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Taking flight: VCU’s new living-learning program helps students explore their leadership potential

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For much of his life, William Lee Gordon thought of himself as a follower, but since joining Virginia Commonwealth University’s Transform program, he looks at himself in a different light.

“I think being in Transform has allowed me to have a platform of leadership,” said Gordon, a sophomore majoring in psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “I want to help other people and the community I live in and being in Transform is solidifying my leadership abilities.”

Launched at the beginning of this year’s fall semester, VCU Transform builds off a strong history of living-learning programs at VCU in which students live and learn with their peers, forming a strong sense of community as they develop skills through a specialized curriculum as well as activities outside the classroom like lectures and trips. VCU Transform is taught through the lens of leadership, community engagement and cultural agility and combines the best of three previous living-learning programs — VCU ASPiRE, VCU Globe and VCU Lead.

“VCU launched its first living and learning community, VCU ASPiRE, in 2012,” said Jimmie Gahagan, Ph.D., director of VCU Transform. “The program was mainly for sophomores and juniors and it focused on academic success and community engagement through service.”

The living-learning programs expanded soon after, adding VCU Globe for global learning in 2013 followed by VCU Lead for leadership development in 2015. 

“There was a lot of synergy between those themes with the university’s focus on experiential learning,” Gahagan said.VCU Transform students attend the annual leadership event where VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., answered their questions and sought their input on what direction VCU should take going forward. ( [View Image]VCU Transform students attend an annual leadership event where VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., answers their questions. Rao also sought their input on what direction VCU should take going forward. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Transformational education

The Transform program helps students, mainly sophomores and juniors, engage in transformational education so they can become agents of change, Gahagan said.

“We want students to have deep, interdisciplinary, experiential learning opportunities. Those are the hallmark experiences that VCU is known for,” he said. “We want to provide the scaffolding for students to reflect on and connect their experiential learning to their career goals after VCU.”

VCU Transform is a partnership between the Division of Student Affairs and University College, whose faculty teaches in the program.

“We want to provide students with an interdisciplinary opportunity to think about multiple ways in which they might get involved in the world,” said Constance Relihan, Ph.D., dean of University College. “We want to make sure the courses are high quality and that the faculty is teaching them well.”

Students in the two-year program come from all disciplines.

“Transform can benefit anybody, regardless of what they are studying,” Relihan said. “Part of a VCU education is to help students get real-world skills, and Transform is a good way to do it.” 

Upon completion of VCU Transform, students receive a certification of leadership and experiential learning that will go on their transcript. 

“Several schools have learning communities, but what’s good about this program is when students complete it, there is a certificate,” said Charles Klink, Ph.D., senior vice provost of the Division of Student Affairs. “I think that makes our program unique.”VCU Transform students gather to share a Friendsgiving meal ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday. [View Image]VCU Transform students gather to share a Friendsgiving meal ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday. (Kaylynn Hill, VCU Transform)

Klink believes the program will be a welcome opportunity for students. In addition to the certificate, it offers some other immediate benefits, such as guaranteed apartment-style housing and the chance to register early for classes.

“All three of the previous living and learning programs were wildly successful in terms of attracting students,” Klink said. “They enjoy being part of a community and having a support system that includes faculty, staff and other students.

VCU Transform is helping sophomore Yulan Hibbert look at leadership differently.

“I have learned there are many ways to think about leadership and how to lead,” said Hibbert, who is majoring in interior design in the School of the Arts. “It has helped me reflect and lead better when I host and plan events for Transform.”

One highlight of the program for Gordon was an October food tour in Carytown that offered students the opportunity to talk with restaurant managers.

“They told us their dynamic for leadership,” he said. “We got to see how leadership was employed in the restaurants. When you think of leadership, most people think of the president or someone corporate like Bill Gates. We talked about their trials and tribulations, especially with COVID. It was very fascinating to me.”During a Richmond food tour, students sample dishes and head from restaurant owners and managers on their leadership perspectives. [View Image]During a Richmond food tour, students sample dishes and head from restaurant owners and managers on their leadership perspectives. (Kaylynn Hill, VCU Transform)

 ‘A community within a community’ 

VCU Transform currently has 43 students but Gahagan hopes to welcome an additional 150 next fall. Applications for the fall 2022 cohort are now open and will remain open until the Residential Life and Housing application deadline in early February.

“We hope to be at capacity (400 students) by fall 2023,” he said, adding that each of the three previous living-learning programs had between 175 and 400 students each year. 

Studies conducted about living-learning programs at VCU show that students are more engaged both within and beyond the classroom, Gahagan said.

Sophomore Austin Ezzard was one of the first students in VCU Transform this fall. The program is helping build his character and leadership abilities, he said. 

“I hope to discover something about myself that I haven’t uncovered yet. I’ve been able to give my insights to program directors and staff. They really want to hear from students,” he said.VCU students visit The Broken Tulip in Carytown during their tour of local eateries and meet with the chef and owner to learn about sustainable and locally-sourced food. [View Image]VCU students visit The Broken Tulip in Carytown during their tour of local eateries and meet with the chef and owner to learn about sustainable and locally-sourced food. (Kaylynn Hill, VCU Transform)

Ezzard, who is majoring in social work in the School of Social Work with a minor in political science in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is an inaugural member of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee in the Transform program.

“I’ve been able to provide proper representation and be an advocate for my peers and the community,” he said. “It’s very experiential for me, and it’s been great for me.”

VCU Transform helps make the large VCU campus feel smaller and more intimate for students because it produces a strong sense of community, Gahagan said.

The living and learning environment in West Grace North Residence Hall is a real plus for Gordon, who came to VCU after attending Christopher Newport University, a much smaller college environment. 

“It was overwhelming when I got to school and there were so many people,” he said of VCU. “Transform gave me more of a personalized experience in having a community within a community. We all share similar foundational values even though we come from different majors and different kinds of service. Everyone is on the same path of Transform.”

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