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Making It Real

Even with a pandemic, these students found a way to make their college experience REAL. Starting in the fall of 2021, all incoming undergraduates at Virginia Commonwealth University are required to complete at least one Relevant, Experiential and Applied Learning (REAL) experience before they graduate. There are many ways to meet the REAL requirement, whether it’s study abroad, a research project, an internship, volunteering, service learning … the list goes on. Read what three students in the College of Humanities and Sciences had to say about how their REAL experiences not only shaped them but helped them connect, create and contribute.

mehwish safdar
“I love helping people realize that they are unique in their own ways.”

Mehwish Safdar

Major: Psychology
Experience: Work-Study Position

Mehwish Safdar worked in the VCU Transfer Center as an e-portfolio consultant for students planning to transfer from community colleges into arts and humanities fields at VCU. She created a model e-portfolio, made tutorial videos on creating e-portfolios and met virtually with approximately 50 students to help them plan and create their own. She supported them in a student-centered environment, offered advice when needed, helped students discover their own voices and showcase their skills and talents.

Best part of the experience?

The best part was meeting with each student and getting to know them through their e-portfolios. I enjoyed hearing them talk about their passions, successes, failures and important milestones that shaped them into who they are, and who they are becoming. It’s very inspirational. Once their portfolios were completed, I felt so proud because I was mentoring them through every step.

What do you feel is the most important thing you got out of this hands-on learning experience?

The most important thing I got out of this experience was mentoring a wide range of students who are diverse in many ways. Since they were all at different points of life, it showed in their portfolios, because they all had a different story to tell. I think it is important to get to know different kinds of people even if it’s just to understand them.

How did the experience allow you to make an impact?

I worked with the students as a mentor and guided them through the assignment and the program. The students could easily connect with me and I could understand their perspective because I am a student as well. This was beneficial for the students and for the Pathways Program staff because I was able to give them insight from a student perspective. In the end, my impact was evident when the e-portfolios were complete; the creativity of the students was visible through their portfolios.

Did the experience have an impact on what you want to do after you graduate?

I want to work as a child psychologist and this experience prepares me for that because I will need to work with different types of people, or children. I would not be able to help the children without knowing more than a few facts about them, which is exactly what I’m doing with the students in this program. I love helping people realize that they are unique in their own ways.


joanna rivera
"It is so fulfilling to see kids open up and have fun with the dances..."

Joanna Rivera

Major: Health, Physical Education and Exercise Science
Experience: Service Learning

As part of a service-learning course, Joanna Rivera volunteered with Carver Dance, a pilot program at Carver Elementary School started by VCU students. The college students use dance and movement to help children in the program, many of whom have been exposed to violence and other trauma, to express emotions like anger, fear and loss. The program began with fourth- and fifth-graders but eventually expanded to include all grades at the school, and Rivera took on a leadership role, developing the curriculum, recruiting volunteers and working with the children.

What do you feel is the most important thing you got out of this hands-on learning experience?

This learning opportunity has been crucial to building my experience in movement therapy and helping me explore my creative side in the real world. Learning to be flexible and experiencing education outside the typical classroom is important for anyone, and it has definitely helped me prepare for future careers. Being part of the Carver Dance program also helped me discover my love for education and deepened my interest in rehabilitation.

How did the experience allow you to make an impact?

Carver Dance gave me and other VCU students an opportunity to use our skills and knowledge from the classroom to support nearby Richmond communities. It is so fulfilling to see kids open up and have fun with the dances we share with them, as it shows us that they feel more comfortable expressing themselves. Carver Dance has always been about building self-confidence, a sense of individuality and a personal voice for elementary students.

Did the experience have an impact on what you want to do after you graduate?

I plan to apply to graduate programs in occupational therapy, a healthcare field that involves assisting others in performing activities of daily living through therapeutic exercises. I am also researching careers and positions in school occupational therapy. After working in the school setting, I realized that I would love to continue working in pediatrics or possibly the classroom.

Did you make any connections that will last beyond the initial experience?

Lindsay Chudzik, the professor from my Inquiry & Craft of Argument service-learning course, is a huge supporter of my endeavors and is the reason I was able to attain a leadership role in Carver Dance. She gave me the opportunity to become part of the REAL experience at VCU that has defined my college experience and future career. I’m thankful for her support and always remember her as one of the people I’m most grateful to have met at VCU.


josephine walker
"I am most proud of my contributions to Meet the Press's coverage of diversity."

Josephine Walker

Major: Mass Communications and Political Science
Experience: Internship

Josephine Walker spent her summer as a research intern for NBC’s “Meet the Press,” an internship that allowed her to put her love for journalism to work. Walker’s duties at “Meet the Press” included combing through transcripts of past interviews and articles, providing background research for upcoming interviews, as well as drafting potential questions to ask political leaders appearing on the show.

What do you feel is the most important thing you got out of this hands-on learning experience?

While conducting research for high-profile figures like Bernie Sanders and Dr. Anthony Fauci felt quite monumental in my career, I think the best part of the experience might have been having lunch with Chuck Todd. He’s a great moderator on TV, and he directs casual conversation in the same way. Speaking with him felt like chatting with an old friend, and I managed to not act too starstruck (at least I tried!). He shared useful advice about his career, the future of the industry, and affirmed several of my hopes and dreams. It was easily the best lunch date I have ever had.

How did the experience allow you to make an impact?

I am most proud of my contributions to Meet the Press’s (MTP) coverage of diversity. It was extremely gratifying to work on MTP’s coverage of Juneteenth, the obstruction of voting rights and domestic terrorism from the alt-right. All were topics I was really interested in, and I’m so glad the MTP team gave me the opportunity to pull together diverse soundbites and potential elements for these important stories.

Did the experience have an impact on what you want to do after you graduate?

Prior to this internship I had done very little investigative reporting, and would have struggled to find specific interviews or public opinion polls for an article. Working for MTP forced me to become very proficient at searching several different databases. I’ve always viewed brilliant investigative journalists as the cream of the crop, and it’s really cool to me that I’m starting to build my toolbox toward investigative work.

Another really important thing I got out of this experience was clarity. Internships are all about getting hands-on experience and figuring out what you don’t want to do. MTP helped me see that I am considerably more interested in digital journalism than broadcast, and that’s perfectly okay!

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