10 Under 10

VCU Alumni's 10 Under 10 awards program recognizes the noteworthy and distinctive achievements made by alumni who earned their first VCU degree (undergraduate, graduate or professional) within the past 10 years. 

Alumni are recognized for their:

Congratulations to the 2018 recipients!

Edwin Obilo Achola, Ph.D. (Ph.D.’13/E)

Edwin Obilo Achola, Ph.D., was inspired to pursue a career in education by the passion and dedication of his parents, who were both teachers. Born in Kisumu, a town in western Kenya, Achola grew up witnessing his parents’ commitment to serving children in rural communities.

Today, he is an associate professor and co-project director specializing in special education in the Department of Advanced Studies in Education and Counseling at California State University, Long Beach. Achola helps train teachers to work more effectively with students with disabilities who come from diverse communities and also to help students transition from adolescence to adulthood.

While pursuing his Ph.D. at VCU, Achola met Colleen Thoma, Ph.D., associate dean for academic affairs and graduate studies in the School of Education’s Department of Counseling and Special Education, who became his doctoral adviser, friend and mentor.

“I was not confident in my ability to get a tenure-track position and be successful at it,” Achola says. Thoma supported him through the application process, wrote letters of support and helped him prepare for interviews.

In the end, Achola landed his “dream job” at CSULB and earned early tenure and a quick promotion. He has received $3.75 million in federal grants for his work since 2013.

Achola is a member of the Council for Exceptional Children, a board member of its Division on Career Development and Transition and chair of its Human Rights and Cultural Diversity Committee.

Amid the flurry of career achievements, Achola and his wife, Gloria Obilo, welcomed a son, Gor Obilo, in April 2018.

Achola calls attending the VCU School of Education “the single most influential event of my professional journey.”

“VCU opened doors that I never imagined would be open to people from my background.”

Joseph Carlson (B.F.A.’08/A; M.F.A.’11/A)

Joseph Carlson’s acting resume includes the role of Joseph Marstern in the 2012 Academy award-nominated film “Lincoln” and a starring role as legendary outlaw Frank James in the 2016 AMC series “The American West.” He was nominated for the Robert Prosky Award for Outstanding Actor in a Leading Role for his work in 2015 on the play “Colossal,” a production that was nominated for eight Helen Hayes Awards, and he was nominated for Best Actor in a Play by the Richmond (Virginia) Theater Critics Circle Award for his turn as Stanley Kowalski in the 2014 production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Firehouse Theater in Richmond.

His 2008 bachelor’s degree in performance, which he earned magna cum laude, prepared him for these roles, but Carlson has also established himself as an educator and activist. Working with VCU professor and mentor Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, Ph.D., he pursued his art beyond performance, completing a master’s degree focused on teaching theater in 2011. This has blossomed into an impressive list of accomplishments in its own right.

Carlson was educational programs manager at Synetic Theater in Washington, D.C., from 2013-16, where he developed curricula to complement the theater’s productions and brought arts integrated learning through physical theater to thousands of students across Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. He worked with lifelong learners at George Mason University and helped train teachers at Fairfax County (Virginia) Public Schools. He has also taught at the Virginia Theatre Association’s annual conference, and co-authored one of the keynote presentations for the annual Southeastern Theater Conference in 2015.

Carlson has often worked to bring theater to communities that might not otherwise have access to arts programming. For example, he directed “The PIC: Prison Industrial Complex” twice for The Conciliation Project, a Richmond, Virginia-based nonprofit theater group that works to promote, through active and challenging dramatic works, open and honest dialogue about racism and oppression in America in order to repair its damaging legacy.

In addition to his community work, Carlson continues to practice his art as an actor. His most recent roles include Andrew Jackson in the world premiere production of “Sovereignty” at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., Thomas Gray in the regional premiere of Whiting Award Winner Nathan Alan Davis’ “Nat Turner in Jerusalem,” William Clark (half of the famous duo Lewis and Clark) in the mini-series “The Men Who Built America: Frontiersmen” and Lord Cornwallis, the villain in the film “Washington’s War: General Washington and the Revolutionary War,” which is shown regularly at Mount Vernon. Carlson acted in two feature films scheduled for release next year, “Dakota Rose” and “Savage Nature,” and he is in pre-production for another fully funded independent feature, “Historical Film,” set to begin principal photography in April 2019.

Keyanna Conner, Ph.D. (Ph.D.’15/H&S)

Keyanna Conner, Ph.D., has both investigated organic reaction mechanisms and reached the high echelons of federal and state government.

“Without the support of a strong network of chemistry professors at VCU who believed in my scientific abilities and allowed room for my newfound passion for civic engagement, I would not have been able to pursue both my graduate studies and political interests,” she says.

While earning her Ph.D. in organic chemistry at VCU, she simultaneously dedicated her time to multiple political campaigns. Often times, she would leave the lab after a full day’s work and proceed to campaign headquarters to see how she could provide support for candidates that day. 

Conner, one who never rests on her laurels, began working for Virginia Sen. Mark Warner’s re-election campaign shortly after finishing her research at VCU.

The year Conner graduated, Warner delivered VCU’s Commencement speech.

In 2016, Conner’s public-sector work blossomed into a key executive role when Warner promoted her to state director. As state director, she was responsible for overseeing state-level strategy and operations as well as five regional offices and a staff of more than 20.

Recognizing her dedication to public service, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam appointed her to the position of secretary of administration in January 2018. Now, she oversees five state agencies, the Compensation Board, the Department of General Services, the Department of Human Resource Management, the Department of Elections and the Virginia Information Technologies Agency, as well as supervising the newly created chief data officer position.

This year, it was Conner who delivered a graduation speech, speaking to VCU chemistry graduates at the department’s ceremony in May 2018.

Gabriel Craig (M.F.A.’09/A)

Fifth-generation Detroiter Gabriel Craig lived and traveled outside his hometown for a decade after completing a B.F.A. at Western Michigan University. The time, he says, helped him cultivate a complex perspective on the social, cultural and ethnic diversity that exists in the Motor City. As part of this journey, Craig came to VCU.

“Through the craft and material studies program’s focus on both community and artistic excellence, I gained the confidence to attempt to affect change while also pursuing my artistic goals,” Craig says. He especially cites the classes he took with now-retired art history professor Charles Brownell, Ph.D., which Craig says grounded him in the history of western architecture and decorative arts and continue to “inform the aesthetic and ornamental vocabulary of my work on a daily basis.”

In 2012, Craig returned to Detroit and co-founded the metalworking studio Smith Shop, which specializes in the custom fabrication of gold, silver, copper, brass, bronze and steel. Smith Shop’s work, which ranges from jewelry to architectural hardware, is carried in more than 40 retail outlets across the U.S. and abroad and has been recognized in publications such as Saveur, Food & Wine, Metropolis, Dwell and American Craft. 

That same year, Craig was named one of 40 Craft Artists under 40 by the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and was included in an exhibition of the same name, in which he was the second youngest artist.

Craig says he and his wife and business partner, Amy Weiks, have always worked to create community and engagement around their passion for metalwork. Smith Shop has shepherded 16 interns to success in the field of artistic metalwork. In 2014, Craig founded the Center for Craft and Applied Arts, an advocacy and education organization that works to bring opportunities for creative production to central Detroit residents.

That community involvement, Craig says, “drives me to continue to create new work, to share this vocation and to learn ever more about its practice and history.”

Don Davis Jr., Ph.D. (M.S.’08/H&S; Ph.D.’11/H&S)

Don Davis Jr., Ph.D., has published more than 50 papers on positive psychology, with a special focus on the virtues of humility, forgiveness and gratitude.

Davis is a counseling psychologist and an associate professor at Georgia State University, teaching in the mental health counseling program and the counselor education and practice Ph.D. program. He is a member of the American Psychological Association and the Christian Association for Psychological Services and an active member of Trinity Anglican Church in Atlanta.

True to his work, he tells his life story as a gratitude list. In some cases, he speaks of the gratitude born of hindsight, such as the dedication it must have taken for his mother to nurture the interests of four children.

In others, the gratitude came immediately. While studying at VCU, Davis’ daughter was born with a diaphragmatic hernia, a rare and life-threatening birth defect. During the difficult year that ensued, when Davis and his wife lived at the Ronald McDonald House and struggled to balance caring for her with other life demands, Davis noticed the help he received from those around them.

“When I look back, I am not quite sure how I did it. But at the time, I felt like I had all the support I needed,” he says. His daughter survived, and Davis was able to complete his work at VCU.

The highlight of his time at the university, he says, was his relationship with Everett Worthington Jr., Ph.D., a well-known expert on forgiveness and Commonwealth Professor in the psychology department in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

“All of us who were trained by him feel a tremendous debt of gratitude for the gift he gave us,” Davis says. “I think we all hope we can somehow pay forward the privilege we were given in working with him.”

