First Recipients of VCU’s Wright Engineering Access Scholarship Traveled Many Paths to One Destination: Engineering Excellence

Wright Scholarship Recipients
C. Kenneth Wright with the first cohort of Wright Scholars. (From left) Lionel Brookins, Daveon Barbee, Michael Horton, Jake Littlepage, Erwin Karincic, Jordan Karim, Cara Brooks, Jared Carey, C. Kenneth Wright, Brandon Watts, Hayat Adawi, Virang Kumar, DongChen “Jay” Guan, Jay Spangler, Matthew Beckwith. (Not pictured: Bailee Crisinati, Mengue France Raissa, Travis Puckett, Brandon Roberson, Jessi Shaffer.)

By Rebecca E. Jones

The inaugural 19 recipients of VCU’s Wright Engineering Access Scholarship represent many backgrounds and engineering disciplines. They have one thing in common: a place in the school’s history.

This first cohort of the new flagship scholarship program includes first-generation college students, transfers to VCU, immigrants to the U.S. and a single custodial father of four.

The Wright Engineering Access Scholarship was established with a historic $5 million gift from longtime benefactor C. Kenneth Wright. Wright designed his gift to help qualified students, especially nontraditional students, earn an engineering degree without dependence on loans.

Wright and his late wife Dianne were entrepreneurs in the vehicle rental and travel industries, owning several businesses that operated primarily in Virginia with affiliations across the U.S. His advice to the first cohort? “Be honest and work hard,” Wright said. “America is a great country, and Richmond is a great city. You can make both even greater.”

At a September Dean’s Society reception honoring Wright and the Wright Scholars, Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., Alice T. and William H. Goodwin Chair and Dean of the VCU School of Engineering, called on these students to lead the way. “We are counting on you to be mentors and help others succeed in these programs,” Boyan said. “This is what VCU is all about — we’re small enough that we can have a personal relationship with each of you. We want that to continue, and hope you will keep this cohort identity.”

Lionel Brookins, a senior majoring in electrical engineering, accepted the challenge on behalf of his peers. He recalled the “VCU difference” he saw on his first visit. “When I was searching for schools to transfer to from Tidewater Community College, VCU was not on my radar,” he said. The welcoming atmosphere and professors’ accessibility changed that. “When I left that afternoon, my top three choices were VCU, VCU and VCU. I call it my ‘signed, sealed, delivered, I’m yours’ tour,” Brookins said.

Like many Wright Scholars, Brookins’ path to engineering school was unconventional. It began when he was working for a U.S. Navy contractor and fell in love with math he taught himself with workbooks from the Navy Exchange. Brookins said the Wright scholarship means his final year will be his first without any unsubsidized loans. He already plans to pay it forward. “I hope to leverage this wonderful gift by donating back to the Wright Scholarship Program to help grow the number of aspiring engineers,” he said.

Wright Scholar Erwin Karincic is a sophomore majoring in computer engineering. Like Brookins, he taught himself engineering fundamentals long before considering an education at VCU. As a seven year-old in Bosnia, Karincic was stuck with a broken computer that nobody could fix. “I bought a hard drive and operating system and fixed it myself,” he said. “That started my passion for technology.”

Karincic approaches cybersecurity student competitions with the drive of an athlete and has participated on many winning teams. Professionals told him that nobody passes the notoriously difficult Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP) exam on the first try — so he spent three months training and passed on his first attempt. Karincic recently learned he placed third out of 3,935 students who accepted the SANS Institute’s CyberStart 2017 Scholarship Challenge. He sees himself as an ambassador for cybersecurity and believes VCU can be a powerhouse in this area. “I want to help VCU be an even bigger name in cybersecurity,” he said.  “This scholarship will allow me to focus more on that and less on jobs to afford tuition.”

Cara Brooks, a junior majoring in biomedical engineering, is one of the many Wright Scholars who are first-generation college students. She was initially drawn to engineering by “shiny devices with flashy lights and sci-fi fantasies.” By age 10, she had lost two close relatives to cancer and her avocation got more specific. “I discovered a passion for helping others and became interested in medicine, developing technologies and medical innovation,” she said.

Working in VCU’s Boyan/Schwartz Lab whetted Brooks’ appetite for research, and a recent internship with Johnson and Johnson sparked in interest in industry. She is undecided as to whether she will pursue grad school or an industry position after graduation but certain the Wright scholarship will enhance her last semesters at VCU. “I was working two jobs,” she said. “This means that I can take more classes and participate on a Vertically Integrated Project team.” For Robert Jackson, Brooks’ father, her success in engineering was no surprise. “Over the years, Cara went through every science kit and chemistry kit I could find,” he said.  “This scholarship is a wonderful opportunity for her. All those math books paid off!”     

