Governor recognizes ASPiRE

ASPiRE students Kori Johnson and Crystal Rawls sit with director Mary Slade with their award for community service. Photo by Jess Lee.

Janeal Downs
Staff Writer

When executive director of VCU ASPiRE, Mary Slade received a call saying ASPiRE won the 2014 Governor’s Volunteer and Community Service Award, she was both excited and surprised to find out they had even been nominated.

ASPiRE is one of two VCU living-learning communities on campus. On its website, ASPiRE is described as promoting community engagement in areas such as pre-K through adult education, accessible and affordable housing, leadership development, economic development, youth mentoring, healthy living, environmental sustainability and urban revitalization.

Slade, three ASPiRE students and other representatives from VCU attended the award ceremony on April 10 to receive one of seven awards. They won within the category of Outstanding Educational Institution Volunteer Program.

“It’s a coveted award and we didn’t even know that we were being considered so for me that was really nice,” Slade said. “The competition was stiff this year and they kept telling us how much that should mean to us.”

Slade was accompanied by ASPiRE students Kori Johnson, Darrius McMilliam and Crystal Rawls. Slade said Johnson was chosen for her work with sustainable projects and McMilliam for his constant participation and also as a member of the first cohort.

Rawls, who Slade said “gives from her heart” was chosen for her outstanding volunteer hours and commitment to the program. As a sophomore and mass communications major, Rawls has currently completed a total of 162 volunteer hours, though the program only requires 100.

As a first year ASPiRE student, she was only required to have 50 hours completed. She said the last community service project she participated in included her working at a cemetery.

“I did (community service) growing up, I did it in high school, I did at church back home and when I came here (I) found out there was a program like this I (thought) it would be different, it’d get me out of my comfort zone a little bit and I wanted to learn more about the Richmond community,” Rawls said.

Rawls said the best part about ASPiRE is the friends she has made in the organization and thinks she may want to use the knowledge she has obtained working for a non-profit.

“We’re a really big family and we would love to have more people. I’ve had a lot of fun being here for the first year and I’m very excited for the second year that I’ll be here and the new cohort that’s coming in,” Rawls said.

As ASPiRE finishes its second year with the first graduating class in May, the program serves as the first living-learning community at VCU. Slade said including this most recent award, ASPiRE has also received two others.

The first, the Democracy Cup, was an award shared with VCU Honors students for their work during the presidential elections. The other was the Richmond City Council Community Engagement and Service Award which Slade said was also a surprise.

Lynn E. Pelco, Ph.D., the associate vice provost for Community Engagement, nominated ASPiRE for the governor’s award. She and Program Support Coordinator of the Division of Community Engagement Christopher Rillstone also attended the award ceremony.

Pelco called ASPiRE a national model and said it was easy to write the nomination for the award to the governor saying they were worthy of recognition.

“Because we are such an urban campus, we’re so interconnected and it’s just one more way that we’re showing a deep and long standing commitment to Richmond,” Pelco said. “I think that’s something as an institution that we value from the president all the way down to the students, staff and the faculty.”

Pelco said President Rao really wanted VCU to have a living-learning community. She encouraged students from outside of the program to speak with ASPiRE students and try to get involved with what they do.

Slade said 79 ASPiRE students will graduate and there will be 135 new members added for the next semester. This will make the total number of students about 215. Slade encouraged students to apply, learn about ASPiRE or ask to participate in some of their projects.

“I think ASPiRE is unique on campus and nationally and I welcome anyone who wants to be apart of something that is different,” Slade said. “There’s a lot of mutual benefits, everything we give to the community comes back in folds like this.”

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