Class of 2019: ‘A kind spirit,’ Jonathan Butler’s work with ASPiRE leads to eye-opening experience

Jonathan Butler
As a student in VCU's living-learning service program, Jonathan Butler participated in Art for the Journey, a program where students work with individuals with dementia and Alzheimer's. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Jonathan Butler’s proudest accomplishment as a Virginia Commonwealth University student came last semester when he received the Department of African American Studies Black History in the Making award, which honors academic excellence and service to the university and the community. Erin Burke Brown, Ph.D., director of the ASPiRE living-learning service community, nominated him for the award.

“I nominated Jonathan because he has a kind spirit,” Brown said. “While an ASPiRE student, he completed most of his service hours working with a nonprofit called Art for the Journey which pairs volunteers with individuals in varying stages of dementia to create art. Jonathan loved this experience and was very committed. He was always eager to learn and help others. I appreciate that Jonathan was a quiet leader who led by example.” 

Butler specifically volunteered to work with older adults with dementia and Alzheimer’s, he said. “In the past, I hadn't really worked with this particular population. I wanted to get outside my comfort zone. It was a great decision on my part. I really enjoyed it.”

Butler has proved ready to embrace new experiences at VCU. He initially was drawn to VCU by its forensic science program. Forensic science had always interested Butler, who wanted to go into medical examining. A casual conversation after class with his abnormal psychology professor would change that. 

Kurt Crandall, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, mentioned that his wife was a psychiatric nurse practitioner. Suddenly, everything clicked for Butler.

“This was exactly what I wanted to do,” he said. “It really combined my love for mental health with my love for helping others and I've been on track ever since.” Butler said he lucked out that VCU’s psychology program turned out to be just as amazing as the forensic science program that brought him here. 

“Dr. Kurt Crandall, he really is very supportive of his students,” Butler said. “He was always there for me. And he was a mentor for me. He really shaped my future career goals and aspirations. So I'm very thankful for that.”

Butler graduates in December with a degree in psychology and a minor in criminal justice. He finished his degree a semester early, even with a bevy of extracurricular activities. As a sophomore and junior, he served on the executive board of the Intercultural Festival, which promotes cultural awareness and diversity on campus. 

Butler’s plan after graduation is to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing and ultimately complete a master's in psychiatric nursing with the hope of becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner. During his time volunteering with Art for the Journey, Butler spent his Fridays completing art projects with residents at the St. Mary’s Woods or Westminster Canterbury senior communities. He saw the impact the work could have on both him and the residents.

“We got to talk and they were telling me about their stories, what they did in their past,” he said. “It was a really meaningful experience for me, feeling that connection. I would always look forward to it. It was really uplifting. They told me about what they did when they were little. They would talk about their kids and it was a really enjoyable, good environment to be in. 

“I feel like there's this stigma that working with elders with dementia and Alzheimer's is really depressing … it actually wasn't. It was a really interesting and fun experience.”

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