Leah Fremouw (B.A.’08/H&S; M.P.A.’10/GPA)

Leah Fremouw failed out of college at 19 and did not return to try again until she was 26. It was at that point, however, as a nontraditional student at VCU, that she found her stride.

Fremouw started slow, enrolling in just one class. She earned an A for the first time since 10th grade, and the success inspired her to keep the momentum. Not only did she earn a bachelor’s degree in women’s studies and political science, she also took every advantage of what VCU had to offer its students and community. Fremouw got involved in the Student Government Association, was president of Voices for Planned Parenthood at VCU, traveled to Guatemala and interned at a state delegate’s office and a local nonprofit.

She earned a master’s in public administration at VCU, and was selected as a Wilder Fellow both years she attended, a prestigious honor granted to top students at the Wilder School that provides them with in-state tuition, a stipend and professional work experience in their fields.

Today, Fremouw is vice president and director of marketing and community impact for Virginia Community Capital in Richmond, Virginia. VCC is a community development financial institution, which is a financial entity designed to promote economic equality and community revitalization by investing economically in underserved communities.

In this role, Fremouw has successfully deployed more than $4 million in community-based lending through strategic programming. She updated VCC’s branding and marketing, leading a website launch in 2017 and conducting a companywide brand survey in 2018.

She and her husband, Jacob Powell, have a 3-year-old son, Hazen.

“VCU is the place I found me,” she says. “I walked in a college dropout without any goals or a sense of who I could become. I walked out with confidence in myself and a relationship with my community that I am proud of… not to mention the two degrees I earned with honors.

Mary Beth (Bird) Knipper (B.S.’10/En)

“I have always loved the adventure of moving,” says Mary Knipper, describing how her childhood as an “Army brat” became an adulthood that includes ethnographic research in Lesotho, a southern African nation.

Knipper, who is pursuing an M.D./Ph.D. in anthropology at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, first traveled to Lesotho as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2012. Later, she returned as a 2015 Fulbright Scholar and continued working with the Basotho people. She presented the resulting research at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association.

She continues to conduct research in Basotho communities in the Eastern highlands of Lesotho, with a particular interest in local forms of neonatal exposure therapy. These customary medical and protective practices bring infants into contact with known environmental threats in a controlled manner. Knipper is exploring the ways that Basotho mothers describe these practices as a cultural metaphor for early infant immunizations, with an eye toward understanding the complex interplay between western biomedicine and customary Basotho medicine in the region.

Knipper describes her time at VCU in an excited jumble: a major in biomedical engineering, work with a medical aid team in southwestern Kenya, feminist political theory courses for fun, learning to love writing and ballroom dancing. She tells stories of how Deirdre Condit, Ph.D., an associate professor and chair of the political science department in the College of Humanities and Science, started as her professor and became a dear friend.

“VCU allowed me to explore and change my interests along the way. It was an institution that made it OK for me to evolve,” she says.

Other loved ones have done the same. She says her husband, Jake, “joyfully follows me wherever in the world my academic and professional pursuits take us.” The couple have a black Lab, Darcy, and a cat, Yeti.

Knipper says it is her “fervent hope” to preserve her sense of humanity despite the undeniable toll that clinical medicine takes on its practitioners. “I want to be more than a doctor; I want to be a witness to the reality of the human condition,” she says.

Lathika Mohanraj, Ph.D., RN, BMTCN (Ph.D.’08/M; B.S.’14/N)

Lathika Mohanraj, Ph.D., RN, BMTCN, decided to commit her career to cancer research and the care of resilient survivors after witnessing her mother surviving breast cancer. Mohanraj, who had already completed two degrees at the University of Mumbai in India, moved to the U.S. to pursue a doctorate at VCU.

She has been at VCU ever since, earning her Ph.D. in 2008, completing a four-year postdoctoral fellowship, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in nursing, working her way up the clinical ladder as a nurse for VCU Health and becoming an assistant professor in the School of Nursing in 2017.

Recently, her work has focused on bone marrow transplants, and her volunteer work has followed suit. In summer 2018, she helped organize a bone marrow drive in collaboration with the India Association of Virginia and the Massey Cancer Center, hoping to increase representation of individuals from different racial and ethnic backgrounds on the bone marrow registry.

She is president-elect of the Richmond Chapter of the Oncology Nursing Society and chair of the Evidence-Based Practice Committee on the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit at VCU Health.

Among many honors, Mohanraj has received the Outstanding Recent Alumnus Award from the VCU School of Nursing and the Virginia Nurses Foundation’s 40 Under 40 Award.

“Besides preparing and nurturing me through my professional career, VCU has played a critical role in my personal life as well,” she says.

She met her husband, Parthasarathy Madurantakam, Ph.D., D.D.S. (Ph.D.’09/En; D.D.S.’12/D), at VCU. Madurantakam is VCU faculty as well, an assistant professor in the School of Dentistry. The couple have two sons, Shravan, 9, and Suveer, 5.

Cheri B. Spence (M.S.’08/B)

When Cheri B. Spence enrolled at VCU to get her master’s in information systems, she was already the chief information officer for International Mission Board, a large global nonprofit headquartered in Richmond, Virginia.

Spence, who has been married for 35 years and is the mother of three and grandmother of two, says that for much of her life, going to grad school to update her computer science degree from 1981 took a back seat to getting her children through college. She adds, “Once they were launched, it was my time!”

She soaked up everything she could during her time at VCU. “Every class I attended contained information that helped me move forward in my role as CIO,” she says. “I was able to apply concepts on a weekly basis.”

The year after she graduated, Spence was named global CIO for International Mission Board and spent the next eight years traveling extensively to work with the organization’s IT teams overseas. She revamped the nonprofit’s infrastructure, enhanced security and escalated critical systems to the cloud.

In 2016, she retired from International Mission Board and went to work as global CIO at ChildFund International, also located in Richmond. That organization was midway through replacing a system that affected its software in 25 countries in Asia, Africa and the Americas and the work of 11 associated organizations in Europe and Asia-Pacific.

Spence steered this project to success. Her secret? She accomplished the work, she says “by maintaining positivity and confidence in the face of tough leadership challenges and encouraging organization-wide cooperation, trust and transparency.”

Through it all, she maintains connections to VCU. She is an adjunct professor in the School of Business, mentors graduate students and serves on the VCU Information Systems Advisory Board.

Nantasha Williams (B.A.’11/H&S)

Nantasha Williams’ political and public service work reached a peak as a national organizer for the Women’s March on Washington, D.C., in January 2017, for which her name appeared on “PBS Newshour” and in the publications Essence, W Magazine and others.

The path that led Williams to that moment on the national stage required persistence and drive.

“My time at VCU was not easy,” she says. Williams came from a working-class family headed by a single mother, struggled with finances as an out-of-state student and took a year off school to deal with personal challenges.

She says those obstacles taught her the scope of her capabilities. When she returned to VCU, she became deeply involved in student government, which complemented her formal studies in political science. She followed this with an externship with the Virginia Department of Transportation post-graduation and eventually a job with the New York state legislature, where she held numerous positions with the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus, including as executive director. She ran for the New York State Assembly in 2016. Though she was not elected, she says she made contacts that brought her into social justice activism, and eventually to her work with the Women’s March.

In 2017, she was named a Young Professional Trailblazer by the National Urban League, and shared Glamour Magazine’s Women of the Year Award with other Women’s March organizers. She was one of City and State Magazine’s Albany Rising Stars Top 40 Under 40 and was among Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy’s Young Alumnae of the Year, an award that honored the work she did after receiving a master’s in public administration at the college in 2014.

The Women’s March, Williams says, “represented a powerful reflection of our voice in society.” She plans to continue working to make that voice heard.

 

2017 recipients

Lauren Caldas, Pharm.D., BCACP (Pharm.D.’11/P)

Lauren Caldas

As a student at VCU’s School of Pharmacy, Lauren Caldas, Pharm.D., BCACP, established a community-based project to help individuals with diabetes learn to live healthy. The program, held at her church, included diabetes-friendly foods prepared by student pharmacists, blood glucose testing, blood pressure testing and flu vaccinations.

“It was the first event that I created from the ground up,” says Caldas, now assistant professor at the pharmacy school. “It was amazing to see something I dreamed come to life, and I’m proud to say that, as a faculty member, the students still host this event each year.”

After graduating from the VCU School of Pharmacy in 2011, Caldas tackled her next big project: helping to open the first Kroger Marketplace on the East Coast while serving as a pharmacy manager for the company. During her four years there, she created a “neighborhood pharmacy feel.”

“I knew my patients’ names and helped them manage their medications,” she says. “I was able to correct dosages for children’s antibiotics, suggest changes to medications to save my patients money and create a sense of community.”

Simultaneously, she earned board certification as an ambulatory care pharmacist and volunteered at the free clinic Center for Healthy Hearts.

