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College Greek life priorities change in the face of COVID-19 

Virginia-based student sororities and fraternities are using Zoom to recruit new members. Some of these organizations believe the challenge of social distancing has strengthened bonds amongst each other as well as their philanthropy efforts.

Capital News Service

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By Megan Lee

There are no dodgeball games, cookouts or other rushing events at Virginia Commonwealth University’s campus in Richmond, but fraternities and sororities are still recruiting new brothers and sisters.

The Greek chapters at VCU, and many other Virginia schools, are using Zoom to recruit new members. Some fraternities and sororities believe the challenge of social distancing has strengthened bonds amongst each other as well as their philanthropy efforts.

“Not being able to meet in-person this semester as a whole chapter has been hard, but it has given us more time to focus on our priorities,” said John Rudolph, VCU Pi Kappa Alpha recruitment chair. “Those being our grades, community service and philanthropy.”

VCU’s fraternities and sororities have given around 8,400 hours of time to charities in the last academic year, said LaDarius Thompson, associate director of Civic Engagement and Fraternity and Sorority Life at VCU.

VCU Pi Kappa Alpha is finding alternative methods for their usual events like Bowling Buddy, community clean-ups and food drives, according to Rudolph. Rudolph said the organization is preparing virtual fundraisers using Instagram and Venmo for its annual Fireman’s Challenge, benefitting the Evans-Haynes Burn Center in Richmond.

Bingo donation boards, orders of Campus Cookies, and raffles are just a few of the virtual fundraising challenges Virginia Tech Kappa Alpha sorority are circulating through Instagram and Snapchat stories.

Mojdeh Nourbakhsh, Panhellenic director of risk at Virginia Tech, said that most of its fraternity and sorority causes “are in greater need now more than ever” due to the pandemic.

Kappa Alpha and Kappa Delta at Virginia Tech are raffling Airpods and a TV on social media to fundraise for NRV CARES, a nonprofit advocating for children involved in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court proceedings.

William & Mary Kappa Sigma President Danny Driscoll said the chapter has raised $600 worth of food this semester for the Williamsburg House of Mercy, a local homeless shelter, and plans to raise another $10,000 over this academic year for philanthropy while following COVID-19 guidelines.

These philanthropy efforts are sometimes overshadowed by the notorious social life fraternities and sororities can bring to college campuses. But these social and recruiting events play a large role in establishing the sense of brotherhood and sisterhood that is an integral part of the organizations, Driscoll said.

Nourbakhsh said that when recruiting in person, “you get a better feel of their energy and how they would benefit your chapter best.”

Since most of these in-person events cannot happen, many Greek leadership boards decided to decrease semester fees.

“I think it’s so wrong to charge someone $300 when what are they really getting besides to say, ‘I’m in Kappa Sigma?’” Driscoll said.

 Although rectangles of faces on a Zoom call have replaced real life meetings, there is no substitute for the brothers and sisters that live together — a common standard for many fraternities and sororities.

Students have tested positive in Virginia Tech’s Kappa Delta house, said Claudia Wrenn, the sorority’s vice president of membership.

Wrenn said that the organization’s positive students were quarantined off campus until they were well. She said that resident assistants conduct walk-throughs of all on-campus Greek housing, ensuring that masks are worn at all times in common areas and social distancing measures are in place.

Potential issues arise in off-campus housing, where universities do not have much control.

Thompson said that VCU, the Interfraternity Council and VCU Police have met with sororities and fraternities to reiterate state orders and find ways to prevent COVID-19 within Greek-populated houses.

Some of the Greek chapters that ignored college COVID-19 guidelines have suffered the consequences. Radford University suspended the Iota Zeta chapter of its Theta Chi fraternity for not following health measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to The Roanoke Times.

James Madison University also brought Harrisonburg to the top of a USA Today list of college towns with the worst U.S. COVID-19 outbreaks. Twenty percent of JMU students participate in Greek organizations, according to the university’s Fraternity and Sorority Life page.

There are no confirmed links between JMU Greek life and the school’s COVID-19 cases, but Driscoll said that people are connecting the two.

“We don’t want to be the scapegoats that they’re making Greek life into at JMU right now,” Driscoll said.

