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In the summer of 2020, Virginia Commonwealth University Honors College students Jennifer Duong, Sneha Gade and Akhila Kunuthuru — all passionate about volunteering — created an organization to help VCU students continue to make a difference even if they were far away from campus because of the pandemic.
The three founded the student organization Virtual Volunteer at VCU to help organizations that are struggling because of a lack of volunteers and VCU students who want to become engaged in the Richmond community while connecting with their peers.
The desire for virtual volunteering became clear to the organizers when over 100 students joined at the first meeting.
“A lot of classes are asynchronous, so we don't meet anybody in classes,” said Gade, a sophomore interdisciplinary science major in the College of Humanities and Sciences who is living at home in Aldie, Virginia. “We just watch the lecture video and we just do our homework. And a lot of freshmen don't even have any friends who are from VCU. So having this volunteering experience is a great way to connect and make new friends.”
The three met in 2019, during their freshman year, in the back of a truck on their way to an American Heart Association fundraising walk. As they discussed the barriers to volunteering this academic year, Nicole Patterson, civic engagement program coordinator in the Office of Civic Engagement and Fraternity & Sorority Life, was asking the same questions. Normally, Patterson would be organizing community service projects for students such as the annual MLK Day of Service. However, that was impossible with so many students living out of town and large gatherings prohibited because of COVID-19. The number of students assigned to VCU residence halls dropped from 6,151 in fall 2019 to 4,233 in fall 2020. Spring numbers are likely to be reduced as well, with the university announcing Jan. 12 it would begin the semester with most students taking classes virtually.
“During the summer, we were reeling trying to figure out how to program and how to connect students, while understanding that organizations that need help often don't have the capacity to do outreach and organize volunteers,” Patterson said.
Virtual Volunteer at VCU works with 13 community partners including Circles RVA, which helps those in poverty; The Doorways, which provides lodging to people who need to be close to loved ones in the hospital; and Dominion Place housing for older adults as well as ongoing fundraisers with the organization One Simple Wish, which helps children who have suffered abuse. Students volunteering through the organization amassed over 1,000 hours of community service during the fall semester.
Virtual Volunteer at VCU has become a solution for students like Gade who are part of the ASPiRE living-learning program, where volunteering is a requirement. The organization also serves as a way for other VCU student organizations to unite their socially distanced membership and focus on a service project where there is a community need.
“We took over the role of organizing these volunteer opportunities while also presenting them to VCU students to have something to do over the semester, and still be able to impact the Richmond community, even if they couldn't come in person,” said Kunuthuru, a chemistry student from Greencastle, Pennsylvania. “We ask the organizations what their needs are and then do what they require, like mentoring students or playing games with kids in need. So in that way, volunteers are making an impact on the community.”
Patterson, who serves as the adviser for Virtual Volunteer at VCU, said she is impressed that the board has, in one semester, made real connections, not only across the community but internally as well, despite their leadership being far flung and never having met in person.
“We want students to feel involved and connected,” Patterson said. “And working with these women and this organization has shown me that leadership development is happening now. Connections are being made. Students still are forming relationships with one another and with a community.”
Patterson hopes that other students, if they're feeling disconnected, will take a chance on an organization and see what leadership opportunities and connections they can make virtually. The organizers invite more students to join, and community organizations in need of virtual volunteers should contact them. In the spring, Virtual Volunteer at VCU is planning opportunities for students to volunteer in their own communities.
Kunuthuru, Duong and Gade all say the experience of forming Virtual Volunteer at VCU has helped them make an impact as well as grow as campus leaders able to speak to a wide variety of people.
“A little thing goes a long way,” Kunuthuru said. “Making someone happy even for the minute on that day is what we're looking for in a volunteer. College isn't just about grades and classes. It's more than that. It's about a time to find ourselves, discover who we are as people and go out into the world and see what it is.”