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Students get REAL

Six students share their hands-on learning experiences at VCU and what they got out of them.
Panth Doshi, Julissa Martinez, Joe Siejack, Mehwish Safdar, Joanna Rivera and Michael Portillo each in separate, circular frames in front of a colorful background

Starting this fall, all incoming undergraduates at Virginia Commonwealth University will be required to complete at least one Relevant, Experiential and Applied Learning experience before they graduate. But if you’re one of those students, before you start thinking, Ugh – not another requirement! – take a moment to consider what this will mean for you.

It means you are going to do something outside of the classroom. You’re going to do something that matters to you and it’s going to make an impact – whether on yourself, the community, the world or all three. When you sit down for your first job interview and you’re asked about your experiences and what sets you apart, you are going to have something to say.

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. There are courses that have pre-approved REAL experiences baked into the curriculum, and there are plenty of other paths you can take that aren’t related to a course. The Student Opportunity Center provides a searchable database, and your adviser can help you figure out the best choice for you.

While the requirement is new, the REAL initiative has been underway for several years. Read what six students had to say about how their REAL experiences not only shaped them but helped them connect, create and contribute.


Mehwish Safdar
Mehwish Safdar

Name: 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
Joanna Rivera

Name: 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. It inspired me to combine my passions in instruction, speech and movement sciences.

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 health care 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. I’ve taken on education-related work through the VCU Campus Learning Center and attended a speaker session with a school occupational therapist from Richmond Public Schools through the VCU Pre-Occupational Therapy Club.

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.


Michael Portillo
Michael Portillo

Name: Michael Portillo
Major: Economics
Experience: National economics team challenge

A VCU team of undergraduates led by Michael Portillo was one of six finalists (out of 85 participating colleges) in the 2020 College Fed Challenge, the premier competition for undergraduate economists across the country. Portillo and his team analyzed how COVID-19 has affected the U.S. economy, presented a monetary policy recommendation to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors and participated in a question-and-answer session with senior economists at the Fed. For their hard work, VCU’s team was awarded an honorable mention.

Best part of the experience?

The best part of the Fed Challenge was working with real macroeconomic data and presenting our findings to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. It felt both exciting and intimidating to present policy recommendations to the Federal Reserve, but after walking away with an honorable mention, I felt extremely confident in my ability to follow my professional passions after graduation.

Did anything surprise you?

Frankly, I was surprised that I won an award for my work. I had a difficult upbringing as a child, and I wasn’t confident in my potential when I entered VCU. However, the economics faculty believed in me when I didn’t, and that made all the difference. Sometimes you just need someone else to see your ability before you can see it in yourself.

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

After succeeding in the Fed Challenge, I felt much more qualified to pursue a career in economics. Prior to this experience, I didn’t have high expectations for my career after graduation. Now, I’m planning to attend grad school and am currently pursuing a career as a U.S. diplomat specializing in economics and business.

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

Yes! I would have never met my teammates if it weren’t for the Fed Challenge. I’m excited to see all of them pursuing careers in consulting, law, policy and research. I’m honored to have worked with them, and I look forward to seeing how we all advance through our careers in the next few years.


Julissa Martinez
Julissa Martinez

Name: Julissa Martinez
Major: Music education
Experience: Student teaching

A passionate clarinetist who is committed to providing a positive, safe space for children to learn about and develop a love for music, Julissa Martinez spent the spring 2021 semester virtually student teaching. At an elementary school, she danced, sang, and taught music and rhythm reading, recorder and ukulele. At a middle school, she taught orchestra and band, including some lessons in Spanish, her first language. This allowed her to connect with students who would normally struggle in the usual English-only education setting. Through learning to teach in a virtual classroom, she was also able to explore music technology, and sound and video editing. She helped her middle school students create music recruitment videos in English and Spanish and produce a virtual concert. In the fall, she will start a job as the band director at Carver Middle School in Chester, Virginia.

Did anything surprise you?

How much I connect with middle school students! When I came into VCU in 2017, I was interested in teaching high school band. I quickly realized, though, that while I enjoyed it, I felt the best whenever I worked with beginning music students. I am so passionate about the instrument start-off and development process and I also feel that my personality really shines in the middle school classroom. Student teaching at Elizabeth Davis Middle School [in Chesterfield County, Virginia,] further provided me with an experience that sealed the deal for me. I had such a wonderful time. I am so lucky to be doing what I love.