About 800,000 undergraduate students participated in Greek life across the country in 2018, but VCU Pi Kappa Alpha and William & Mary Kappa Sigma have seen lower recruitment numbers than usual with this year’s freshman class. Virginia Tech Kappa Delta is anticipating even lower numbers for spring recruitment.

Driscoll said Kappa Sigma has not reached half of the number of potential new members he would typically like to have at this point in the semester.

However, he said the unique challenges of this year have created a space for a different bond amongst the incoming class as they “navigate the pandemic together.” Driscoll decided to have a “year-long pledge class” for the 2020-2021 school year to create a longer acclimation period for potential recruits and a greater reach to interested students.

As fraternities and sororities reevaluate chapter goals, they also have time to reflect on Greek life’s impact beyond the college campus, Nourbakhsh said.

Nourbakhsh serves on a national committee created by the National Panhellenic Conference to address underlying racism and noninclusive policies within Greek life.

“There is so much work to be done in our country and starting off with organizations like Greek life and fixing systemic issues is a great start to changing the nation’s perceptions and culture,” Nourbakhsh said.

Students said they are eager to return to regular life.

“Coming from a pandemic and going back to normalcy, whatever normalcy will be, is going to benefit participation, loyalty, interest in these fraternities and sororities because people miss it,” Driscoll said.

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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New book by former VCU president, history professor tells four-decade history of the university

“Fulfilling the Promise: Virginia Commonwealth University and the City of Richmond, 1968–2009,” by Eugene Trani and John Kneebone illuminates the past and future of American public higher education.

RVAHub Staff

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In “Fulfilling the Promise: Virginia Commonwealth University and the City of Richmond, 1968–2009,” VCU President Emeritus and University Distinguished Professor Eugene P. Trani, Ph.D., and Associate Professor of History Emeritus John T. Kneebone, Ph.D., tell the story of VCU from its founding in 1968 through the end of Trani’s tenure as president in 2009, and the university’s role in Richmond.

The book, published by the University of Virginia Press and released in September, shows how VCU — created from the merger of the Medical College of Virginia and Richmond Professional Institute to serve a city emerging from an era of desegregation, white flight, political conflict and economic decline — reflects a larger, national story of urban universities and the past and future of American higher education.

Sen. Tim Kaine wrote the foreword of the book, and dust jacket blurbs were provided by former UVA President John Casteen III; former VCU basketball coach Shaka Smart; Susan Gooden, Ph.D., dean of VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs; bestselling novelist and VCU alumnus David Baldacci; and Roger Gregory, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and former rector of the VCU Board of Visitors.

The authors’ royalties from sales of the book will go to the VCU Foundation to fund student scholarships.

Trani and Kneebone recently spoke with VCU News about “Fulfilling the Promise,” which they say shows how VCU has been, and continues to be, a force for positive change in Richmond and Virginia.

What inspired you to work together to tell the story of VCU?

Kneebone: We were coming up on the 40th anniversary and, at that time, people felt like we had something to celebrate. The city had come back and VCU of course was quite successful — it had a large enrollment, enrolling more Virginia students than any other city university.

The book cover of “Fulfilling the Promise: Virginia Commonwealth University and the City of Richmond, 1968–2009."
“Fulfilling the Promise: Virginia Commonwealth University and the City of Richmond, 1968–2009″ published in September. The authors’ royalties will go to the VCU Foundation to fund student scholarships.

In the summer of 2009, I got a call from the president’s office. Dr. Trani, who was just stepping down, proposed that he and I work together on a history of VCU. My first instinct was to think, well, maybe this isn’t for me. Let me propose to him that I’ll do oral history interviews and we can put together a biography of Dr. Trani, a transformative leader.

He immediately said, “No, that’s too narrow. VCU’s story is much bigger than just one person and more complicated.” He said, “You know, VCU’s last history was Virginius Dabney’s 1988 book on the 20th anniversary. And he gave more attention in that book to the history of the Medical College of Virginia and Richmond Professional Institute than to VCU itself. So VCU really needs a proper history.”

We talked a bit and I said I know a lot about Virginia and Richmond. I’m not sure about higher education. And he said, “Well, I know something about higher education, so we can collaborate.” We set out with me doing research on the earlier years and interviewing him, sort of preliminary interviews.

