VCU valentines: As these couples can attest, love is in the air at VCU

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Universities have a knack for bringing people together, whether it’s to collaborate on a research project, play on a Quidditch team with similarly fanatic Harry Potter fans or pull an all-nighter in the library studying together for an exam. And sometimes, with no advance warning, sparks fly. We hope you’ll enjoy these eight stories from happy couples who first connected at Virginia Commonwealth University.


Aaron and Sarah Zipp
Aaron and Sarah Zipp

Sarah and Aaron Zipp

Cupid didn’t strike Sarah and Aaron Zipp with his traditional bow and arrow. Instead, he was armed with an atlatl, the prehistoric hunting tool familiar only to those who know their archaeology.

The couple met in 2002 while earning their master’s degrees at the VCU Center for Sport Leadership. On the first day of class, students were asked to introduce themselves, and Aaron and Sarah soon realized they were the only students in the program with a background in archaeology and anthropology. Further discussion revealed a shared interest in the atlatl, which looks like a cross between a bow and arrow and a spear, and which Aaron had been re-creating for fun — “a very, very niche interest in the world of archaeology,” Sarah said. The opportunity for a unique first date presented itself, and so Aaron asked Sarah, “Hey, wanna go throw atlatls tonight?”

The two kept their relationship quiet because of the small class size at the CSL. They succeeded in going unnoticed until a former pro basketball player from the Netherlands, who had become blind, met with the class. Sensing something in their voices — something their fellow students and professors couldn’t see — the former player referred to Aaron and Sarah as “a nice couple,” and the secret was out.

Aaron proposed in 2005 while they were camping and hiking in upstate New York. “I was kneeling in a freshwater creek in overalls and a straw hat when I asked my wife for her hand in marriage,” Aaron said.

“We were muddy and messy from camping,” Sarah said. “So it was perfectly us.”

The couple tied the knot in 2006 in a ceremony on East Canada Creek in Herkimer, New York, where Aaron sang his vows and, ever the pair of anthropologists and archaeologists, the newlyweds served their homebrewed mead —“a traditional Viking drink served at weddings,” Sarah said —  at the reception.

The Zipps now have two daughters, Adelyn, born in 2007, and Anna, born in 2009, and the family moved to Amsterdam in 2014 after Aaron and Sarah were offered work as lecturers and researchers at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. The couple also runs a business, ZippHighlandGames, which provides teambuilding exercises using Scottish Highland heavy athletics events, such as caber toss, and Sarah is completing her Ph.D. at Erasmus University Rotterdam.

The Zipp family of four is settling in nicely in Amsterdam, and will be featured on Feb. 11 in an episode of HGTV’s “House Hunters International,” in which they finally find a more permanent home.

“I teach classes on sport, culture and society,” Sarah said of her work at the university. “So although we zigged and zagged in different directions since our days at VCU, we actually ended up right where we were planning to go back in 2002.” Even better, they found each other along the way.


Jessica Moise and Jowan Burton. Photo by Terri Baskin Photography.
Jessica Moise and Jowan Burton. Photo by Terri Baskin Photography.

Jessica Moise and Jowan Burton

At a Friday night dodgeball game at the Siegel Center in fall 2006, a team of regulars led by then-VCU junior social work major Jessica Moise was joined by a new player, criminal justice major Jowan Burton.

“One of the rules was that you had to sit down if you were hit by the ball. Well, Jowan didn't sit, he would kneel down,” Jessica recalled. “For some reason this bothered me like crazy because he was breaking the rule. Talking about it now makes me realize how silly it was but at the moment I was annoyed at this new guy messing up the game.”

That chance meeting, Jowan jokes, turned out to be “power struggle No. 1” in what would eventually grow into their relationship.

“Jessica stood out, mainly because she was the ‘medic’ and she was yelling commands at her teammates,” he said. “I joined her team just to enrage her and to disregard her commands.”

Fast forward a few months, and the two met again at a party. And after attending a step show — Jessica is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. and Jowan is a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. — they became a couple.

“I believe she sang a song during the step show and afterwards she was very concerned if I believed she did well,” Jowan said. “I couldn't break her heart and tell her no, so I told her that I thought she sounded great … [Later on, we went out with] with a group of friends at what was formerly New York Fried Chicken. After seeing her eating fried chicken late night, I was very impressed and believed she was very down-to-earth and funny.”

This past April, Jowan, a probation officer and high school football coach, took Jessica, who works for child protective services, to Tarra Winery in Loudoun County to ask her to marry him.