For her work and commitment to community pharmacy, the Academy of New Practitioners at the Virginia Pharmacists Association honored Caldas with the 10 under 10: Class of 2014 award. She previously had received the Pharmacists Mutual Distinguished Young Pharmacists Award from the Virginia Pharmacists Association in 2012 and the Emswiller Award for Leadership Achievement from the School of Pharmacy in 2011.

Today, back at the VCU School of Pharmacy, Caldas hopes to share her passion for the profession and to train the next generation of community pharmacists.

“My personal approach to my career is to empower our future pharmacists,” Caldas says. “I love my work in academia and the opportunities it has provided me.”

Christina Dick (B.S.’10/MC)

Christina DickChristina Dick launched her career at the advertising firm The Martin Agency, where she developed social media strategy and content for clients such as GEICO, Kraft’s Cool Whip, Stove Top and Breakstone’s/Knudsen, Walmart and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Recognizing her talents, Capital One recruited Dick to serve as its strategic marketing manager. Within three months, she was promoted to senior community management associate, directly responsible for the financial firm’s social media platforms, including the 84,000-follower Twitter account and the 2.9 million-fan Facebook page. It was only a little over a year later that Big River, an ad agency based in Richmond, Virginia, brought Dick on board to serve as senior content strategist.

Back in the agency world, her clients included sweetFrog, Virginia Lottery, Anthem, Lumber Liquidators, Virginia Farm Bureau and Eagle Construction. In March 2015, the Richmond Public Relations Society of America honored Dick with the Capital Award of Merit in Social Media for the “Summer of sweetFrog Challenge” campaign she developed for the frozen yogurt company.

With several successes under her belt, Dick struck out on her own and in April 2016 founded TFB Agency, a social media-focused marketing consultancy with clients that include Patient First and James River Air Conditioning. She was recognized by Style Weekly's as one of Richmond's 2017 Top 40 Under 40.

In her spare time, Dick serves as an adjunct professor at the VCU Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture and regularly volunteers at school events, giving lectures and reviewing student portfolios. She also writes and publishes the popular blog Tiramisu For Breakfast and serves on the boards of the Richmond Ad Club and Richmond CenterStage. 

Christine Haines Greenberg (B.A.’09/H&S)

Christine GreenbergFour years after she graduated from VCU with a Bachelor of Arts in English with a concentration in political science and women’s studies, Christine Haines Greenberg, who was working as a wedding planner, did what many are afraid to: She quit her full-time job and started her own company.

Greenberg is used to change, though. Because of her father’s military service, she spent most of her childhood in Europe as her family moved every two years. It wasn’t until halfway through high school that they settled in Stafford County, Virginia. She then found her way to VCU in 2003.

“In general terms, meeting so many different kinds of people at VCU was a huge comfort for me after living around the diverse military community,” Greenberg says. “It was invaluable to learn from students from all over the country who had hundreds of different experiences from me.”

Greenberg is a self-starter with two Richmond, Virginia-based businesses: Wood Grain & Lace Events, an event company she started in 2011, and Urban Set Bride, an award-winning bridal store she started with her mom in 2014.

Greenberg has always been in the business of empowering others. At VCU, she was an active member in Young Democrats and was a volunteer coordinator for Students for Barack Obama. She also volunteered for Food not Bombs and Planned Parenthood. Now, she manages Boss Babes RVA, a 2,500-member Facebook group that she founded. There, local, self-employed women can “network and lean on each other as they navigate the waters of entrepreneurship.” She’s in the process of creating a mentorship program, Mini Boss Babes, that would pair members of Boss Babes RVA with area middle and high school girls.

In 2016, Greenberg created a contest, RVA LOVE, where community members nominated a couple to receive a free wedding. After collecting more than $50,000 in goods and services from 30 local vendors, Greenberg’s contest gave a single mom battling lymphoma the wedding of her dreams.

Greenberg always remembers VCU for the lessons and experiences she learned at the university.

“My professors had real-world experiences that translated beautifully in the classroom,” she says. “The city of Richmond and VCU gave me a well-rounded, colorful, quality college experience.” 

William Haugh (M.H.A.’08/AHP)

William HaughWilliam Haugh can trace his career path back to his childhood, growing up in the small town of South Boston, Virginia.

“I specifically chose hospital administration because of the important role hospitals play in the community, especially in rural areas,” he says. “I witnessed this firsthand growing up in South Boston in which Halifax Regional Health System was the largest employer in the county.”

After his first year at Appalachian State University, in Boone, North Carolina, where he was studying information systems, Haugh completed an internship at Halifax Regional Health System. It was an opportunity that exposed him to various aspects of hospital operations.

In 2004, after graduating from Appalachian State, Haugh approached Halifax Regional CEO Chris Lumsden and “basically begged” for a job. Lumsden offered him a position with two caveats: First, Haugh would be paid minimum wage, and second, he would only have the job for one year.

“He intentionally gave me an unappealing position to make sure that I would go back to school and receive a master’s degree,” Haugh says.

The tough love paid off. Haugh was accepted into the Master of Health Administration program in the VCU School of Allied Health Professions a year later.

“Without a doubt, the success I have been fortunate to enjoy in my career is a direct result of the education I received at VCU,” Haugh says. “My VCU education was the perfect combination of classroom instruction, special projects outside the classroom and the opportunity to network with industry leaders.”

As a student, the constant interactions with health care leaders taught him the ropes and “how things really work,” allowing his career to progress rapidly.

In 2008, Haugh joined Tennessee-based LifePoint Hospitals, which operates 72 hospitals in 22 states. He served first as chief operating officer at the 220-bed Memorial Hospital of Martinsville and Henry County, Virginia, and then as CEO at Logan Memorial Hospital in Russellville, Kentucky, from 2009-12 . He joined Georgetown Community Hospital in Georgetown, Kentucky, as CEO in 2012. Three years later, he achieved what he considers one of his greatest accomplishment to date: being named LifePoint Health CEO of the Year.  

Ashley Hawkins (B.F.A.’07/A; M.P.A.’13/GPA; Cert.’13/GPA)

Ashley HawkinsAshley Hawkins was on the brink of leaving the VCU School of the Arts her junior year, when she started to etch, screen print and create lithographs. Her newfound passion reinvigorated her studies.

“I was a fearful painter and almost quit VCUarts but then found printmaking and immediately fell in love,” Hawkins says. “The process was freeing. I could make 10 or 1,000 prints. I could change the plate or the screen, I could draw on my prints, collage — I was no longer afraid of ‘messing up.’”

She knew that starting a community print shop was her calling and she did, at Richmond’s Plant Zero, after college. With eyes on establishing a larger collaborative space, in 2010 she opened Studio Two Three, Richmond’s only printmaking studio that’s open to the public. At the same time, she returned to VCU to earn a master’s in public administration with a concentration in nonprofit management.

“I am an artist and Studio Two Three is my life’s art project,” Hawkins says. “I am fascinated by the constant excitement and challenge of creating and managing a growing organization and remaining responsive to our community needs.”

Hawkins says it’s a dream responding to those community needs, which include creating a space that supports professional artists with tools to take their career to the next step. The studio offers classes, workshops and a retail store, among other features.

In 2017, Hawkins launched the Art of Activism series. The first session gave more than 200 participants the ability to make protest posters and ephemera before the women’s march in Washington, D.C.

“We will continue to offer opportunities to amplify our voices in our community, in a time when art has never been more important,” Hawkins says.

Hawkins says earning a B.F.A. at VCU taught her more than lessons in art; she walked away with real-world problem-solving skills.

“I tell our interns and students the biggest benefit of an arts education is that it taught me how to think,” Hawkins says. “I have taken that process and applied it to founding and managing a thriving arts organization in Richmond.”

LeQuan M. Hylton, Ph.D. (Ph.D.’16/GPA)

LyQuan HyltonLeQuan M. Hylton, Ph.D., began making an impact in Richmond, Virginia, almost immediately after he and his mom moved to the city in 1998.   

Hylton saw the homeless in the city and wanted to do something to help, so he started an outreach program through his church, St. Paul’s Baptist Church.

“It was my first contact with people who were homeless,” he told Style Weekly in 2014 when he was honored as one of the city’s Top 40 Under 40. “And really, it bothered me that people lived in such conditions.”

Hylton, who received his bachelor’s in business from Virginia State University and his M.B.A. from Averett University in Danville, Virginia, continued to work on issues surrounding homelessness up until he came to VCU to earn his Ph.D. in public policy and administration from the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.

“VCU is a wonderful place,” Hylton says. “I chose to come to VCU because of the community engagement and outreach. I really enjoyed my learning experience, which involved the community.”

Hylton became the first member of his family to earn a doctoral degree when he graduated from VCU in 2010. His dissertation, “Perceptions of the Homeless Toward Nonprofit Human Service Providers,” focused on homeless people’s preferences for assistance services.

“Growing up in a rural community gave me a strong sense of caring for others,” says Hylton, who is from Martinsville, Virginia. “It was a loving place where I learned that if we could meet the needs of our family, extended family and others, then we ought to.”

