Visit from Indian delegation sets stage for collaboration, exchange

“We're able to keep students here and get them an engineering education with less of an investment from their families than you might expect,” Dean Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., said

Indian embassy rep. Ashanul Sharma and Pres. Rao
Anshul Sharma, from the Indian embassy in Washington, D.C., right, and VCU President Michael Rao at a meeting on Oct. 21. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

A daylong visit to Virginia Commonwealth University by two delegates from the Indian embassy in Washington could open doors for educational exchanges and partnerships between VCU students and staff and their counterparts abroad. Meetings with VCU administration, faculty and students on Oct. 21, conveyed to the visitors and hosts the unique attributes at VCU and possible modalities of collaboration. 

In opening remarks to Dhananjay Tiwary, Ph.D., science and technology counselor for the Embassy of India, and Anshul Sharma, counselor for education, VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., highlighted the university’s potential for academic partnerships and interchanges.

“At VCU, we are very proud that this is a very experiential experience for students; we want to integrate research, scholarship and creative practices in ways that are not done in other places,” Rao said. “It is part of our strategic plan. It penetrates the entire institution, including clinical, studio and laboratory experiences.” 

Rao shared stories of student and faculty learning, research and entrepreneurship as well as community engagement. There are currently approximately 200 Indian students at VCU. Rao said his goal would be to more than double that number.   

“I think we have a special opportunity,” Rao said. “I will tell you that Indian brothers and sisters will be supported by fellow Indians whose parents came here and who are growing up here. That's a wonderful match when you bring together students from India who are in a foreign land with other students who are sympathetic and sensitive to and understand their backgrounds.”

P. Srirama Rao, Ph.D., VCU vice president for research and innovation, provided an overview of facilities and investigations, highlighting the university’s $363 million in sponsored research funding during the past fiscal year.

“Our goal is to make sure that a lot of the research that is done that is entrepreneurial can actually move to the marketplace,” he said. “With our culture of collaboration, we are trying to make sure it engages our students and faculty and addresses societal challenges. We are poised for tremendous growth, attracting a lot of top talent to VCU at different levels. … We are changing the world in very profound ways. That’s a major point of pride.” 

Barbara Boyan, the Alice T. and William H. Goodwin Jr. Dean of the VCU College of Engineering, gave an overview of expansions, funding, research and merit scholarships that students and faculty benefit from.

“These [students] show they've got moxie, that they're really going to make something of themselves and pay it forward,” Boyan said. “We're able to keep students here and get them an engineering education with less of an investment from their families than you might expect.”

Boyan highlighted the Dreams to Reality Incubator, where students can start their companies with a physical address, noting the shared space with the School of Business is designed to develop partnerships.

Tiwary explained to the VCU leadership that the government of India has a history of engagement with U.S. educational institutions.

“Strategic areas where we have been working are clean energy technology, the health sector, mega science, emerging technologies, artificial intelligence, and earth and ocean sciences,” Tiwary said. 

Sharma listed a convergence of interests and ways to potentially collaborate to explore innovations, conduct research and access joint funding sources. Areas of focus include medicine, health, therapeutics, vaccine diagnostics, infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and noncommunicable diseases, including cardiovascular diseases.

Sharma said he hoped to facilitate multiple entry and exit points for exchange, including short student visits with the potential for joint and dual degrees, strategic research partnerships, jointly organizing workshops, seminars and conferences.

“Alumni networks are also prime motivators for university-to-university collaborations. If a VCU student goes back [to India] he or she will be the driving factor. We can facilitate building onto these alumni networks,” Sharma said. 

Jill Blondin, Ph.D., executive director and senior international officer of the VCU Global Education office, said Tiwary’s and Sharma’s visit was very productive. 

“VCU's research initiatives closely align with many of India's research priorities in the health sector, in engineering and in education. This visit was very timely in that both India and VCU are reimagining how, through research and student success, governments and academic institutions can work together to find solutions to tomorrow's problems,” Blondin said. 

“As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, international academic collaboration is now more important than ever. Global research in an intercultural context only serves to strengthen the skills of all involved. This visit helped us envision so many areas where we can provide increased global research and engagement opportunities for our students and faculty at home and abroad.”