No matter what she tells anyone, I was NOT nervous. I was cool as a cucumber.

“As we were getting ready to leave, Jowan came around the table, got down on one knee and proposed,” she said. “He gave a wonderful speech, which I don't remember because I was too excited and crying at the same time. After I said yes and stopped crying he proceeded to tell me how he'd made several attempts to propose but I — unknowingly — blocked every attempt.”

“No matter what she tells anyone, I was NOT nervous,” Jowan added. “I was cool as a cucumber … Her not hearing my speech isn’t so bad because that means I get to ignore a few of her speeches.”

The couple visited VCU in the fall for an engagement photo shoot.

“VCU is the place where I forged great relationships with VCU students and within the community of Richmond through working with the Phi Delta Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc.,” Jowan said. “I received my first promotion at VCU working for Rec Sports, I met my best friends and the woman who I intend to marry at VCU. VCU will always be the place that made Richmond a home away from home for me.”

For Jessica, VCU was where she joined her sorority and made memories living in Johnson Hall, eating at Shafer Court, hanging out in the Fan and playing dodgeball every Friday night.

“I learned a lot about myself, made some amazing friends and met my future husband,” she said. “I can’t wait to say ‘I do’ on March 5.”

Abbie Kinnebrew and Mira Signer
Abbie Kinnebrew and Mira Signer

Abbie Kinnebrew and Mira Signer

When Abbie Kinnebrew was a first-year student in the master’s program in the VCU School of Social Work, she attended a social justice committee meeting and was immediately impressed with the second-year named Mira Signer who was running the proceedings. Little did she know that Mira had been similarly struck by Abbie’s presence and would pocket the sign-in sheet at the conclusion of the meeting to make sure she had the new student’s name.

Each covertly began to look for excuses to seek the other out. In the process, they were pleased to discover that their interests often overlapped.

For instance, when Abbie learned Mira had developed a bill for the Virginia legislature that would improve sexual assault and violence education for state curriculums, she opted to follow the bill to fulfill a graduate program requirement. It worked. One morning, Mira even picked Abbie up and brought her to the General Assembly for the day. 

In retrospect, it was love at first sight.

Mira researched Abbie’s background and learned that she had played college soccer at Wesleyan University. Mira, a former player at James Madison University, cagily talked with another student while Abbie was in earshot about needing players for the soccer team she had joined the previous year. Abbie jumped into the conversation and signed up for the team.

This type of careful, joint pursuit continued from the fall of 2003 until late 2004 when they finally became a couple. They have been together ever since. Following graduate school, both have enjoyed highly accomplished professional careers. Abbie is now an assistant professor of teaching in the Department of Field Education in the VCU School of Social Work. Mira still spends time advocating for legislation in her role as the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia, the largest grassroots mental health organization in the state.

The couple have a 19-month-old daughter named Sunny. A second child is due in July.

Abbie said the couple’s relationship has endured because they are a natural fit.

“We have very similar values, but we’re really different in a lot of ways, too,” Abbie said. “We complement each other.”

A fact that was clear to them from the very beginning.

“In retrospect, it was love at first sight,” Abbie said.


Ryan and Katy Webb
<br>Ellie Bolton Photography
Ryan and Katy Webb
Ellie Bolton Photography

Ryan and Katy Hudson Webb

Not even a tornado could knock Ryan Webb’s proposal off course.

He planned to pop the question on a deck, replete with rose petals, candles and music, at his parent’s home. But Mother Nature had other ideas.

It’s turning that scary green color where they say tornadoes are coming.

While hanging out with girlfriend Katy and his parents on June 30, 2012, he noticed the clouds rolling in and the skies darkening over Mechanicsville. Ryan caught his mom’s attention, and snuck upstairs to change into a suit.

“It’s turning that scary green color where they say tornadoes are coming,” Ryan said. “[Katy] comes up the stairs and finds me in the suit and figures out what’s going on.”

They went outside onto the deck as the winds picked up.

“It was, ‘Will you marry me?’ I stood up and trees starting falling across the backyard,” he said. “All the candles are blown out. The petals have blown away. We lost power, so the music is off.”

Amidst all that chaos, Katy said yes and they hustled inside to safety. With electricity out and phone lines overloaded, only Ryan’s parents knew of their engagement until the next day.

The couple, who married about a year later, met the night of another storm — Nov. 21, 2009, when the VCU Rams blew away the nationally ranked Oklahoma Sooners under former VCU basketball coach Jeff Capel.

At the time, Ryan was working toward a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a Master of Teaching in VCU’s School of Education while competing in cross country and track events for the Rams.