Wright Scholar Jordan Karim is a senior in mechanical engineering with a nuclear concentration. He’s also a veteran, a full-time employee with Dominion Due Diligence Group, a member of the Army National Guard — and a single custodial parent of four children between the ages of 1 through 13. “Yes, I’m a little busy,” he said with a smile, adding that he was attracted to nuclear engineering because he “likes to boil water.” Karim also believes the need for energy is at the root of a great deal of world conflict. “Nuclear fission provides the most viable solution to the problem of safe, clean energy for all,” he said. Being part of that solution gives him the focus to do all he does and keep a 3.95 GPA.

The Wright Scholarship will give him more time for his studies in his last year. It also puts him in a more secure financial position to pay for his children’s education — which may include engineering school for his middle daughter, aged 10. “She has been saying she wants to be an engineer, and in a recent conversation about the Tooth Fairy she told me that ‘opinions are not evidence,’” Karim said. “I knew at age 10 that I wanted to be an engineer, too.”

Wright hopes others will contribute to the Wright Engineering Access Scholarship fund to expand college opportunities for more students pursuing careers in engineering. Learn more or contribute.

Meet the 2017-18 Wright Scholars

Hayat Adawi
Major: Chemical and Life Science Engineering
Hometown: Midlothian, Virginia
Career Goal: Industry or graduate research in chemical engineering
Fun Fact: Is obsessed with pretzels, roasted cashews and extra dark chocolate.

Daveon Barbee
Major: Mechanical Engineering
Hometown: Richmond, Virginia
Career Goal: An engineering career that benefits the homeless
Fun Fact: Is often called a “clean freak.”

Matt Beckwith
Major: Chemical Engineering
Hometown: Arlington, Virginia
Career Goal: Product development engineer
Fun Fact: Grew up in Hawaii before moving to Virginia.

Lionel Brookins
Major: Electrical Engineering
Hometown: Chesapeake, Virginia
Career Goal: Engineering consulting firm ownership
Fun Fact: Is an avid bicyclist and basketball player.

Cara Brooks
Major: Biomedical Engineering
Hometown: Hampton, Virginia
Career Goal: Clinical engineering or project management
Fun Fact: Loves to cook.

Jared Carey
Major: Electrical Engineering
Hometown: Ashburn, Virginia
Career Goal: Innovation in the sonic field
Fun Fact: Plays guitar in a rock band.

Bailee Crisinati
Major: Chemical and Life Science Engineering
Hometown: Somers, Connecticut
Career Goal: Production engineering in industry
Fun Fact: Earned her second-degree black belt at age 16.

DongChen "Jay" Guan
Major: Computer Science
Hometown: Fuzhou, China
Career Goal: Software engineering
Fun Fact: People never believe he is an introvert.

Michael Horton
Major: Mechanical Engineering
Hometown: Richmond, Virginia
Career Goal: Working in a creative atmosphere on problems related to climate change
Fun Fact: Is a graduate of the VCUarts sculpture and extended media program.

Jordan Karim
Major: Mechanical Engineering (Nuclear Concentration)
Hometown: Richmond, Virginia
Career Goal: Nuclear engineering
Fun Fact: His game collection currently includes 60 board games - and growing.

Erwin Karincic
Major: Computer Engineering
Hometown: Sarajevo, Bosnia
Career Goal: Network security architecture
Fun Fact: Can build a computer in less than 10 minutes.

Virang Kumar
Major: Biomedical Engineering
Hometown: Glen Allen, Virginia
Career Goal: Medicine
Fun Fact: Has a black belt in karate.

Jake Littlepage
Major: Mechanical Engineering (Nuclear Concentration)
Hometown: Mechanicsville, Virginia
Career Goal: Nuclear engineering with Dominion Energy
Fun Fact: Studied in Germany last summer and worked on a research reactor there.

Mengue France Raissa
Major: Biomedical Engineering
Hometown: Nkongsamba, Cameroon
Career Goal: Pediatric medicine
Fun Fact: Loves to sing and work with children.

Travis Puckett
Major: Computer Science
Hometown: Chesterfield, Virginia
Career Goal: Data science for health care
Fun Fact: Started out as a biology major but fell in love with coding.

Brandon Roberson
Major: Mechanical Engineering
Hometown: Chesterfield, Virginia
Career Goal: Mechanical engineering
Fun Fact: Is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force and the Air National Guard.

Jessi Shaffer
Major: Electrical Engineering and Applied Mathematics; Minor in Creative Writing
Hometown: Amelia Courthouse, Virginia
Career Goal: Work with green energy
Fun Fact: Is in the Historical European Martial Arts Club learning German longsword fencing.

Jay Spangler
Major: Biomedical Engineering
Hometown: Lynchburg, Virginia
Career Goal: General surgery practice
Fun Fact: His favorite hobby is fishing.

Brandon Watts
Major: Computer Science
Hometown: Prince George, Virginia
Career Goal: Working in machine translation for Google
Fun Fact: Has met Bill Nye in person.