His research at VCU led him and his mother, Sharon Hylton, to start Unified Properties LLC, a company that buys, renovates and leases quality and affordable houses and offices in the Tri-Cities area. Hylton also owns the real estate firm Hylton & Co. and a construction service company, Carver Builders.

His sense of service to those around him doesn’t end with his dedication to the homeless community. Last year, Hylton was deployed to Afghanistan, where he was in charge of the construction of multiple warehouses, maintenance shelters and offices, as part of his Army Reserve service, where he holds the rank of major. He has received numerous awards for his military service to include: two Meritorious Service Medals for military service, an Army Commendation Medal and the Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal.

“I continue to give back by any means necessary,” Hylton says. 

Gai A. Nyok (B.A.’10/H&S; B.S.’10/H&S)

Gai NyokGai A. Nyok, a diplomat at the U.S. Department of State, has come a long way since making the 300-mile trek to a refugee camp in Ethiopia from his native Sudan at age 5.

“I grew up in a situation where there was war. I was exposed to international issues. I lived in a refugee camp with people of many, many different nationalities,” Nyok says. “And I saw the impact that countries can have in resolving conflicts around the world.”

Nyok is among the 20,000 Lost Boys of Sudan displaced during the 22-yearlong Sudanese civil war that ended in 2005.

“We were being killed because we were seen as potential [soldiers for] the rebels from the south,” he says. “So we were targeted and killed, sometimes taken to the north. At the time, there were a lot of child soldiers on both sides. There were a lot of us escaping our villages to go to refugee camps.”

Nyok saw firsthand the impact diplomats can make when American diplomats interviewed him for a chance to come to the U.S.

“I was inspired by the work they were doing in a hostile environment in a refugee camp in Kenya,” Nyok says. “It was hostile. No services. Nothing.”

Nyok relocated to Hanover County, Virginia, in 2001 when he was 16. He was so inspired by his experiences with the diplomats that years later, when he received scholarships to attend VCU, he double-majored in economics and international relations with the goal of becoming one himself.

When he graduated in 2010, Nyok received the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship, funded by the U.S. Department of State and administered by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation to support and prepare students for careers in the U.S. Department of State Foreign Service.

“Today, my job takes me around the world implementing U.S. government policies and introducing, and advocating for, American values to foreign audiences,” Nyok says. “The key approach to my career has been finding the intersection of my strengths and passion. I made my way to America as a teenager, after having sought refuge in a number of other countries, and I understood early on the importance of diplomacy in today’s interconnected world while realizing that I flourish in foreign or unfamiliar environments.”

In a 2013 speech on World Refugee Day, former Secretary of State John Kerry called Nyok “a prime example, like so many millions of others, of exactly why it is worth all of us standing up for the world’s most vulnerable.”

Stanley R. Rayfield (B.F.A.’09/A)

Stanley RayfieldStanley R. Rayfield learned a valuable lesson growing up in Henrico, Virginia: Take hold of any chance given to you.

“Henrico High School in 2001-05 did not have the best reputation in the county. It was rough; there were limited resources, poverty and very hard things to deal with,” Rayfield says. “Being in that environment really taught me to be appreciative of any opportunity I had and not to squander it. I had the opportunity to be in a program called the Center for the Arts that changed my life. That program inspired me to become an artist and attend VCU.” 

Rayfield enrolled in the VCU School of the Arts in 2005 and received several scholarships and fellowships to support his studies. Through the support of his professors and a newfound faith, he graduated in 2009.

“I cannot neglect that during my time at VCU I was dealing with depression,” he says. “I was really in a dark place and what got me through it all was I started going to church. When I began going to church that was a real breakthrough for me, personally and spiritually.”

Rayfield says his spiritual growth added value to his art. Shortly after graduating, a portrait of his father, Ralph, that he painted his senior year was exhibited in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, where it garnered second place in the 2009 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition.

In 2013, Rayfield worked with popular film producer and director Spike Lee to create two paintings for the 25th anniversary of the Academy Award-nominated film “Do the Right Thing.” One of Rayfield’s paintings was displayed during a block party attended by celebrities including comedian Dave Chappelle and singer Lauryn Hill. Stanley also has work in the permanent collection of the U.S. Pentagon and five paintings in the permanent collection of the Morris Museum in Augusta, Georgia. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts purchased one of Rayfield’s pieces, “Black Jesus,” for its permanent collection. In 2014, he completed a painting of Malia and Sasha Obama, which he presented to the then-President Barack Obama and is now part of the former president’s personal collection.

None of this would have been possible, Rayfield says, without the tutelage of the communications arts professors at VCU who helped him develop as an artist.

“They were amazing. They were like prophets. They knew exactly what we needed,” Rayfield says. “They forced me to find a different voice, which led to me ultimately becoming a great fine artist, so I thank God for that opportunity.”

Ryan C. Rinn (Cert.’11/GPA; M.U.R.P.’12/GPA)

Ryan RinnRyan C. Rinn spent his summers working at the local steel mill in his hometown of Seguin, Texas, just outside Houston. His father and grandfather both worked at the mill, but his parents — whom he credits with teaching him the importance of having a work ethic, patience and persistence — always encouraged him to leave Texas for college and to follow his dreams. He received his undergraduate degree at the University of Richmond, but it was at VCU, in a graduate class taught by Meghan Gough, Ph.D., assistant professor in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, where he found his calling in urban planning.

Her Studio 1 class, centered on urban planning in Richmond’s Highland Park neighborhood, set the course for Rinn’s life. It’s there he began his work to revitalize the city’s historic neighborhood just north of downtown, a passion that still drives him today.

In 2013, Rinn was hired to serve as executive director of Storefront for Community Design, a nonprofit that, through low-cost design assistance and community engagement, links design professionals to design need. He accepted the position on the condition that Storefront would focus on community engagement in Highland Park. In the four years since Rinn has been at the helm, the organization has held more than 250 design sessions and 25 community advocacy events and has engaged more than 200 young people. Storefront also partners with VCU’s Middle of Broad studio, where students work on community design projects around Richmond.

In 2017, Storefront partnered with several organizations to open Six Points Innovation Center. The center, situated in the commercial core of Highland Park, allows nonprofit organizations to provide youth access to innovative programming in the arts, urban ecology, education assistance, public media, public history and advocacy.

Nonprofit director. Urban planner. Grassroots organizer. Community designer. Rinn proudly wears each of these hats and traces them back to VCU’s Wilder School, where, he says, he learned the tricks of the trade.

“The Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs allowed me to learn planning in an applied setting,” he says. “Two years in the field in graduate school helped me build community connections and friendships that I still lean on today for the betterment of our city.” 

Isaac Rodriguez, Ph.D. (M.S.’10/En; Ph.D.’13/En)

Isaac RodriguezAs a high school student, Isaac Rodriguez, Ph.D., would come home and take over for his mom, who babysat children during the day, so she could go to her second job at a restaurant. When he was done babysitting, he would join her at the restaurant to bus tables.

Rodriguez says it’s that kind of grit, along with a focus on receiving a good education, that motivated him to succeed.  

“There was never a dull moment growing up; my sister and I could never say we were bored,” says Rodriguez, whose parents, originally from Puerto Rico, moved to Virginia before he was born. “I can’t thank my parents enough and strive to make them proud every day.”

Rodriguez graduated with two biomedical engineering degrees from VCU’s School of Engineering: a master’s in 2010 and a Ph.D. in 2013. As a student, he was involved in Students Today Alumni Tomorrow and the Lambda Upsilon Lambda Fraternity, both of which offered him leadership opportunities that, he says, prepared him for his role as CEO in a fast-paced startup environment. In 2015, Rodriguez co-founded the biotech company SweetBio with his sister, Kayla Rodriguez Graff. The Memphis, Tennessee-based company has raised more than $2 million to bring Rodriguez’s invention to market — a regeneration membrane that can be used in oral surgeries to improve healing through the use of a unique ingredient, medical-grade honey.

“My education at VCU allowed me to be a scientist and invent the product that we are bringing to the market [in 2018],” says Rodriguez  who served as NASA Langley's keynote speaker for Hispanic Heritage Month in October 2017. “I’m so excited now that I’m learning the business side of what we do and my sister, who has an M.B.A., is learning the science.”

 

2016 recipients

Sudharshana Apte, Ph.D. (M.S.’11/H&S; Ph.D.’14/H&S)

Sudharshana ApteAfter receiving her bachelor’s in computer science and engineering in India, Apte came to VCU to earn her M.S. in Mathematical Sciences. She immediately fell in love with Richmond’s charm and history and stayed at VCU to acquire a doctorate in systems modeling and analysis. She had always been passionate about mentoring students and took the opportunity, while still pursuing her degrees, to teach undergraduate math and statistics courses to better prepare those students for upper-level courses. During her time at VCU, she was actively involved with multiple groups, including the Honors Council and Tiranga, a student organization for Indian nationals. She says VCU’s welcoming and vibrant VCU community awarded occasions for her to participate in activities that not only helped her grow as an individual but also let her stay true to her cultural identity.

