Sept. 13, 2023
Welcome to the Ramily
Get to know a few of this year’s roughly 8,000 new students who add to VCU’s diverse and expansive community.
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When you ask students why they chose Virginia Commonwealth University, many cite its diversity. And when you ask new Rams what they most look forward to, “meeting new people” is a common response. Bottom line? The mix of people and their varied backgrounds, lived experiences and aspirations is at the heart of the fabric that makes VCU.
This fall there are plenty of new people to meet, from first-years and transfers to graduate and professional students: Roughly 8,000 students joined VCU at the start of the 2023-24 academic year. Of the more than 4,500 full-time first-year undergraduates — one of VCU’s largest first-year classes ever — an estimated 90% are from Virginia, more than 35% are first-generation college students, and more than 40% are from underrepresented minoritized backgrounds.
Below, VCU News talks to nine new students who represent a sampling of VCU’s wonderfully uncommon community.
Jennifer and Reagan Cousins
Richmond, Virginia; School of Nursing
A passion for helping others led both Jennifer Cousins and her daughter Reagan Cousins to enroll in the VCU School of Nursing.
“We’re able to bounce things off each other and ask questions of each other as we share this experience of being in school together,” Reagan said. “We’re able to support one another.”
Jennifer graduated from VCU with a degree in psychology and taught elementary school for 15 years, but she always dreamed of becoming a nurse.
“Teaching is a wonderful profession,” Jennifer said. “I love children and I loved teaching, but I’ve just not been able to shake this desire in me to become a nurse.”
For Reagan, her interest in nursing grew from her experience as a patient. Since age 4, Reagan has been treated for ulcerative colitis at the University of Virginia’s children’s hospital in Charlottesville, and she continues to be inspired by its doctors and nurses.
“I want to be able to reciprocate the care I’ve received,” she said. “I think I have a lot of knowledge in my back pocket from being on the patient side of things that I will be able to use in my career when I need it.”
Reagan’s experience with a chronic illness also played a role in Jennifer’s decision to switch careers, and it’s been inspirational, she said, to see her daughter pursue her own dreams.
“As a parent, it is wonderful to watch her fulfill her dream,” Jennifer said. “I’m just so proud because her work ethic is amazing, and she just keeps moving forward despite her health challenges. For me, to have the support of my family with my dream of becoming a nurse at the same time that she is pursuing her dream of becoming a nurse makes me very proud. It’s a very full, happy feeling.”
While both are pursuing a B.S. in Nursing, Jennifer is enrolled in the accelerated program, while Reagan is enrolled in the traditional program.
Both mother and daughter have received scholarships – Jennifer’s was made possible by a 2022 gift to the School of Nursing from philanthropists Joanne and Bill Conway through their Bedford Falls Foundation-DAF, and Reagan received a Virginia Merit Scholarship from VCU.
“The dream would be to take care of people,” Jennifer said. “Nursing is similar to teaching in a way. You’re caring for people but in a different capacity. I’m excited about that.”
Jennifer added that, at age 49, her journey is a reminder to hold onto dreams. “It might not happen when you think it’s supposed to happen, but just don’t give up.”
— Brian McNeill
Daegu, South Korea; College of Humanities and Sciences and Honors College
First-year student Carter Jorgenson was 9 and living in Daegu, South Korea, when he became interested in dentistry. He enjoyed visiting KidZania, a mini job world, in Seoul.
“There was a dental office in it, and you could pretend to be a dentist,” he recalled.
When he was in eighth grade and living in Wiesbaden, Germany, with his military family, Jorgenson needed braces. “The orthodontist walked me through what he was doing to help me relax. Since he had actively explained the procedure to me, I felt that helped build a further fascination with dentistry and orthodontics,” he said.
Now an Honors College student studying biology and with dentistry as a goal, Jorgenson moved to Richmond from Germany just days before the start of the semester. He hopes his life experiences help him bring a different perspective to the university.
“I think it’s important to have a mix of cultures,” he said, noting the diversity on campus.
Jorgenson chose VCU because of the Guaranteed Admission Program for Dentistry through the Honors College, which he said “stands out among other schools.”
He looks forward to meeting new people and making friends, and he has already joined the swim club at VCU.