“I knew I wanted to be a teacher. VCU had a really good math and teaching prep program. And I could run for VCU. Everything just kinda fell into place,” he said.

Katy, also a student-athlete, earned her bachelor’s in psychology at the University of Richmond before starting graduate school in 2009 at the VCU School of Social Work. She used her final year of athletic eligibility to take the field with the women’s soccer team.

“We met the night that VCU beat Oklahoma in men’s basketball,” Ryan said. “The baseball team was having a get-together. I went with a group of guys from the track team and she went with a group of girls from the soccer team. We just met there, and started talking to each other and things went on from there.

“There is no way either of us would have met had we not been athletes at the same time,” Ryan said. “These small choices that you make in life lead to things you never expect. It’s something that she and I talk about. What if we just hadn’t gone out?”


Jerry Riggins and Tram Hoang
Jerry Riggins and Tram Hoang

Tram Hoang and Jerry Riggins

The VCU Siegel Center erupted in a cascade of cheers when Jerry Riggins, longtime VCU Massey Cancer Center administrator, bent down on one knee in front of his girlfriend during the VCU men’s basketball matchup against the St. Bonaventure Bonnies on Jan. 24, 2016.

 “We’re both big fans of VCU basketball. I wanted to make it more memorable,” Riggins said of why he chose to propose at the Stu.

Jerry Riggins and Tram Hoang
Jerry Riggins and Tram Hoang

During a timeout at the basketball game, Jerry took to the court to shoot baskets for a chance to win a jewelry store gift card. In reality, it was an elaborate setup for him to propose to his significant other, Tram Hoang, who reciprocated with an enormous smile and a kiss.

“I’m a believer that anything is possible, but this special moment in time was really beyond our wildest dreams. Tram and I are very happy that we were able to share our special moment with Ram Nation. Ram Nation is the best!” Riggins said following his proposal. “We would like to thank everyone who helped make it happen, and we truly appreciate the unbelievable response and well wishes from friends, family and Ram Nation.”

Jerry has been a part of the VCU Health community for nearly 25 years. He first landed a job within the Department of Anatomy at the VCU School of Medicine after graduating from VCU with an accounting degree in 1992. Two years later, he joined the Division of Hematology, Oncology and Palliative Care at the Massey Cancer Center as a fiscal technician and grants specialist. Now, he serves as the division’s administrator as well as interim administrator for the Division of General Internal Medicine.

Originally from Vietnam, Hoang attended high school and college in Iowa and is now an inpatient pharmacist at VCU Medical Center.

Jerry first met his fiancée in 2011 during a badminton game at the Jonah L. Larrick Student Center on the MCV Campus. Always on the lookout for a new way to stay physically active, the marathon runner decided to join a badminton session hosted at the gym and was paired up with Hoang.

But it wasn’t until 2013, when circumstances caused the two to meet again, that they went on their first date on Valentine’s Day and set the stage for a diamond ring offering almost three years later.

Following the proposal, Riggins said that he and Hoang are excited to take this next step in their lives and have already begun the wedding planning process.

Tram and I are very happy that we were able to share our special moment with Ram Nation. 


Jean Williams and Hugh Haskins outside the Scott House circa 1949.
Jean Williams and Hugh Haskins outside the Scott House circa 1949.

Jean and Hugh Haskins

Beth Ward, volunteer services coordinator for University Student Commons and Activities, marvels when she thinks about how much VCU’s campus has changed since she was a marketing student in the mid-1970s. When she was in college, for example, the Main Street Parking Deck and the Temple Building were both parking lots.

“Us baby boomers at the time would protest everything,” Beth said. “I remember parking was 35 cents a day, and we were just almost rioting when the price went up to 50 cents per day.”

But she admits that the modifications she has seen are nothing compared to the changes that have taken place since her parents walked some of the same sidewalks and hallways as students roughly 67 years ago.

Hugh Haskins and Jean Williams met around 1949 at the Richmond Professional Institute, which later merged with the Medical College of Virginia to become VCU. Hugh attended RPI with the help of the GI Bill and graduated with a degree in accounting. Jean, who had an interest in teaching, attended RPI for two years but left school to become a homemaker when she married Hugh in 1951. The couple had two children and watched four grandchildren grow up.

The Ward family poses with a photo of Jean and Hugh Haskins on Ashley Ward's graduation day.
The Ward family poses with a photo of Jean and Hugh Haskins on Ashley Ward's graduation day.