Apte’s core expertise lies in translating physical processes into mathematical models and optimizing them for improved efficiency. From 2008-09, she worked as a consultant for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, where she achieved a 14 percent reduction in operational costs. In 2011, she interned at the Richmond Police Department to study 911 call arrival, response and service time patterns. Her team’s recommendations were used by the police chief to justify the need for retaining the existing patrol workforce to the city.

“It was so exciting to be a part of something that helped me give back to the city that had given me so much,” she says. “It taught me the most valuable lessons, both at a professional and personal level.”

Apte was hired at graduation by Altria as a postdoctoral fellow to work with the company’s modeling and simulation group. At Altria, she provided innovative solutions that led to improved efficiencies in manufacturing and new insights into sales call patterns. The dramatic time and cost savings provided by her work led to an offer of full-time employment as a research scientist.

Since then, she has presented at conferences held by the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences, the largest operations research professional society in the U.S. Apte has served as an invited panelist on the forum for women in operations research, sat on the organizing committee for the 2016 INFORMS conference on business analytics and was recently elected vice president of communications of the Women in Operations Research and Management Sciences.

She promotes underrepresented groups in the mathematical sciences locally, speaking at the VCU Women in Mathematics Lunch and Learn and the VCU Women in Science Professional Seminar. In summer 2016, she also volunteered at the Richmond Public Schools MathScience Innovation Center to teach middle school girls about data visualization and other real-world uses of mathematics.

“I have been extremely lucky to have inspiring teachers and mentors that motivated me to pursue a career in research,” she says. “I would like to share my enthusiasm for STEM fields with young women to help them be successful in the professional paths they choose for themselves.” 

Charlotte Arbogast (Cert.’12/GPA; M.S.’12/AHP)

Charlotte ArbogastArbogast always enjoyed spending time with older relatives, but she says it was her grandfather’s experience with Alzheimer’s disease that sparked her interest in aging-related issues. As an undergraduate history major at Lynchburg College in Virginia, Arbogast took a work-study position at the college’s Beard Center on Aging hoping to understand more about older adults and dementia. There she discovered the field of gerontology, a profession that was never on her radar as a history major.

While still an undergraduate, she was appointed to the Virginia Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders Commission, chaired at the time by Ayn Welleford, Ph.D. (M.S.’93/AHP; Ph.D.’98/H&S), chair of the Department of Gerontology in the VCU School of Allied Health Professions.

“By the end of the first commission meeting, I knew I wanted to come to Richmond, study gerontology under Dr. Welleford and bridge my personal experiences with a newfound professional passion for aging issues,” Arbogast says.

She focused her graduate research at VCU on how awareness of aging issues can inform and guide health care policy development. “The practicum took my academic learning to a whole different level,” she says. “It showed me how I could directly translate my degree and training to the development of policies that are both practical and evidence-based. This philosophy remains a core of my approach to program and policy development.”

Following graduation, Arbogast started work as a policy analyst for the Virginia Department of Health. While there, she drafted regulation revisions and guidance documents governing nursing facilities and home care organizations and conducted gap analyses to identify unmet needs. In 2013, she became the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services’ first dementia services coordinator, where she paved a strong path forward through her work writing the next iteration of Virginia’s Dementia State Plan, a strategic policy planning blueprint for improving how Virginia responds to dementia, and two successful grant proposals that resulted in funding from the U.S. Administration for Community Living totaling more than $1.3 million.

Now at the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services, Arbogast reviews federal activities that affect long-term care service delivery in Virginia to develop regulations and guidance for those programs. She has maintained strong ties with the VCU gerontology department, serving as an adjunct professor and a member of the advisory board.

“If I can offer any advice, education or support to students at VCU who are likewise picking up the baton to improve aging services and disrupt ageism, then I am committed to doing so,” she says. “We’re all in this together.”

Joshua Boone (B.F.A.’10/A)

Joshua BooneBoone caught the acting bug at age 9 when he was cast as Davy Crockett in a summer school arts program. By the time he entered high school, acting was no longer a sideshow but something he loved and wanted to do. He excelled academically, and his parents envisioned a career in business, law or medicine for their son. Boone enrolled in the VCU School of Business in 2006, but he didn’t put his passion for acting aside. He auditioned for and won the lead role in TheatreVCU’s production of “Smokey Joe’s Café,” a show-stopping performance that convinced him and his parents that he should change his major and pursue his dream of becoming an actor.

Boone says that there were many experiences and people in the School of the Arts’ Department of Theatre who influenced the person and artist he is today, especially noting professors Patti D’Beck and Gary Hopper. None were more important than those who came during his junior year under the tutelage of Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, Ph.D.

“Her voice and lessons on both life and acting continue to fuel me to this day. I was a lazy artist who didn’t fully respect the craft of acting, and Dr. T called me out on it,” he says. “That kind of truth is extremely rare in a classroom setting, and some may cower in response to hearing it, but over the course of my life, I’ve found that when used with love, it is the absolute most essential quality needed to promote healthy dependability on oneself and a determination that can propel the smallest among us to the highest of heights.”

During his senior year at VCU, Boone earned the Bobby Chandler Performance Award, an annual honor given to one senior in performance, chosen by the department chair.

Today, Boone is living his dream. He garnered his first on-screen role in 2013 in the “American Tragedy” episode of “Law and Order: SVU” and made his Broadway debut in 2014 as a principal character in “Holler If Ya Hear Me.” He recently filmed the pilot episode for ABC’s “Designated Survivor” to air this fall and appeared in the movie “Fan Girl” with Meg Ryan and Kiernan Shipka, which took him to the LA Film Festival and premiered worldwide on ABC Family in 2015.

Terrell Brown (B.S.’09/MC)

Terrell BrownBrown’s interest in broadcast TV started in high school. He launched the school’s TV program, sometimes staying till 10 p.m. on weeknights to build the production (which is still produced and part of the school’s curriculum today), while on the weekends, he interned at a local TV station in Richmond, Virginia.

During his freshman and sophomore years at VCU, Brown worked as an editor at WWBT-TV, Richmond’s NBC affiliate, and was later promoted to weekend morning show producer.

“I figured I’d always be a producer and my course work and studies in the School of Mass Communications assisted wonderfully in my day-to-day endeavors and challenges in the newsroom of an NBC affiliate,” he says.

His career path changed when Frank Jones, now news director at the NBC12 station, stumbled across a mock newscast that Brown had anchored. Recognizing Brown’s talent, Jones made sure Brown got airtime. In two years, Brown was anchoring the NBC newscast he used to produce and write. By his senior year at VCU, he was approached by network TV executives in New York, and just two weeks after graduating, found himself at CBS as the network’s youngest correspondent at age 22. He covered some of the nation’s biggest stories, including the Boston Marathon bombing, Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He also reported from the White House and U.S. Capitol during health care reform and looming government shutdown and from the Kennedy Space Center on NASA’s historic final mission.

Brown was honored in 2014 with a national Emmy Award for his work on a “48 Hours” special report detailing the manhunt and capture of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, and he received a Los Angeles-area Emmy Award for covering the campaign trail for the 2010 election season.        

In 2014, Brown started anchoring Chicago’s No. 1 morning news broadcast on ABC7 (WLS-TV), and his role was expanded this year when WLS named him anchor of its new one-hour newscast at 11 a.m.

“VCU taught me how to think critically, question and challenge conventional norms and take risks,” he says of his alma mater’s influence on his career. “My professors encouraged me to never emulate but embrace the gifts, talents and intellect that make each of us particularly unique. With every new endeavor, I push myself to ‘be myself.’ That life lesson has helped me find early success in my career, the foundation of which was built from the mental and personal growth fostered by the incredible faculty and staff of VCU.”

Rachel Mercer (M.S.’12/MC)

Rachel MercerMercer has been at the core of marketing and producing innovative products since graduating from the VCU Brandcenter in 2012. She started working in 2014 as a senior product strategist with London-based consultancy Made by Many, which had just invented a new toy, Hackaball, and raised $240,000 on Kickstarter to produce it.

Hackaball is essentially a computer you can throw around with your friends in the backyard.

Using a simple app on a mobile device, children can program Hackaball to play traditional games such as “hot potato” or they can create their own unique gameplay. With the correct coding, the ball will also change colors, vibrate and make sounds at the programmer’s whim.

Mercer’s role in the early days of Hackaball was to create a strategy to roll the toy into the marketplace. She and her teammates conducted research and tested the ball with London-based families, ultimately marketing the toy as a fun option that bridges the gap between technology and socialization. Hackaball, currently in the first stages of production, has sold 3,000 units worldwide and was named by Time magazine as one of the best inventions of 2015.

“The Time list came something like eight months after the initial launch, and it was just a massive validation,” she says.

