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Gif of Andy Shar, Tyler Baldwin, Teresa Orellana, Ethan Wright, Gabe Thomas, Maria Fernandez, Worthy Onyeuka andErin Cundiff [View Image]

Meet the newest Rams

Get to know eight new VCU students and their plans for making the most of their experience.

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Every year Virginia Commonwealth University welcomes thousands of new students. They come from all over, represent all ages, and have interests and views that vary widely. Each contributes to the tapestry that makes up the VCU community by adding their unique perspectives and life experiences to the mix.

VCU News caught up with eight new students — from first-years and transfers to an adult learner and a med student — to talk about their first weeks on campus and their plans for making the most of their time here.

Andy Shar [View Image]

Andy Shar

Leesburg, Florida; College of Humanities and Sciences, Honors College

After growing up in the suburbs of central Florida, Shar, a freshman, is looking forward to living on an urban campus.

“When I visited the campus I liked the urban feel,” said the 16-year-old forensic science major. “There are more people to interact with and more diversity.”

Shar, who skipped two grades prior to high school, is excited about pursuing forensic science.

“It combines some of my interests, such as chemistry, biology and problem solving. In the future, I would like to become a physician. This degree will give me a unique perspective on the work physicians do,” he said.

During his senior year in high school, Shar was named a National Merit Scholar. He attended the International Baccalaureate program and graduated as valedictorian.

A U.S. Presidential Scholar, he fielded offers from the University of Florida and Stanford but chose VCU because of his acceptance into the Guaranteed Admission Program for Medicine in the Honors College

He hopes to follow in the footsteps of his mother, a physician. 

“Part of my inspiration comes from her and seeing the work she does every day,” he said. “I got to shadow her and other physicians and that deepened my interest in health care.”

His parents are emigrants from Myanmar and do not hold college degrees in the U.S., making him a first-generation U.S. college student. 

At VCU, Shar is interested in joining an Asian Pacific organization as well as a scientific research club. He has competed in regional, state and international science fairs with projects on nanotechnology and was selected as a Regeneron Science Talent Search Scholar as well as an International Science and Engineering Fair finalist.

He finds it refreshing to have a few classes in person after a virtual senior year of high school due to the pandemic. 

“I am more of a face-to-face learner,” he said. “I find the teachers at VCU engaging and caring.” 

— Joan Tupponce

Tyler Baldwin [View Image]

Tyler Baldwin

Spotsylvania, Virginia; School of Social Work 

Baldwin takes pride in being an older student on campus. “I’m bringing a little bit of experience to the table,” said the 28-year-old Army veteran.

Baldwin is getting a master’s degree in social work so he can help veterans as well as people in the community. 

He chose VCU because the “School of Social Work is extremely well-known at the national level. It’s a powerhouse,” he said. “Plus, VCU has its finger on the pulse of Richmond.” 

Baldwin enlisted in the Army at 22 after working in outside sales.

“I was looking for structure and benefits and incentives like the GI Bill,” he said. 

He was stationed in Stuttgart, Germany, and served in the Army for five years as a unit supply specialist, attaining the rank of sergeant with the 1st Battalion 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne). He provided logistical support for training missions and operations for Special Operations Command Europe. 

While stationed in Stuttgart, he received his bachelor’s degree in psychology summa cum laude from the University of Maryland Global Campus as well as a foreign language area studies certificate in German.

He wants to pursue social work because he enjoys “working one on one with people and understanding what they have going on,” he said.

As a student during the pandemic, he wants to make sure he’s being conscientious and putting the health and welfare of others top of mind.

“We are looking out for each other,” he said.

Even though he’s only been on campus a short time, Baldwin has signed up for the Honor Council and Student Conduct Board. He is a member of the M.S.W. Student Association and the Student Veterans Association. 

“So far my experience on campus has been fantastic. All the staff and faculty have welcomed me with open arms and open hearts. From the second I started talking to VCU, everyone has always made me feel very welcome,” he said. 

— Joan Tupponce

Teresa Orellana [View Image]

Teresa Orellana

Moseley, Virginia; School of Dentistry, Honors College

Orellana has taken a bit of a nontraditional route to VCU. 

Her father was in the military, and she moved around growing up. The family settled in Chesterfield County, Virginia, a few years ago, not far from her grandfather’s house. After high school, she attended John Tyler Community College, where she completed her prerequisites in dental hygiene.

Shortly after starting classes at John Tyler, Orellana realized there was no club or organization for students with an interest in dentistry. She founded a dental careers club. Today it has around two-dozen members. 

“I saw that there was a need for letting people know what the prerequisites were and for networking,” she said. “A lot of the advising confused the students.”