Of course I could come to him and say, here’s something that was going on in Virginia higher education back then, do you have any thoughts? And he’d go, “Yeah. You know, this is what I was seeing in Nebraska. This is what seemed to be happening in Missouri.” So we had a sense of that larger context as well. We talk about the process in the book’s introduction. I think our different strengths actually worked together.

What is it about VCU’s story that makes it serve as a good microcosm for higher education in the U.S.?

Trani: Sen. Tim Kaine, in the foreword to this book, states there have been three trends that have led to a “powerful transformation in Richmond.” They are the emergence of VCU, the desire of its citizens to change long patterns of discrimination, and a concerted effort to emphasize the city’s natural beauty, especially the James River. This book explains the first of the three, how two institutions — MCV and RPI — came together to create a university that has worked with its community and that by doing so, showed that a large public institution with a significant medical center can not only survive but thrive and play a role in what is known as the “eds and meds” phenomenon that is typically played in urban America by elite private institutions with large medical centers. In that way, VCU can be a role model for higher education in the U.S.

Kneebone: We say that VCU is sort of exemplary of the fall and rise of urban universities. And we tell the story. Urban universities, of course, have always existed but today’s universities in urban areas are more than half of the total number of institutions. City education has become the norm, and that wasn’t always the case. Higher education, the idea was that putting students out in the countryside in a bucolic location where they weren’t distracted gave them a chance to engage in the high jinks of fraternity and sorority life and college life in general.

Urban universities, which catered to working-class immigrant minority students, students who were occupation oriented rather than liberal arts types you might find at traditional schools, seemed to be lower status. The higher status was for more selective schools and schools engaged in research. Urban universities, coming from a low point where they were in the midst of cities that were falling apart, suffering from suburbanization and white flight and conflicts, and with a mission to help solve some of these city issues as well, ended up becoming sort of the exemplars of higher education.

Students today at just about every school are career oriented, are thinking ahead to what they’re going to do in the future, less connected and less worried about fraternities and sororities. And urban universities, particularly, I think, for students who grew up in the suburbs, are a place that is actually lively and exciting instead of scary and dangerous as it was 40, 50 years ago. So it’s a success story that we’re telling.

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U of R School of Law awarded grant to support community work, technology needs for low-income seniors

A new grant from The Community Foundation for a Greater Richmond’s Central Virginia COVID-19 Response Fund will provide $14,500 in support of the MLP, which is a partnership with VCU.

RVAHub Staff

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The University of Richmond School of Law’s Medical-Legal Partnership provides medical and legal services to approximately 300 residents at Dominion Place Apartments, an affordable housing facility for seniors or individuals with disabilities living on or below the poverty line.

A new grant from The Community Foundation for a Greater Richmond’s Central Virginia COVID-19 Response Fund will provide $14,500 in support of the MLP, which is a partnership with VCU.

“During COVID-19, Dominion Place, like all elderly resident facilities, has placed strict bans on visitors thereby exacerbating the loneliness crisis among older adults,” said Leigh Melton, Richmond’s elder law faculty member who leads the program.

The grant will directly support COVID-19 related items for Dominion Place residents, including masks, soap, cleaning supplies, and gloves. The funding will also support technological devices with video screens equipped to work with Alexa, Amazon’s voice assistant.

“This technology will not only allow the residents much-needed connection with family and friends but also allow the Richmond legal team and the VCU medical group to continue to meet with the residents,” Melton said.

Melton also noted that the pandemic has motivated many residents of Dominion Place to expand their use of technology for the first time, and these devices, which have a camera to help those with visual impairment, help them connect to the outside world.

This program was previously awarded a grant from the Regirer Foundation.

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Family workshops abound in HCPS’ newly reimagined ‘Bridge Builders Academy’ series

Henrico County Public Schools’ family workshops have always been about transformation. Now, the workshop series itself has been transformed to bring Henrico families and educators even more useful presentations, speakers, and events.

RVAHub Staff

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Henrico County Public Schools’ family workshops have always been about transformation. Now, the workshop series itself has been transformed to bring Henrico families and educators even more useful presentations, speakers, and events.

The new name better evokes the series’ purpose: to build connections among families, the community, and the school division. The series has also been divided into four “learning strands,” or categories, to make it easier to find relevant information. The learning strands are: Beyond the Classroom; Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; Exceptional Education; and Information, Access, and Opportunities.