Mercer is what the ad industry calls a “full stack” strategist. She’s involved in every step of the creation, development and marketing of a product by shaping brand strategy from the core of a business all the way to a consumer and back again. Before working with Hackaball, she consulted with big-name brands, including Coca-Cola, Target, Volkswagen, Expedia and Nintendo; co-founded Pullist, a monthly subscription service for graphic novels; and developed an easy-ordering app for Pizza Hut and a gas price prediction app for Esurance called Fuelcaster.

She has been recognized for her work in and leading multidisciplinary teams to create groundbreaking products by Business Insider’s “30 Most Creative People in Advertising Under 30,​” The New York Times, AdWeek, Forbes and The Economist. She says her experience working in teams at the VCU Brandcenter, part of the School of Business, prepared her for success and for igniting her passion to succeed as a woman in the advertising industry.

“I think the best thing that Brandcenter did was to simulate the realities of working in the industry, while also giving us free reign for unimpeded creativity,” she says. “We worked on real briefs, for real clients or real agencies, and much of the work that we produced was unfettered by the requirements that the real work typically comes burdened with. I like to think of Brandcenter as a bit like a crucible; it’s a very condensed, intense period of time, but in the end you come out newly forged, better than before.”

Tin Htut Myint (B.S.’06/En)

Tin MyintMyint followed in the footsteps of his older brothers, Lynn Htut Myint (B.S.’10/En) and Myo Thwin Myint, M.D. (B.S.’04/En; M.D.’08/M), when he enrolled in VCU’s School of Engineering as a mechanical engineering major.

“They did a great deal of teaching me how to navigate college and encouraging me when I needed it the most,” he says. “They also taught me the importance of being involved in extracurricular activities.”

He took their advice and jumped headfirst into his college career, making the most of his time on campus. He served as a member of numerous organizations, including the Student Government Association, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers at VCU and Virginia for Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology. One of his proudest accomplishments was helping create a VCU chapter of the Formula Society of Automotive Engineers, a student design competition where teams develop a Formula-style racecar and enter it in the Formula SAE competition, competing against more than 140 schools from 13 countries around the world.

Myint joined Dominion: Surry Nuclear Power Station after graduation, starting as a manual valves program owner. Six years later, he became a product development and customer solutions engineer at Dominion Voltage Inc., which provides solutions for energy efficiency. This new position came with a different set of demands, and Myint credits his adaptability to VCU’s program.

“As a mechanical engineering student at VCU, the curriculum not only focused on core mechanical courses, but it also included other engineering disciplines and business courses,” he says. “Because of the diverse knowledge, I was able to switch from a motor operated valve analyst at a nuclear power station to a product development and customer solution engineer at an electrical distribution and conservation software start up group.”

Myint also credits networking opportunities through the school for helping him land his first job, and he pays it forward by organizing monthly social hours for alumni and students to network with one another. He says it’s important to give back to the school that gave him, and his family, so much. He joined the Engineering Alumni Board the year he graduated and served as its president from 2014-16. He’s also presented at career fairs and resume review workshops, served as a panel member at alumni and engineering events and has spoken at the School of Engineering graduation ceremony for three years. At the university level, he’s served as a member of the VCU Alumni Outreach and Engagement Committee, and he currently represents the Engineering Alumni Association on the VCU Alumni Board of Governors.

Daniel “Danny” L. Plaugher (B.A.’06/H&S)

Danny PlaugherThe youngest of four sons, Plaugher was the first to graduate from high school, a notable achievement. But, he always set his bar higher. After high school, he worked two jobs, including running his first political campaign, to afford himself the opportunity to attend community college at night. After three semesters and a 4.0 GPA, he transferred to VCU to study political science and achieved his dream of becoming the first member of his family to graduate from college.  

Plaugher commuted from VCU, where he was living, to Northern Virginia, where he worked a construction job three days a week but still found time to be active on campus. He co-founded the Student Political Association and VCU Young Democrats and was elected twice to the Student Senate as vice speaker. He also became the youngest appointee of Gov. Mark Warner’s administration when he was tapped twice to serve on the commonwealth’s Juvenile Justice Committee, where he helped create public policy to assist Virginia’s youth in staying out of the justice system. He also worked on the 2002 Higher Education Bond Referendum, which secured $76.8 million in construction money for VCU.

After graduating from VCU, Plaugher learned about a position at the nonprofit Virginians for High Speed Rail through a friend and fellow alumnus who was building the group’s website. Plaugher joined the organization as its primary fundraiser and was quickly promoted to executive director several months later. “For the last decade I have successfully been working to improve Virginia’s transportation system through my position at VHSR, and it never would’ve happened without VCU,” he says.

At VHSR, Plaugher successfully spearheaded the effort to make Virginia the first state in the nation with a dedicated funding source for intercity and higher-speed passenger rail. Since 2007, this has resulted in $614.6 million in state and federal funding for intercity passenger rail, which has dramatically expanded and improved passenger rail service offered to Virginians. He also led the advocacy efforts in the Southeast to pass the Federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, which created the federal intercity and high-speed rail program.

Plaugher, a VCU Alumni member, continues to volunteer with numerous organizations. As the youngest president of the Rotary Club of Richmond, Virginia’s oldest service organization, he oversaw the creation of a $100,000 scholarship to support students from economically disadvantaged communities in the Richmond region.

Kevin Powers (B.A.’08/H&S)

Kevin PowersPowers started writing about the age of 13, but only a few close friends knew that he dreamed of becoming a professional writer. His high school English teacher, Patty Strong, recognized his talent and encouraged him.

After serving in the U.S. Army in 2004 and 2005 in Mosul and Tal Afar, Iraq, Powers returned to the States and decided to pursue writing in the Department of English at VCU. Powers met influential mentors during his studies and developed confidence in his writing, calling his time at the university “essential.”

“Getting the permission to think of myself as a writer, learning how to engage with literature and my own writing in new ways; all of this happened at VCU,” he says.

After graduating from VCU, Powers continued to hone his talents at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned an M.F.A. in Poetry in 2012. That same year, he published his first novel, and it was met with praise from well-known book critics and authors alike. Called “the ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ of America’s Arab Wars,” by legendary novelist and journalist Tom Wolfe, “The Yellow Birds” was a finalist for the National Book Award, named one of The New York Times’ 100 Most Notable Books of 2012 and received the 2012 The Guardian First Book Award and the 2013 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. “The Yellow Birds” draws from Powers’ experiences in the Iraq War and follows a 21-year-old private and Richmond, Virginia, native before, during and after his tour.

Since then, Powers has written a poetry collection, “Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting,” which was shortlisted for the 2014 Forward Prize for Best First Collection and was the PBS Summer Choice. Last year, he was named a 2015 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellow in support of his forthcoming second work of fiction. The Guggenheim Fellowship is awarded each year to those who have demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts. The competitive award will support Powers as he writes the story of a young woman married to a plantation owner ruined by the end of the Civil War, set in and around Richmond in the early days of Reconstruction.

Fatima M. Smith (M.S.W.’12/SW)

Fatima SmithSmith started volunteering in sixth grade, and her passion for serving others has only grown since then. Through her field placements and graduate research on domestic and sexual violence and human trafficking during her M.S.W. studies at the VCU School of Social Work, she was inspired to influence large-scale change through macro and clinical social work.

At VCU, Smith volunteered with Virginia agencies to advocate against domestic and sexual violence and child abuse, including Greater Richmond Stop Child Abuse Now, Hanover Safe Place and Safe Harbor. She was also a volunteer for three years with the YWCA’s Regional Hospital Accompaniment Response Team. R-HART’s trained volunteers sit with survivors of intimate partner violence and sexual assault who have just arrived at the hospital. The volunteer supports the survivor and helps explain the forensic evidence collection process, ensuring the survivor’s needs are met and letting them know about their options and resources.

Smith became the R-HART coordinator in 2013 and then, following graduation from VCU, the agency’s director of community outreach and public education. As director, she developed partnerships with VCU, other local colleges and Planned Parenthood to establish a foundation for providing trauma-informed education and workshops in Richmond and nearby Chesterfield County.

Her volunteer efforts coincide with her professional passions. She volunteers with the Hospital Hospitality House and the University of Richmond Family Law Clinic, where she provides pro bono consulting, and in 2015, she assisted in efforts to bring a public awareness campaign to Richmond aimed at improving the criminal justice response to violence against women.  

This year, Smith joined her alma mater as assistant director of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, stalking and advocacy services at the VCU Wellness Center, where she coordinates advocacy services and outreach education on campus.

“I love my job because I have the luxury of just believing the survivor,” she says. “I do not have to investigate like the police and I do not have to be judge and jury. I can just support them. It is an honor and privilege to be a part of someone's healing journey.”