“RPI was so small at the time,” Beth said. “It’s very possible that most people would have known each other. They would have constantly run into each other. [My parents] could have just tripped over each other because the campus was so tiny.”

Though she doesn’t know the exact details of how they met and her parents are no longer here to ask them, Ward keeps a treasured family photo in her office that shows her parents very early in their relationship, sitting on a bench outside what she believes is the Scott House and gazing fondly into each other’s eyes.

Fast-forward from a time when shoulder pads, Rita Hayworth-style hairdos and argyle socks were in fashion to 2006, when Beth and her husband Don (also a VCU graduate) stepped foot on VCU’s campus once more to attend their daughter Ashley’s graduation. Beth brought with her the photo from her parents’ college days. She assembled the family in the courtyard beside the Scott House where she believes the original photo was taken, and there the family posed, holding the picture of Hugh and Jean, so that they could be there in spirit as their granddaughter graduated from their alma mater.


Katie and Bernly Bressler
Katie and Bernly Bressler

Katie and Bernly Bressler

Bernly Bressler entered the Executive MBA program in the VCU School of Business in 2005 because he wanted a challenge, and wanted to take his career in a different direction.

“I wasn’t looking for a wife,” he said, “and in my personal life, I was far from serious about settling down.”

But when he attended a summer preparatory mini-camp before the program started, he overheard the student in front of him expressing difficulty with a pre-calculus problem. He felt obligated to offer his help. It didn’t hurt that she was cute.

“I was intrigued by her,” he said of now-wife Katie Bressler. “She was beautiful and she was very articulate. It didn’t take long to figure out she was very smart and funny as well.”

It didn’t take long to figure out she was very smart and funny as well.

Within months of knowing Bernly, Katie found herself thinking he was so smart and funny that he was the “kind of guy” she would want to marry.

“But I didn’t think it would actually happen,” she said.

When the class started in the fall, Bernly sat next to Katie every day. They socialized with fellow classmates at events such as happy hours, which Bernly considered dates — “faux dates,” but dates nonetheless. They had their first date sans classmates on May 12, 2006.

“He asked me out to dinner and we have been together since,” Katie said. They married on Oct. 11, 2008.

Bernly recalls jokingly jotting “Katie Bressler?” on a piece of paper when they first started dating. “It was a little bit of an inside joke, but I like the sound of it and I think I knew then it was serious,” he said. “It was serendipity that it all worked out really, that I overheard Katie in the class, that we were even in the same class. Now today we have a wonderful home filled with three amazing kids and two dogs and have lived happily ever after.”


Timothy Jones and Shiquana Barr
Timothy Jones and Shiquana Barr

Shiquana Barr and Timothy Jones

Shiquana Barr and Timothy Jones met in the fall semester of 2008 when both were VCU freshmen living in Rhoads Hall. Shiquana lived on the fifth floor, while Timothy was stationed on the 11th. They were part of a gathering one night in a mutual friend’s room to watch a movie, and Shiquana caught Timothy’s eye right away. They immediately hit it off as friends.

Shiquana majored first in social work before switching to education, while Timothy pursued studies in chemistry, so they did not share any classes or have any other reasons to cross paths academically. Still, they saw each other routinely around campus and on social occasions. Their connection was an easy, natural one.

Eventually, they began to meet for lunch on a regular basis, usually either at Shafer Court Dining Center or Chipotle. Sometimes, Timothy would walk Shiquana back to her dormitory at Belvidere and Broad afterward. These were not dates, though. They were lunches among friends. They talked about everything under the sun, including college life, growing up, their families and their faith.

Life got busier and the lunches stopped, and “it looked like we were going our separate ways,” Timothy said. “But somehow we would always end up running into each other, and the spark that we both felt was reignited.”

I can honestly say that Shiquana and I were made for each other.

After graduation, each moved to Northern Virginia. Shiquana settled in Alexandria and Timothy took root in Centreville, approximately 45 minutes away. A bit inconvenient, but according to Timothy, “Time and distance could not keep us apart.” They kept in touch and began to go on dinner-and-a-movie dates — at first, as with their lunches at VCU, as friends. This time, however, the relationship evolved and grew into a romance.

The couple dated for a year before Timothy asked Shiquana to marry him. She accepted enthusiastically, and a July wedding awaits. Shiquana currently works as a fifth-grade teacher, and Timothy is employed by the Department of Homeland Security and is pursuing a master’s degree in regulatory science.

Timothy said their relationship works because they share a core set of values and complement each other in myriad ways. They make each other better, he said.

“I can honestly say that Shiquana and I were made for each other.”


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