All fall “Bridge Builders Academy” workshops are virtual, and students, staff, and members of the public can participate using Microsoft Teams. Instructions for joining the workshops are at the new Bridge Builders Academy webpage at https://henricoschools.us/bridgebuildersacademy. Workshops are recorded for later viewing, and you can watch past workshops by going to the Bridge Builders Academy page.

Fall 2020 Bridge Builders Academy workshops are below, grouped by category. For more information, go to https://henricoschools.us/bridgebuildersacademy. The fall sessions are moderated by the HCPS Department of Family and Community Engagement, in conjunction with the session hosts. Questions about workshops can be directed to [email protected].

Fall 2020 Bridge Builders Academy workshops, listed by category:

Beyond the Classroom:

  • Supporting Student Participation in a Virtual Classroom (Sept. 29 at noon). In the new space of virtual learning, families and caregivers have the new responsibility of supporting students in the virtual classroom. This session will focus on tips and strategies to support your learners, straight from the mouths of educators in the virtual classroom.
  • Understanding “New Math” (Oct. 7 at 6 p.m.). A common challenge for most parents is understanding the transition to “new math.” Mathnasium will join us to help families and caregivers understand why the switch was made and how to assist your learner who may need support.
  • Building Resilience in Your Learner (Oct. 20 at noon). When you think of resilience what comes to mind? Join nonprofit ChildSavers for a workshop on building resilience in your learner to help them succeed in their learning space and beyond.

Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion:

  • Raising a G.U.R.L.L. (Greatness Using Real-Life Lessons) (Oct. 14 at 6 p.m.). “Greatness Using Real-Life Lessons” will focus on Mrs. Scott-Mayo’s journey raising her daughters. The discussion will cover how we can empower our girls, boost their self-esteem, and encourage a positive self-image.
  • Exceptional Education:
  • “Centering You” with the Center for Family Involvement (Oct. 21 at 6 p.m.). Have you heard of the Center for Family Involvement at VCU’s Partnership for People with Disabilities? This session will provide an overview of the organization’s resources and a bonus self-care session for parents to help them support their virtual learners.
  • Virtual IEP Kits (TBD). “IEP Kits” were sent last year to each HCPS school, to help keep families informed about the Individualized Education Program. Explore the digital version, and get access to the information you need about IEPs.

Information, Access, and Opportunities:

  • Digital Resources at Your Fingertips (Sept. 30 at 6 p.m.). Are you ready to help your child reach for the stars? Do you want to get a closer look at the digital resources that support your child’s pre-K through grade 5 virtual classroom? If you answered yes to any of these questions, join us for an up-close look at Henrico’s digital resources.
  • Save, Spend, Achieve (Oct. 6 at 6 p.m.). This session will discuss setting financial goals and strategies to achieve them.
  • Welcome to Henrico from the HCPS Welcome Center (Oct. 13 at noon). Starting in a new school division is a major shift for any family, but especially for families who may need language assistance. Join the HCPS Welcome Center for a session for English-learner families entering Henrico Schools.
  • Grandparents Raising Grandchildren (Oct. 27 at noon). Grandparents raising their grandchildren often face unique challenges as they navigate the school experience. Especially this fall, grandfamilies and other relative caregivers must learn new technology, practices, and systems. Join us as nonprofit Formed Families Forward provides tools and resources for grandparents raising their grandchildren.
  • Advanced Courses (Oct. 28 at 6 p.m.). Advanced Placement courses, specialty center programs, and honors courses are available across Henrico County for students interested in challenging themselves academically. This session will focus on information to help your learner access these courses in middle and high school.

Fall 2020 Bridge Builders Academy workshops, listed chronologically:

  • Save, Spend, Achieve (Oct. 6 at 6 p.m.)
  • Understanding “New Math” (Oct. 7 at 6 p.m.)
  • Welcome to Henrico from the HCPS Welcome Center (Oct. 13 at noon)
  • Raising a G.U.R.L.L. (Greatness Using Real-Life Lessons) (Oct. 14 at 6 p.m.)
  • Building Resilience in Your Learner (Oct. 20 at noon)
  • “Centering You” with the Center for Family Involvement (Oct. 21 at 6 p.m.)
  • Grandparents Raising Grandchildren (Oct. 27 at noon)
  • Advanced Courses (Oct. 28 at 6 p.m.)
  • Virtual IEP Kits (TBD)

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