$1 million gift will help expand programs for international students

A group of students hiking in the mountains
The $1 million gift will help the university and college provide expanded cultural engagement opportunities, such as hiking and other outdoor activities, to help international students to make connections during their time at VCU. Photo courtesy of the VCU Global Education Office.

An anonymous $1 million gift to VCU Engineering will enrich the experience of international students at Virginia Commonwealth University and its College of Engineering by providing funds for a range of cultural and educational activities to help them thrive in a new environment.

Part of the gift will establish a new Global Education and International Student Support Fund, which will be administered by VCU’s Global Education Office (GEO).

“A gift like this is something that you dream about, so we want to be very thoughtful about how we use it,” said Jill Blondin, Ph.D., executive director of GEO. Expanded English language instruction programs will be part of the plan, Blondin said. These may include English language support to enrolled students, targeted tutoring, mentorship and financial support to cover English Language Program tuition fees.

The new fund will expand international student engagement by offering new cultural programs on campus. It will also help subsidize some student expenses on field trips that promote cultural understanding, service learning and leadership training. International students will have a voice in determining how these funds can be used for the greatest impact.

“These students have chosen — bravely — to come to another country to study,” Blondin said. “They are away from home, from family. What we see are needs for engagement and personal support. We want to help them participate fully in life at VCU. We are super excited about this opportunity to expand our ability to do that.”

Another portion of the gift will establish the VCU College of Engineering Dean’s Excellence Fund for International Students.

“Designing solutions to challenges facing our world today requires understanding how to use engineering principles, but also the use to which these solutions will be put in their cultural context,” said Barbara D. Boyan, Alice T. and William H. Goodwin, Jr. Dean of VCU Engineering. “International students provide an important global perspective, whether they are undergraduates, pursuing graduate degrees or serving as postdoctoral fellows. This gift makes it possible for us to help them find a home in the College of Engineering so that their contribution to the research and teaching mission of VCU can be realized.  By collaborating with GEO, we will provide programs that enhance their communication with their professors and colleagues both in terms of language and in terms of cultural exchange.”

This new fund will support programs that “make all students feel at home here,” said Karla Mossi, Ph.D., associate professor and director of graduate programs in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering. Mossi will spearhead these activities in the college, which may include a new student organization, a Thanksgiving celebration and an International Engineering Day next year.

Having been an international student herself, Mossi said she is aware of some of the barriers that can make students feel isolated. She sees relationship building as the key to breaking down those barriers.

“In a new country, the ‘rules’ are different,” Mossi said, which can make it difficult for international students to ask questions and build connections. “Being part of a community is essential to student success, especially now. We must get together, even if it’s by Zoom.”

Mossi and Blondin emphasized that international students are not the only ones who will benefit from this gift.

“There is a very reciprocal approach in place. The more international students are able to share and be part of the community, the more Americans will learn from these programs, too,” Blondin said.

The net result, according to Mossi, is a “richer diversity of ideas” in the university.

“‘Diversity is never just about race or color or nationality. It’s about ideas,” Mossi said. “This will make us better.”

The gift will also support mechanical and nuclear engineering research being performed by Daren Chen, Ph.D., professor and Floyd D. Gottwald, Sr. Chair in Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering at VCU.