University College was awarded a VCU REAL Challenge Grant in May 2020 sponsored by the Office of the Provost to offer a fellowship to an undergraduate student with a demonstrated commitment to community engagement who would promote experiential learning in the unit. An interdisciplinary group of VCU faculty and staff selected Sydney Boyce as the recipient of this award and University College’s first Experiential Learning Student Ambassador. Boyce is in her third year at VCU and working on an English major and a Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies minor. She hails from Virginia Beach, Virginia and graduated from Grassfield High School in 2018.
University College is already a leader at VCU in experiential learning: nearly all of its course offerings—home of the Department of Focused Inquiry, the Interdisciplinary Studies program, and the VCU Common Book program—are REAL designated (more than 95% of over 300 UNIV courses in Spring 2021). The unit intends to increase the investment of its faculty and students in experiential learning and expand access to co-curricular experiential learning opportunities, and Boyce’s efforts will be instrumental in achieving that aim. In Spring 2021, Boyce with her University College faculty mentor Professor Matthew James Vechinski will be creating a toolkit of teaching and mentoring resources for Focused Inquiry faculty, offering programming on experiential learning to faculty and students in University College, and conducting a survey of attitudes toward experiential learning among Interdisciplinary Studies students.
Boyce believes that experiential learning can “push a person into greater understanding of their community, themselves, and the people around them.” She credits service-learning experiences in Focused Inquiry courses early in her undergraduate career for opening her eyes to how the knowledge and skills she gained had real world applications. As a mentor for Carver Promise, a program benefiting the students of Carver Elementary in Richmond just north of the Monroe Park campus, she started her journey with experiential learning, which she continued as a service-learning teaching assistant for Focused Inquiry. “Advocating for the betterment of this community, my community, has become my passion,” she notes. “The ability to share the importance in this act with my students, though, is the most rewarding experience I’ve taken from my years at VCU.” Boyce adds, “I constantly strive to advance the reach of experiential learning, as it has been a pivotal part of my college experience, and I have seen the potential it has to be the same for both undergraduates and the programs we work with. This is what students think of ten years from now when asked about their college years. This is the knowledge students reflect on when joining the workforce, when integrating into new communities. This is the experience that promotes personal growth, understanding of privilege, comprehension of bias and repression. This is the type of learning that sticks.”
Boyce was nominated for the fellowship by Focused Inquiry Professor Jamie Fueglein, in whose classes she worked with Carver Promise and took on the role of service-learning teaching assistant, and Katie Elliott, Associate Director of Service-Learning at VCU and director of the teaching assistant program. Fueglein observed that Boyce was “a very active presence” in the Focused Inquiry classroom. “She took initiative all the time, opening the class by talking with students about their service experiences, their homework loads, what their pressures and stresses were, how their exams and other classes were going. She was a great liaison between our class and Carver Promise,” he said. As a student in the seminar for service-learning teaching assistants, Elliott remarked that Boyce “always made excellent contributions and was exceptionally good at visibly and actively valuing the ideas and contributions of others. She made folks want to engage more and share more, and modelled the kind of engaged, reflective, excited learning we wish we saw from all students.” She “was unafraid to share her passion for justice and learning,” Elliott said.
University College is proud and grateful to have Boyce’s assistance as a peer mentor and facilitator this academic year. She hopes her work as a student ambassador addresses the “deficit of information” undergraduates have regarding experiential learning so that “there would be a surge in students reaping the benefits of such learning.” Faculty mentor Matthew James Vechinski recognizes that Boyce has “already succeeded in helping to forge connections among people and programs in University College so that we can coordinate our efforts and share resources, which in turn will make experiential learning opportunities richer and more available to all our students.”