VCU’s ASPiRE program helps students at Richmond’s largest college discover, engage, and make a difference in the city outside their campus.
VCU ASPiRE is a program at Virginia Commonwealth University that focuses on students learning about the history of Richmond, with the aim of sparking community engagement for areas of the city that are in need. Established in 2012, it has expanded its partnerships from campus-based organizations or organizations near the campus to habitat restoration centers in the northside, landscaping and renovations at the Oak Grove-Bellemeade Elementary School and community center, aided in renovations for historic African American East End cemeteries by finding lost grave markers, and more.
During the last two years of my college tenure, I was enrolled in VCU ASPiRE’s community engagement program, and when I graduated last May, I received not only a bachelor’s in Health, Physical Education, and Exercise Science but also a certificate in community engagement through the VCU ASPiRE program. A native of Richmond, Southside born and raised — Jefferson Davis Highway and Terminal Avenue, to be specific — I grew up in the former murder capital all my life, and I have seen the city change. To quote Noah-O from his first visit on Sway in The Morning, “I’m from the RIC before it became RVA.”
I joined VCU ASPiRE because I wanted to bring my own perspective to it from a true local standpoint, having grown up in poverty, in the middle of food deserts and gang influences, living in a part of Richmond that was once highly known for sex and drug trafficking. It was an indirect challenge from an old teacher inspired me to become a part of the program. Mr. Stevens, my old math teacher from Thomas Jefferson High School, said to me months before my high school graduation, “Get out of Richmond — there’s nothing for you here.” Years later, I found a way to challenge what he had told me through working with VCU ASPiRE.
Thanks to the program, I learned more about the story of the African American neighborhood of Navy Hill, how it was torn down to build I-95, and how Jeff Davis (aka Route 1) was I-95 before I-95. I expanded my knowledge about the origins of Oregon Hill, learning that it was a blue-collar neighborhood in the 1900s. I even heard the story of the Richmond Vampire, who ran all the way from Church Hill to the Richmond Cemetery [more on the truth behind this legend coming soon from RVA Mag -ed].
By becoming a part of the program, my love for helping the community that I once starved in truly grew. I went back and volunteered at homeless shelters in Southside, and helped renovate the same community center where I used to work out, which influenced my eventual degree. The program also aided in connecting me to resources in the city that I can refer other people and organizations to.
In my second year at VCU ASPiRE, when I was able to do independent events for my required hours, I used my contributions to Richmond’s hip hop culture, such as organizing events and speaking at WRIR for Lovelace Magazine and HennyNCoke, along with lecturing at VCU, the University of Richmond, and Virginia State University in the same semester. The program even allowed me to get volunteer hours when I organized a community hooping session at the basketball courts in Randolph, where friends from ATL and artists like Mally Goku and Van Silke helped bring people out and donated food and drinks.
Through the program, I was also able to create volunteering opportunities at the Richmond City Health District when I was an intern in the opioid department, during my very last semester of college. In February 2019, I represented the program alongside other classmates at the National Impact Conference at UVA. For a former grade school dropout who once lied about going to college, I never could have imagined myself representing a university in a national conference coming straight out of Richmond. But VCU ASPiRE brought me there.
VCU ASPiRE helps inform students about the city, showing them how to find hidden gems well beyond the campus and the popular downtown and Carytown scenes usually affiliated with the RVA tourist brand. I’m grateful for the opportunities it brought to me and brings to many VCU students, and very appreciative of the program’s staff, including Erin Brown, Michael Rackett, Nanette Bailey, former staff member Samuel Brown, Nerice Lochansky, and everyone else invloved.
If you’re a VCU student and the opportunity to engage with your city beyond the campus sounds appealing, look into the VCU ASPiRE program at community.vcu.edu/aspire.