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

The most important thing I learned from my student-teaching experience is to self-reflect on everything I do and to be flexible. It’s important to recognize that not everything is rainbows and sunshine — covering things up with toxic positivity only makes things worse. Things can get difficult or even uncomfortable, but through recognizing that, I think I’m able to reclaim some of those feelings and turn it into an opportunity to make it better for others and myself. I get overwhelmed easily, but life is all about learning and growing so I’ve been working toward taking a deep breath and going with the flow of things that I have no control of.

How did the experience allow you to make an impact?

As a first-generation Latina, it was amazing to see the level of impact that I could have simply by teaching in Spanish and sharing my experiences. I could see my students’ eyes light up when I cracked a joke about Hispanic culture or told stories of my childhood and education, and it was beautiful when we had vulnerable moments like that together. I was also able to visit the homes of some of my orchestra students (socially distanced, of course) and interact with them in person, which always moved me and had a great impact on everyone.

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

Oh yes! To my amazing student-teaching mentors: thank you, thank you, thank you! They supported me from day one and always encouraged me to find ways to improve my teaching and myself. We spoke about the deep stuff, about pedagogy, about our values as educators and small ways to make the world a better place. They challenged me to do things that I never even thought were possible, and I am forever grateful. They helped me get my first teaching job. We’ve become so close and I know that I can always count on them. Also, a shout-out to my Davis [Middle School] mentors who helped me with getting my very first car.


Joe Siejack
Joe Siejak

Name: Joe Siejak
Major: Psychology
Experience: Student worker with VCU Rec Sports

Joe Siejak has spent the past two years juggling multiple roles as a student worker at VCU Rec Sports while earning his bachelor’s degree in psychology. A reserve member of the Navy, he plans to get his Ph.D. in counseling services so that he can one day work with veterans who need support. At the gym, he does everything from teaching CPR to lifeguarding, assisting with membership sales, making sure the facility is operating properly and helping patrons. Siejak understands the importance of physical fitness to overall health, and his job with Rec Sports has landed him in a supportive community where he can help others achieve healthier lifestyles.

Best part of the experience?

I absolutely love working with Rec Sports. When I left active-duty service in the military, I felt lost and thought I had no purpose. However, the moment I began working for Rec Sports, I felt motivated and part of a team.

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

I learned how to accept myself and let people see who I truly am. I was so closed off and constantly had a guard up. However, Rec Sports gave me a community and a support group.

How did the experience allow you to make an impact?

Through my experience, I was able to train over 50 individuals in the lifesaving skills of CPR. Now they will have the knowledge to provide lifesaving care to people in need.

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

Absolutely, I learned how physical health and mental health are so connected to each other. My goal is to help active military and veterans who are suffering from trauma. I’ve realized how fitness can give active individuals an outlet to relieve stress.


Panth Doshi
Panth Doshi

Name: Panth Doshi
Major: Biomedical engineering
Experience: Research fellowship

Through an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program summer fellowship, Honors College student Panth Doshi had the chance to work with Jennifer Puetzer, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering, on a research project that aimed to better understand the links between aging, health conditions like diabetes and injuries in tendons, and whether stretching routines might help reduce those injuries. Along the way, Doshi gained experience in literature review, critical analysis, statistical analysis, biochemical assays, data collection, report writing and presenting at conferences, in addition to developing technical skills.

Best part of the experience?

Learning the ins and outs of research firsthand was a fantastic opportunity. I was able to manage the project and be involved with each step, from design through conference presentations. It’s an experience not many undergrad students are able to have. Usually, they work alongside and assist graduate students, but Dr. Puetzer really encouraged me to think for myself and take control.

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

I fell in love with research. Research is difficult. You run into a lot of obstacles and things don’t always go your way, but you learn to be flexible. These skills, of resilience and adaptability, are applicable not just in research or in STEM, but in every aspect of life.

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

I knew I wanted to go to medical school and pursue a career in medicine. However, the longer I spent conducting research with Dr. Puetzer, the more research became an integral part of my career goals. I have been considering pursuing an M.D.-Ph.D. I will be starting medical school at VCU this July, and even if I don’t do a combined degree program, I hope to continue performing research throughout my life.

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

Absolutely! The Puetzer Lab has a fantastic culture. Each member has had a positive impact on me and I’m extremely grateful for them. We work together, but our connection doesn’t end there. We also have lots of fun together and I’m glad I can call them friends. While my time with the Puetzer Lab will end this summer, I am sure I’ll be keeping in touch with everyone for far longer.

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