“Swimming helps me clear my head. It de-stresses things,” Jorgenson said.
He also hopes to join dental or health-related organizations and to sign up for the VCU chapter of Camp Kesem, a nonprofit that supports youths ages 6-18 as a parent navigates cancer. Its programs include weeklong summer camps and family outreach throughout the year.
“Their pitch inspired me,” Jorgenson said. “I’m looking forward to their first meeting.”
— Joan Tupponce
Phoenix, Maryland; College of Humanities and Sciences
This fall, after a year teaching English abroad, Anna Zittle was as surprised as anyone at just how eager she was to get back to school.
“Today, I’m going to go to the library and do work, and people will think I’m lying, but I’m kind of just as excited to do that as I was to be going to work in the Czech Republic,” Zittle said.
Zittle, a first-year doctoral student, discovered the Ph.D. in Systems Modeling and Analysis program at VCU while she was an undergraduate studying math and music at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. In between writing a thesis for each of her majors – including writing and directing a chamber opera – Zittle applied to VCU’s program, part of the Department of Statistical Sciences and Operations Research and the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics.
“What I really liked about it is that it wasn’t just focusing on research exclusively – not that other Ph.D. programs only do research, but there was an active interest in making you not only a good researcher but a good educator, and that was something that was really important to me in a program,” Zittle said.
After learning she’d been accepted into the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Program, she deferred coming to VCU and spent the last year teaching in Pardubice, Czech Republic – “one of the most life-changing experiences I’ve ever had,” she said.
VCU’s urban campus was a change from the smaller cities she was used to.
“It feels like VCU is really well-blended into the Richmond scene,” Zittle said. “Sometimes, for city schools, there’s a campus and then there’s the city. But VCU feels very much a part of Richmond, which I really like.”
With plans of becoming a professor, Zittle has begun teaching precalculus as a graduate teaching assistant this semester.
“I could see myself teaching at a collegiate level,” she said. “I feel like I had such a good experience with my undergraduate thesis adviser, and I want to give that out to someone else in the same way.”
Zittle is interested in joining rock climbing groups in Richmond, interest groups for women and nonbinary people in math on campus and, the violin enthusiast hopes, musical performance groups like the community orchestra she joined while living in the Czech Republic.
“I am looking forward most to getting involved in the community that’s here, especially within the Math Department itself,” Zittle said.
— Mary Kate Brogan
Richmond; School of Education
Even as an undergrad aerospace engineering student at Virginia Tech in the early aughts, Bakar Bey was interested in education. As a sophomore, he founded the student organization EXPRESSIONS to cultivate creative thinking and expression in education through cultural arts and technologies.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 2009, Bey returned to Tech in 2011 to pursue his master’s in industrial systems engineering. His passion for education grew through his work as a graduate teaching assistant supporting a study abroad engineering course and from teaching foundations in engineering workshops.
Bey has worked as an aircraft structural design engineer and researcher, quality manufacturing engineer, financial adviser, higher ed engineering instructor, math tutor, teacher and a habit and accountability coach. And now, at age 37, he is on course to complete his Ed.D. from VCU’s School of Education in 2026.
“I entered the Education Leadership Ed.D. program as a passionate lifelong learner and career-switcher with a desire to integrate personal accountability training and intentional habit development into our education system,” Bey said. “I most look forward to finishing the program and following through with my expectations set before, during and after this journey.”
Those expectations include licensing and developing his own accountability and habit-coaching systems to integrate into schools and businesses, while teaching and publishing related material.
“My greatest expectation,” Bey said, “is to positively grow and produce in a way that after completing my program, I am extraordinarily unrecognizable to the man who made the decision to start this journey. And I mean it in the most positive way imaginable.”
— Leila Ugincius
Grace and Joy Sharpe
Prince George’s County, Maryland; School of the Arts
First-year students Grace and Joy Sharpe first heard about VCU from their grandfather, who enjoyed studying graphic design here in the 1980s.
An on-campus visit sealed the deal for the twins from Maryland. While they looked at other colleges, VCU fit both sisters’ aims to pursue the visual arts. The structure of their respective academic programs and the diverse student body at VCU were clear draws.
Grace is in the Art Foundation program with plans to major in craft and material studies, and Joy is a cinema major.
