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Class of 2021: Alexia Brown is on a mission to learn – and make the world a better place

“I want something that’s going to make me want to get up in the morning, no matter how exhausted I am, with an energy that says, ‘I gotta go. I gotta go do my work.’ … There’s so much work to do.”
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When Alexia Brown meets someone new, she sometimes feels inspired to urge them to remember her. Pay attention, she’ll say, and you won’t regret it.

“I’ll tell them, ‘Remember my name. Remember my face, OK? Because I’m going somewhere. I’m not sure exactly where, but you’ll see me again. I’m up to something,’” Brown said. “And I mean that, too. Oh gosh, I feel it. I feel it with everything in me. I’m definitely up to something.”

In 2016, Brown decided to pursue a college education after nearly 20 years in the workforce serving in a variety of jobs. Her youngest son, Alonzo, was preparing to attend Old Dominion University, and she felt it was time to expand her own education. Her designs from the outset were ambitious. She would begin work on her associate degree, and she would not stop until she had a doctorate.

“Once I decided I was going to pursue higher education, I knew that I was going to try to do it without any breaks. I was just going to go straight through all the way to the top — all the way to my doctorate. I decided that education is the top priority in my life. My view is that I don’t want to work just another job — I want a career,” said Brown, who has worked in fields ranging from customer service to juvenile justice.

“I want something that’s going to make me want to get up in the morning, no matter how exhausted I am, with an energy that says, ‘I gotta go. I gotta go do my work because millions of lives are at stake and my little piece of what I do today is going to make a difference.’”

Brown marks a major milestone on that journey this month when she graduates from the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences with a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a concentration in urban psychology and a minor in sociology. Next, Brown will join the master’s program in public administration this fall at VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.

Brown has become only more driven in her lofty goals with every class she has taken over the past five years.

“My mindset is that if you want something, you’ve got to get it,” Brown said. “You’ve got to put forth the effort to make it. And it will happen if you’ve given it everything that you’ve got.”

As a nontraditional, transfer student from John Tyler Community College, Brown, a first-generation college student, was determined to make herself an integral part of the university community when she arrived at VCU in 2019. She poured through TelegRam for events and activities to attend — “I always read all the way through to the end,” she said. “I didn’t want to miss anything.” — and she searched for organizations that would help her strengthen her connection to her fellow students. 

Brown ultimately became involved in an array of organizations at VCU that included the Transfer Student Leadership Program, Leadership for Women of Color, and Retro Rams, among others.

“You’ve got to try and find your way and find some group to connect with so that you can feel you’re a part of the family and that you belong,” Brown said.

Brown also made a point of connecting with fellow students in each class, proactively reaching out to them to spark conversations about topics both inside and outside of the classroom. Her professors got to know her well, an uncommonly insightful student with endless questions and an astounding work ethic.

Gay Cutchin, an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Sociology, said Brown was determined that people were going to know her at VCU. 

“My first reaction to Alexia was this is the most intense student I’ve ever met,” Cutchin said. “She was so engaged and so interested in the work. She’s like a sponge. She just wants to absorb every bit of knowledge that she can.”

When Brown was young, her family had a full collection of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Brown recalls that when she was punished and forced to remain inside, she would flip through the pages of the volumes, studying the pictures and working to understand everything she could absorb. 

“I’ve always been very curious about a lot of things,” Brown said. 

She brought that energy and curiosity to her coursework. In one class at VCU, Brown and her fellow students read an autobiography and were assigned to write a synopsis for three of the chapters. Brown decided to write a synopsis for each of the 13 chapters because she thought the woman’s life deserved that extra effort.

“That’s sort of the extreme part of me,” Brown said. “If I'm going to do something and I commit to doing it, it gets everything that I have. And everything that it gives me, I'll give it back that and then some.”

Cutchin said Brown is on “a quest for knowledge.” She brings an intelligence and acute concentration to each topic she tackles, proving adept at picking apart and inspecting an issue from all angles. Cutchin said Brown has an unusual gift for recognizing connections in topics and drawing out insights that others miss.

“She pays attention to every detail, and she wants to understand everything,” Cutchin said. “She doesn’t just care about getting the right answer. She wants to know why, and she wants to learn from it. She always wants to learn.”

Brown said the more she has studied and learned the more community-minded she has become. For years, she never voted in elections or paid attention to politics, believing it had no impact on her. 

“In the community where I come from out on Long Island, historically we never talked about voting, who the governor was, who our senators were, who our representative was, none of that,” Brown said. “We’d wake up one morning and it’s like, ‘Oh, we’ve got a new president. OK.’ And it was life as usual, because we took whatever was handed down to us, whatever was instructed to us as an impoverished community of people. We didn’t get into politics at all. 

“But getting into college and starting to get a better understanding of those things has piqued my interest and made me change my point of view. I’ve started to embrace more the rights that I’ve had all along and didn’t realize that I could use. I’ve got this voice, and I’ve got to make it heard. Now, I speak to people about this stuff a lot. You couldn’t get me to say a word about it before, but now I talk about it all the time.”

Brown hopes to eventually use her education to launch a career that will allow her to make a far-reaching impact on as many people as possible. 

“There’s so much work to do,” Brown said. “I have to do my part to leave this world a better place.”

Brown said she feels thrilled that her hard work has paid off with a bachelor’s degree and that it has led to wider recognition, such as receiving a Black History in the Making Award from the Department of African American Studies.

“That meant so much to me,” Brown said. “I didn’t know who nominated me or where it came from, and that told me that even when you think that no one is noticing you, someone is always watching. They’re watching your hard work, your dedication, your inspiration and your motivation, and they recognize your presence and they see your worth and what you can accomplish.”

Brown arrived at VCU with high expectations for who she would become as an undergraduate college student, but even she is surprised at what the experience has meant to her.

“The level of confidence in who I am has been totally raised by the information and education that I've been privy to,” Brown said. “Now when I see things, I see them with a whole new set of eyes. I feel enlightened to a whole new level. It has forever changed me. It really has. I am forever changed.”

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