Joseph Stemmle (B.S.’13/B)

Joey StemmleStemmle, a financial adviser at Riverstone Wealth Advisory Group in Midlothian, Virginia, was instrumental in putting VCU’s financial planning program on the map in 2012. He was a junior at the time and serving as president of the Financial Planning Association student chapter. In addition to introducing students to careers and volunteer opportunities in the financial planning field, FPA organizes a national Financial Challenge where student teams submit a hypothetical financial plan, and the top 10 teams compete in an oral presentation and knowledge bowl. Stemmle’s team landed a spot in the top 10 and flew to San Diego for the finals, where the team placed third in the nation.

Stemmle had been working as an intern at Ameriprise Financial since 2011, but the Financial Challenge experience solidified his career path. Ameriprise Financial offered him a full-time paraplanner position right out of college, and within two years, he earned the industry’s standard of excellence, the Certified Financial Planner designation.

The financial planning industry also offered Stemmle an outlet to serve others. As the youngest of six, Stemmle says volunteering was instilled in him at a young age as he watched his mom, who worked two jobs, put her neighbors, family and those in need ahead of herself.

In 2012, he volunteered at the on-campus Earned Income Tax Credit and Financial Freedom Fair, which opened his eyes to the opportunities financial planners have to help others. That day, he provided free credit reports and tax preparation services to Richmond-area residents. “Just because someone can’t afford financial planning or advice doesn’t mean that they don’t need the education,” Stemmle says. “It allowed me to see that I would be in a position in the future to start helping and educating those in the Richmond community.”

Today, Stemmle volunteers with multiple VCU Alumni groups, including serving as co-chair of the RVA GOLD Chapter’s Alumni Charity Challenge, which raised more than 12,000 pounds of food for FeedMore in 2015, and as vice president of VCU Alumni’s Rainbow Rams group, which supports LGBTQIA alumni. As director of volunteering for the RVA GOLD Chapter, he organized the YMCA of Richmond’s Bright Beginnings Program in 2015, which pairs alumni volunteers with local schoolchildren for a back-to-school shopping trip. Stemmle also serves as vice president of the Student Engagement Committee for the VCU School of Business’ Ram to Ram program, as a board member for the Financial Planning Association of Central Virginia and as president of the Central Virginia Alumni Association of Phi Kappa Psi.   

“My VCU education gave me the opportunities to try new experiences and empowered me to be a change agent in my community,” Stemmle says. “It taught me to challenge the status quo in my education, career and community.”

 

2015 recipients

Adeeb Barqawi (B.S.’10/H&S; B.S.’10/LS)

Born in Washington, D.C., Adeeb Barqawi grew up in Kuwait and moved back to the U.S. at 16 to attend college and medical school. By the time he turned 20, he had graduated with two degrees from VCU (in biology and bioinformatics), started working at Pfizer and gained admission to Georgetown University to start his master’s in physiology and biophysics.

His career path changed course in 2009, however, after he visited an elementary school in Marinna, Arkansas, where his brother taught fifth-grade math and science as a member of Teach for America, a nationwide program dedicated to expanding educational opportunities in low-income communities. Barqawi spent only one day in the classroom, but it was enough for him to realize he wanted to empower students and ensure they have access to an excellent education. He completed his master’s degree, put his aspirations of going to medical school on hold and joined the Teach for America corps.

For the past three years, he’s taught physics at Kashmere High School in Houston where he’s already making a difference. In fall 2014, his 12th-grade students received the highest passage rate on the district-level assessment in the school district and were recognized for their remarkable academic achievement with a mayoral proclamation naming April 15 “Kashmere High School Junior and Senior Day.” For his work with the students, Barqawi was honored as Teacher of the Year by the Texas Alternative Certification Association.

Barqawi will earn his second master’s this May from Johns Hopkins University via a two-year distance-learning program that he completed all while teaching and running ProUnitas, a nonprofit he founded. Starting this fall, he will transition into a new role at Kashmere where he plans to implement a holistic approach for ensuring his students’ success through ProUnitas, an organization he started to provide every child in America, not just in Houston, with an empowering education and an ecosystem of support. The first project of ProUnitas, the Gardens Institute of Innovation, will bring support programs, including comprehensive health care, Head Start, and workforce, literacy and character development programs, within walking distance of his school.

Grant P. Garmezy (B.F.A.’09/A), VCU Alumni member

Drawing and sculpting came naturally to Grant Garmezy at a young age. When he was 10, his parents enrolled him in private drawing lessons, and four years later, he was accepted into the Interlochen School of Arts in Michigan where he found his love for working with jewelry and metals. By the time he was 15, Garmezy had secured a full-time apprenticeship with metal artist Ben Caldwell near his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. Working with Caldwell led 18-year-old Garmezy to attend the Savannah College of Art and Design Rising Star program. A year later, he was accepted to VCU on a Visual Art Portfolio Scholarship. He intended on studying metals and jewelry, but the moment he felt the heat from the furnace in his glassblowing class and saw the glow of the molten glass, he was hooked.

In 2008, Garmezy was one of four artists accepted for the eight-week international glass residency at Northlands Creative Glass in Lybster, Scotland, where the Royal Scottish Academy honored him with the Benno Schotz Award for most promising young sculptor in the U.K. He started Grant Garmezy Glass in Richmond, Virginia, 2009, after graduating from VCU, and he’s built a team of fellow artists (and VCU alumni) to help him create his one-of-a-kind sculptures and commissions.

Due to a growing local excitement about his work, Garmezy started opening up his process to the public every third Thursday at a local hot glass studio called The Glass Spot. Garmezy now gives demos and lectures around the world, most recently at two universities in South Korea. He also was invited to serve as a visiting artist at the Chrysler Museum Glass Studio in Norfolk, Virginia, debuted his work at the prestigious SOFA Art Expo in Chicago and, this summer, will exhibit at the infamous Glass Weekend at Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center in Millville, New Jersey. In 2016, Garmezy will be teaching glass sculpting at the Corning Museum of Glass in New York, and at the Glass Furnace in Istanbul.

Elizabeth Hoettels, CCRN, CEN (B.S.’05/N)

Maj. Elizabeth Hoettels, CCRN, CEN, served as a medical service corps officer in the U.S. Army before enrolling in the VCU School of Nursing. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Air Force. She has been deployed multiple times in recent years and received the Bronze Star for her service in Afghanistan.

Hoettels currently works at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany as a Critical Air Transport Team nurse and as an Acute Lung Evacuation Team nurse. She was one of two Air Force nurses selected to attend Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, and will begin her studies there in July 2015.

Grateful for the education she received at VCU, Hoettels established an endowed scholarship in the School of the Nursing, the Per Aspera ad Astra: Emerging Nurse Leaders Scholarship, which will be awarded for the first time in 2018.

She was recognized in 2013 as one of the School of Nursing’s 120 Visionary Leaders.

Michael Karnjanaprakorn (M.S.’06/MC)

When Michael Karnjanaprakorn was 10 years old, his family moved from South Korea to the U.S. with the dream of sending him to an American college. When he earned the bachelor’s degree in economics that his family had hoped for, he realized he had a diploma, but none of the skills to make a true impact.

Seeking more real-world experiences, he enrolled in the VCU Brandcenter, a graduate school staffed by experts on the front lines of innovation. From the first day, he knew VCU was different. There were no quizzes or exams. He never had to buy a textbook. All the teachers practiced what they taught, and classes were project-based. It changed the way he viewed learning.

After graduation, he realized this unconventional learning could translate to the Web, and that it would benefit millions of people all over the world. He launched the online learning platform Skillshare in 2011 to make that vision a reality: A world where everyone has access to learning.

Today, with $10 million in funding and more than a million enrollments in 1,000-plus classes, Skillshare offers learning opportunities in a variety of fields, from website design to hand lettering. Much like the courses Karnjanaprakorn took at VCU, Skillshare classes are based on real-world projects and collaboration.

As a result of his success, Karnjanaprakorn is a TED Fellow, ranked No. 18 in Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business 2012 list, made Inc.’s 2014 list of 35 Under 35 Coolest Entrepreneurs and landed in Upstart Business Journal’s 2015 Upstart 100 class of rebels, dreamers, contrarians and big thinkers.

Timmy Nguyen (B.S.’11/B), VCU Alumni Life member

In his freshman year at VCU, Timmy Nguyen started turning his dreams into a reality when he told his career adviser, Darlene Ward-Thompson, in the School of Business that he wanted to work for the government. An internship with the city of Richmond in his first year turned into an internship with a federal agency his sophomore year, which eventually turned into a career.

Committed to giving back to his alma mater, Nguyen is visible in almost every facet at VCU, from student engagement to alumni engagement to donor engagement.

He selflessly gives his time to students, supporting their career opportunities by participating in the business school’s mock job interviews and Ram to Ram Mentoring and Resume Express programs.

He serves on several boards, including the VCU Alumni board of governors and the Ram Athletic Fund board. He also volunteers with the RVA GOLD Chapter, where his ideas and leadership inspired programs such as the Alumni Charity Challenge, which brought together 13 Virginia colleges and universities and gathered 4-plus tons of food for the food bank. The challenge drew recognition from local, state and federal elected officials for its success.