“We really loved the campus, and I really loved the cinema program,” Joy said. “I went to shadow students to see what it was about. People talked about how much they liked and enjoyed it.”
Grace aspires to work in the field of art therapy, and Joy is drawn to the potential of telling her own and other people’s stories through documentary filmmaking.
So far, they’re excited to be on campus again, building on the confidence and skills they developed from participating in VCU’s Summer Scholars program.
“I’m most excited for my Cinema 100 class to focus on visual storytelling, because that’s where we’re learning to build cameras and edit,” said Joy, who loves romantic comedies in addition to documentaries. “We’ll be shooting our own short films and editing them. We all get a chance to do everything as a crew, director and editor. We'll all get a chance to find out what is best.”
Grace is loving a Surface Research art class project using micro pens. “We’re working on very thin lines right now,” she said. “It’s exciting.”
While the two have separate dorm rooms, they still see each other every day. Both plan to get involved in the Black Student Union. Joy also has applied to be a part of the New Surge Productions student film company and even hopes to start a new student organization.
“I thought it would be really cool if I could create a club where people come together, and we watch different movies from around the world,” Joy said.
— Dina Weinstein
Eureka, California; School of Dentistry
From an early age, dental student Calvin Yeager has been interested in the complexities of science and the natural world.
“When I was young, my parents and I lived in Northern California, and when we first moved there, there was this period of homelessness,” he said. “There are lots of ways you can interpret that negatively, but it really was also an incredibly foundational experience for a young naturalist to be in the Pacific Northwest, where the redwoods meet the ocean.”
As Yeager grew up, his affinity for the natural sciences grew, especially in chemistry and infectious diseases. He attended Hartwick College in upstate New York, where he majored in biochemistry and got involved in research. He went on to complete a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Yeager realized he wanted to do more than research.
“I was studying the biochemistry of viruses during a pandemic, which seems like the quintessential time to be doing so, but I left the experience feeling that I could do more to immediately help my community,” he said.
For Yeager, the VCU School of Dentistry provided the perfect opportunity to connect scientific research with clinical practice that improve lives.
“VCU has been incredibly supportive and proactive in helping me to further my multidisciplinary goals.” he said. “It’s also energizing to be surrounded by so many talented and skilled classmates in this program.”
Yeager started as a first-year dental student this fall, but technically, he isn’t new to the school. Since spring, he has acted as a postdoctoral researcher under the supervision of Iain Morgan, Ph.D., who is the associate dean for research at the School of Dentistry’s Philips Institute for Oral Health Research. Yeager and his colleagues are exploring how human papillomavirus, or HPV, interacts with the host’s own proteins to eventually cause cancer.
Yeager, who is the recipient of the VCU Dental Care/Abrahamian Superstar Scholarship, sees his research and coursework as a way to contribute to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at the school.
“I want to help improve the way scientists and dentists consider the specific patient populations they’re serving, but it’s critical to simultaneously educate future dentists and scientists who represent those communities,” he said. “Having these role models is a first step in ensuring that patients understand and receive the care they need.”
— Olivia Trani
Newport News, Virginia; College of Engineering
Shawn Watson knew he wanted to pursue a computer science degree when he was a high school junior.
The decision came when he “was playing video games and saying I wanted to create my own video game company one day,” he said, noting that he still loves Nintendo.
Although he’s a first-year, Watson got a jump-start on his studies as a VCU Summer Scholar. The five-week program, which takes place right before regular classes start, allows students to get ahead by earning six credits that count toward degree requirements. It also eases them into the sometimes chaotic college world by offering smaller classes and more face time with their professors.
As the fall semester started, Watson was already a part of a supportive community of fellow Summer Scholars and comfortable with the VCU campus and surrounding Richmond area. This was particularly helpful to Watson, a first-generation college student.
“I chose to pursue my field here at VCU because not only do I love everything about the engineering program here, but VCU also provides a certain culture and environment that just gravitates to who I am as a person,” he said. “I love it here.”
In addition to learning more about computer science, Watson said he is looking forward to meeting new people – and supporting them. “I’m hoping to accomplish inspiring people to be whatever they want to be no matter what happens and also just make people smile every day.”
— Leila Ugincius
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