902 hours of community service and 18,104 hours of living, leading and learning activities outside of the classroom.

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., praised the inaugural class for all of these efforts and for contributing to VCU’s more than 1 million hours of community service.

“What ASPiRE means to me is remarkable students who seize the opportunity to make a difference in the world,” Rao said.  

The class presented Rao with a framed copy of a “word cloud,” featuring a visual interpretation  of the most common words used by the students to describe ASPiRE. The more frequently students used certain words in their description, the larger the words appeared in the image.  “Community,” “people,” “Richmond,” “helped,” “great” and “service” dominated the image. A second framed copy was presented to Mathews and a larger copy signed by each graduate will be hung in the hallway of the ASPiRE offices to always remind staff of the impact of the inaugural class.

“You have set the bar high in this community about what college students can do,” said Cathy Howard, Ph.D., vice provost, Division of Community Engagement. “You have defined what community engagement can be. And I thank you, I thank you, I thank you.”

The first graduates represented many disciplines across the university and their varied interests and talents were reflected in the ceremony. For instance, Aaron Deane sang and Saidu Tejan-Thomas performed a slam poem.

“So how do we qualify change? When do we know we have altered the state of a person, a situation and, most importantly, ourselves?” asked Tejan-Thomas in his presentation of the poem.

“In 100 hours, I answered this question. Change is the smile of 10-year-old Luis when I met him each week and he taught me about taking chances,” Tejan-Thomas said. “I was changed when mentoring a high school student, who at the top of his class, is driven to become a doctor.  I envied his motivation and applied it to my own life and he is just as much a mentor to me as I am to him.”  

The legacy of ASPiRE’s first graduates is the program's sustainability and the impact it will have on students and community members for a long time, Slade said. “I am proud that a group of students would care so very much about others that they would sacrifice their time and energy to give to a community that was unknown to them just two years ago.”  


Subscribe for free to the weekly VCU News email newsletter at and receive a selection of stories, videos, photos, news clips and event listings in your inbox every Thursday. VCU students, faculty and staff automatically receive the newsletter.