She started classes this fall at VCU and hopes to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene. She still lives at home with her parents and commutes to VCU. The atmosphere on campus and around the university is very different from her quiet life in the rural Moseley community. 

“It’s been an adventure being in Richmond, because where I live there is not a lot going on,” Orellana said. “The city is a lot busier than I had ever imagined. But I like it.”

She had thought about moving, but enjoys living in the country and being near her family. 

“I know it would be easier to live on campus, but I love my family,” Orellana said. “I love my grandpa and seeing him. He lives in the middle of nowhere, which is only five minutes from my house. I love being out in the middle of nowhere. I would miss that very much.”

Instead of working in a dental clinic after graduation, Orellana has dreams of working with the prison population. 

“I want to work in a correctional facility as a dental hygienist,” Orellana said. “I plan to get my master’s in adult education [and] I want to eventually teach dental hygiene or other science courses at a university.”

— James Shea

Ethan Wright [View Image]

Ethan Wright

Manassas, Virginia; L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, Honors College

The pandemic has affected everyone in unimaginable ways. For Wright, it led to a mammoth awakening. 

“To put it bluntly, I became a communist,” Wright said. “I realized that politics is not the way we’re going to get about change.”

That’s quite a shift for someone who, before transferring to VCU this semester as a junior, had already been part of three successful political campaigns for candidates in Northern Virginia.

Immediately after high school, Wright took a gap year where he worked first on Jennifer Wexton’s 2018 congressional campaign. He joined at a time when the other interns — mostly college students — were returning to school. So at 18 he became the senior field intern. Wexton won, leaving her previous state senate seat open, requiring a special election to fill it. 

“And I had clearly done good enough work to be recommended to be an actual paid field organizer, rather than an intern for that special election,” Wright said. “The woman I was working for, Jennifer Boysko, won that race.”

Wright later worked on Suhas Subramanyam’s successful campaign for the Virginia House of Delegates. He then attended George Mason University for one semester before COVID-19 hit, sending all of his classes online.

“So this is my first real college experience of actually being immersed in the campus,” he said.

After transferring to VCU, Wright changed his major from political science to urban and regional studies.

“Even if I was campaigning for the most progressive candidate, it still felt like reformism,” Wright said of his leftist leanings. “To me … reformism isn’t the harm reduction we think it is. Being immersed in it, I know politics is all about compromise. But when compromise is about people’s lives and livelihood and their housing, that leads perfectly into why I want to do urban and regional studies.

“I want to revolutionize what cities are and what we think are guaranteed rights. Because I want to be a city planner that believes that housing is a human right. I want to be a city planner that expands exponentially transportation and makes it accessible and free. And figure out why cities are also food deserts in so many places. And realize that food isn’t a privilege.”

Wright plans to minor in Spanish and, hopefully, theater. He’s also getting involved with student organizations that focus on mutual aid, including Ram Pantry.

“I would love to find ways to get involved with the student body, but also the community as well,” Wright said. “So if I don’t find a space for that, then I’ll make one.” 

— Leila Ugincius

Gabe Thomas [View Image]

Gabe Thomas

Orlando, Florida; School of Medicine

When Thomas was growing up, he had two goals: to be a professional athlete and to be a physician. He came up a little short of that first one (though Thomas did play Division I football as he earned an undergraduate degree in psychology at the University of Richmond). As for the second, as Thomas dives into his first semester at the VCU School of Medicine, his dream of becoming a doctor is alive and well.

“I’m hopefully on the road to making that one happen,” he said.

Thomas is at VCU because of a series of overlapping connections. During his senior year of college, his academic adviser connected him with Henry Lewis, who at the time was director of recruitment and student programs in VCU’s College of Health Professions. Lewis, the founder of VCU’s Black Men in Medicine student organization, recommended that Thomas consider applying to the Summer Academic Enrichment Program, a six-week institute that offers undergraduates from across the country a slice of life as a graduate health professional student. The experience solidified in Thomas his desire to pursue a medical degree, and to do so at VCU. 

“It gave me the confidence that I could handle the rigors of graduate-level courses and it helped me realize where I really wanted to go to school,” Thomas said. “It also gave me confidence [that this] was something I could see myself doing the rest of my life.”

He will be the first M.D. in his family (his mother, Tracey, has a doctorate in psychology). Thomas also is one of six incoming students who are the first at the School of Medicine to receive a Dean’s Equity Scholarship, which helps eliminate barriers to access for students of all backgrounds. For Thomas, the scholarship is helping make the dream of becoming a doctor a reality. And as an aspiring physician, he is interested in expanding another type of access: making health care more available for all people.

“Being a physician can help me get to the heart of those issues — [those] social determinants of health,” he said. “I’m just hopeful I can be part of that generation that can take a small step forward in breaking down some of these barriers to access to care. Every individual deserves equal access to care — I fully believe that.” 