Through his infectious pride for VCU, Nguyen engages the community to support the university. He has obtained thousands of dollars in sponsorships for RVA GOLD and has been an ardent supporter and fundraiser for VCU Massey Cancer Center. He also raised funds and awareness for Shaka and Maya Smart’s campaign to support the Friends Association for Children, a Richmond organization that helps children gain critical literacy and developmental skills.

Nguyen is just as generous with his time in the community. He served as a speaker for former Seattle Seahawks’ running back and Richmond, Virginia, native Michael Robinson’s Excel to Excellence Foundation, which teaches local students about leadership and life skills. He also spends several hours each month mentoring inner-city third-grade students at Chimborazo Elementary.

For his contributions to the university and the community, Nguyen received the VCU GOLD Alumni Service Award in 2014 and twice earned the U.S. Secretary’s Award for Exceptional Volunteer Service in the Community, in 2012 and in 2015.

Elizabeth Woodall Parker (M.Ed.’08/E)

After spending five years in marketing and public relations, Elizabeth Woodall Parker decided to blend her two true passions — working with children and the field of mental health — into a new career: school counseling. She returned to school, earning a master’s in education from VCU, and in the seven years since she graduated, she has excelled in her role as a school counselor and an advocate for children.

As a counselor at Dumbarton Elementary School in Henrico, Virginia, she has assisted in lowering the out-of-school suspension rate by 78 percent through many programs, including the Leader of the Month. And her Young Men in Motion and Girls Can Run after-school running programs resulted in a 94 percent decrease in out-of-school suspensions for an at-risk population. She also received a $40,000 grant from the I Am A Leader Foundation, which allowed her to implement the Leader In Me program, based on Steven Covey’s book of the same name.

In 2015, she was named one of five finalists for the American School Counselor Association School Counselor of the Year, and she was honored by first lady Michelle Obama at a White House ceremony.

Parker shares her knowledge with the school counseling community and beyond. She regularly presents workshops for professional educators. Additionally, she has advocated for children and school counselors at the national level through media interviews, congressional briefings and collaboration with members of Congress.

She also works with numerous community organizations. She facilitates the Big Brothers Big Sisters program at her school, which averages more than 30 annual matches of “Bigs” to “Littles” in need of mentoring and support; works with the Innsbrook Club and the Virginia Foodbank to provide a weekend backpack program for more than 100 students in need of food for at least nine weeks each year; and partners with the local American Legion to provide holiday assistance to 50-plus families annually.

Micah Risk (B.S.’07/E)

Micah Risk took the tools she used in her career as a personal nutritionist and translated them into a successful tech startup that makes it easier for people to eat healthy.

Lighter, an online, plant-based meal plan and curated grocery delivery service that she began in 2014, addresses the challenges of healthy eating by providing customized meal plans that use fresh, flavorful ingredients and keep meal prep under 20 minutes. Lighter’s service also factors in budget, food preferences and meal frequencies when building a nutrition program, customizing it for the individual, family, training program or weight-loss goals.

Risk’s vision to make nutrition the easy choice was inspired by her experience at VCU where, as an undergraduate, she developed a foundation in the nutritional sciences and took a particular interest in the relationship between nutrition and chronic disease and in the accessibility to food programs and nutrition. She was selected as one of three undergraduate students to complete a traineeship at the World Health Organization in Geneva during her final year at VCU. She earned a master’s in food policy and applied nutrition from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in 2013.

Lighter delivered 17,800 meals in its first three months of operation and also made a significant impact through its sustainability-focused service. The company estimates it achieved environmental savings of a million gallons of water (equal to about 380,000 showers), 119,000 pounds of CO2 emissions, 267,000 pounds of grain, 6,585 animals and, overall, a reduction of 66,000 grams of saturated fat consumed by its members.

Lighter is available in 13 U.S. cities and growing. As part of the company’s expansion, Risk is building partnerships with nonprofits committed to nutrition outreach programs.

Derick L. Rivers, Ph.D. (M.S.’09/H&S; Ph.D.’14/H&S)

As a statistician, Derick Rivers relishes the role of problem-solver and motivating children, teens and adults to make better health decisions and lifestyle choices. For years, he’s accomplished this as a teacher.

After earning his bachelor’s in mathematics, Rivers joined Richmond Public Schools and taught high school honors geometry and algebra using alternative methods. The latter was so successful that the school system tapped his techniques to use in training other teachers.

While still teaching, Rivers pursued his M.Ed. with a concentration in mathematics education, enrolling in courses at both Virginia State University and VCU, ultimately completing the degree at Cambridge College in Massachusetts.

In 2004, Rivers became the lead mathematics and statistics instructor at ECPI University in Richmond, Virginia. During his six-year tenure, he developed the bachelor’s mathematics curriculum, was awarded Most Innovative Instructor on four separate occasions and was named Instructor of the Year in 2010 and Most Effective Instructor in 2007 and 2008. He also was recognized by the Virginia Career College Association as a 2010 Instructor of the Year.

After much success in mathematics education, Rivers decided to hone his skills and enrolled at VCU to pursue a doctorate in systems modeling and analysis. He continued to teach during his studies, this time as a statistics instructor to undergraduate students in the VCU Department of Statistical Sciences and Operations Research while also serving as a research fellow for NASA.

Today, Rivers’ most recent position with the Food and Drug Administration gives him the opportunity to educate an entire nation. In March, he joined the FDA as a mathematical statistician for the tobacco division, where he’ll draw on his success as a statistician and an educator to impact consumers’ choices.

Mark Strandquist (B.F.A.’13/A)

Mark Strandquist is an artist, activist and educator who uses art as a vehicle for connecting diverse communities to build empathy and support for social justice movements.

For his ongoing project Windows From Prison, images requested by prisoners are collaboratively produced by students, former prisoners, artists and activists and then publicly exhibited on large banners to spark dialogue and action around criminal justice issues. Strandquist started the project in 2012 as an undergraduate student at VCU, and since then, Windows From Prison has expanded into interactive exhibits in several states, a national postcard exchange program and a high school curriculum. The project was recently produced with Parsons and The New School in New York City and is being funded by the U.S. Embassy for a version in Ottawa, Ontario. The project has received multiple awards and fellowships and reached wide audiences through The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post and PBS’ “Newshour.” For his work around criminal justice issues, The Huffington Post included Strandquist on its end-of-the-year list of “16 People Who Made a Big Difference in 2014.”

As an undergraduate student, Strandquist worked with his partner, Courtney Bowles, to begin the public art project the People’s Library. The project has worked with hundreds of community members to transform discarded books into blank handmade journals for anyone to check out, fill with their histories and return it to the library to be included in the permanent collection. The project includes a teen mentorship program and has expanded to other states across the country.

As a writer, Strandquist has presented at conferences, and co-edits and co-founded the website Photography as a Social Practice. This April, working with the Magnum Foundation, he began his first curatorial project, Tactics of Collaboration: A Participatory Playbook, which works with socially engaged photographers from around the world to create an open-sourced toolkit to inspire, challenge and inform the community-based work of students of all ages. Strandquist teaches Art as Activism as an adjunct faculty at VCU, is a teaching artist with the University of Richmond’s Partners in the Arts and a Professional Fellow at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

This summer, Strandquist is facilitating a summer advocacy camp in Richmond, Virginia, where incarcerated youth will work with artists, activists, lawyers and others to create media projects and mobile exhibits in an effort to impact juvenile justice reform across the state.

M. Lori Thomas, Ph.D. (M.S.W.’06/SW; Ph.D.’08/SW)

As a student in VCU’s Master of Social Work program, M. Lori Thomas completed her field placement with Virginia Supportive Housing, where she was tasked with planning and implementing the state’s first “housing first” program in Virginia. “Housing first” is an approach that offers permanent, affordable housing for individuals and families experiencing homelessness and then provides the supportive services they need to avoid returning to homelessness.

Through her placement and subsequent years of employment at VSH, Thomas worked with a number of community and state stakeholders to begin A Place to Start, a program that permanently houses individuals in the Greater Richmond area who have extensive histories of homelessness and a serious and persistent mental illness. The program, recognized with a Virginia Housing Award for Best Housing Program, has a 95 percent housing stability rate with individuals often considered “unhousable.”

After earning her Ph.D. from VCU in 2008, Thomas accepted a faculty position in the Department of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she is now an associate professor. There, she has continued her work to illustrate that the housing first model is effective in saving lives and money. In April, she published the latest findings of a two-year study that evaluated the impact of Charlotte’s Moore Place program, an housing first apartment complex for formerly homeless people, and found that it improved housing stability for chronically homeless individuals and resulted in a drastic reduction in the use of emergency and crisis services, including ER visits and incarceration.

Thomas has shared her research in numerous peer-reviewed publications and presentations. She also co-authored the sixth edition of “Social Work Macro Practice,” a textbook used in 120 schools of social work.