He is looking forward to “the journey, the challenge and getting to know my classmates,” he said.

“This is something I’ve wanted to get into for as long as I can remember.”

— James Irwin

Maria Fernandez [View Image]

Maria Fernandez

Yorktown, Virginia; School of Business 

Fernandez chose to study at VCU because the diverse urban setting affords the freshman more business and service opportunities to explore. Fernandez, who plans to double major in finance and accounting, attended the Summer Scholars program to acclimate. During the summer she also secured a work-study job at the Campus Learning Center. 

With a high school transcript full of dual enrollment college classes in biology, chemistry, calculus, statistics and differential equations, as well as participation in science fairs and research in a cancer lab, Fernandez originally planned to become a biochemical engineer. Her switch to business is a move toward a career she wants to explore in a vibrant city. Her current schedule includes accounting, economics and business classes, and business-oriented clubs are on her to-join list.

Giving back to the community is also important to Fernandez. She’s passionate about getting involved in organizations that help the homeless by distributing food. And already this semester, Fernandez is working as an ambassador in a new School of Education initiative that focuses on multilingual K-12 students who struggle with English.

“I can help translate Spanish to English or English to Spanish for elementary, high and middle schoolers in this region as well as tutor,” said Fernandez, who is fluent in both languages as a child of emigrants from Peru.

“The program aims to … help not only the students, but the parents who are frustrated with not understanding information from their children’s schools and relying on the children,” she said. “It’s to help children improve their education, take [advance placement] classes, go to college and make sure that the language barrier isn’t a problem. That’s something I’m very passionate about.” 

— Dina Weinstein

Worthy Onyeuka [View Image]

Worthy Onyeuka

Reston, Virginia; College of Engineering

Onyeuka, a first-year student, got a head start on campus living during the Summer Scholars program, which helped him form a group of friends early in his VCU experience. The Nigeria-born, Reston-raised computer science major chose that field because he’s always been fascinated by computers in general. Onyeuka would like to learn more about how computers work and how to solve problems that arise while using them. 

“Since I was a little kid, I’ve always been more in the know when it comes to computers,” said Onyeuka. “I’m able to understand computers, but I don’t have any previous experience. So that’s why I’m hoping to get to know more. And hopefully, a couple of years after I graduate, I can create my own software program. That’s my goal.” 

Onyeuka also has a creative side and hopes to meld his art and computer science skills. He was drawn to VCU because of the urban setting, which he thinks is good preparation for life. Onyeuka likes exploring Richmond’s street murals and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Now that the semester has started, Onyeuka wants to connect and discover more.

“I’ve signed up for the African Student Union, but I was also looking into track because I like to run a lot, but I’ve never actually considered it as a sport,” Onyeuka said. “I’m also looking into engineering clubs.”

One way he expresses his love of art is through fashion. 

“I spend a lot of time shopping online for clothes,” Onyeuka said. “I’m always trying to look for new ways to enhance my style.” 

— Dina Weinstein

Erin Cundiff [View Image]

Erin Cundiff

Henrico County, Virginia; World Studies, College of Humanities and Sciences 

Language has always fascinated Cundiff, which has led her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in foreign language with a certificate in Spanish/English translation and interpretation at VCU.

Now in her early 40s, Cundiff began studying Spanish in middle school and over the years has studied the language off and on. She runs an editing business and recently began thinking about adding translation to her list of services. 

“I started thinking about going back to school a year and a half ago,” Cundiff said. “My editing business started to take off. I have two kids in high school now and had thought about going back to work full time. I kept thinking — what can I do?”

She reached out to VCU and had originally talked about just getting the certificate. She realized she wanted a more diverse education and has developed a program that includes classes on Spanish-language culture and history.

“I was sitting there talking to the adviser on Zoom, and we were talking about the translation certificate,” Cundiff said. “We also talked about some of the other classes, like history of Spanish language, history of Latin American culture, history of Spain, and those were not included in the certificate. I felt drawn to expanding the experience.” 

This is not the first time she has attended VCU. A decade ago, she earned a master’s in English research with an emphasis on writing and rhetoric. She has long believed VCU is a good place to study as an older student. She said she remembers seeing a lot of older students — some in the middle of their careers —when she attended previously.

Cundiff has eased her way back into university life. All of her classes are online this semester, so she is not spending much time on campus. But she is looking forward to getting involved in activities and making the most of being a college student again.

“I was a little bit nervous about being older than the general population, but we have had breakout rooms (online) where you have to get paired up with other students in the class and everybody has been so kind,” Cundiff said. “It hasn’t been a big deal at all.”

— James Shea

Photos by Kevin Morley and Allen Jones, University Marketing

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