Category: News & Stories

Funding a Quest: Tuition hike to further strategic plan

Originally published July 01, 2013 in The Commonwealth Times.

Liz Butterfield
Online News Editor

Rising tuition costs and a change in the tuition pricing model for new students may not be enough to cover all of VCU’s financial needs this year, but it’s a start, according to Beverly Warren, provost and vice president for academic affairs at VCU.

Beginning this fall, current students will pay roughly 4 percent more for tuition, about an extra $414 a year, while out-of-state students will pay about $950 more.

Additionally, VCU will no longer use the flat-rate tuition model that current students enjoy. Instead, incoming freshmen and transfer students will pay per-credit for the courses they enroll in.

The new plan will also include a 50 percent reduction in price per-credit if students choose to take 15 credits or more.

These changes reflect a long-standing battle with budget difficulties as the university struggles to balance reduced income from the state with increasing expenditures. VCU remains $52 million behind the 2008 levels in state funding, according to university president Michael Rao.

“In order to meet the goals outlined in our strategic plan, Quest for Distinction, we need to ensure that our resources, including our financial resources, are appropriate for a national research university and aligned with our well-reasoned strategic needs,” Rao said in an update to students.

University spokesperson Pamela Lepley wrote in an email that “there are significant costs this year that VCU has no choice but to fund.” The university faces new costs like salary increases for faculty and staff, increasing health costs and growing operational and maintenance costs for new buildings, Lepley said.

Revenue from the tuition changes will be used to retain faculty, provide more financial aid for students and improve academic advising.

Potentially the most important change for some students is increased financial aid.

University-determined financial need, which would likely rise for some students with the new cost of tuition, is being given attention on a case-by-case basis for students, Warren said.

“With this change in tuition structure and tuition pricing we have more funding for financial need … the office will be able to address need with a higher amount than we’ve had in the past,” Warren said.

The actual amount of funding that will go to financial aid has not yet been determined by administrators.

Student advising is also a key focus to the administration’s goals this year, Warren said.
Since 2012, 14 new advisors have been added to the departments with the highest enrolled students. This year, reallocated resources along with the tuition hike will allow for more advising. The goal is to ensure that sufficient course sections are being offered for students who need them, Warren said.

Because 56 percent of students take six years to graduate, part of the administration’s mission is to add advisors and faculty so more students graduate sooner.

In addition to increasing staff in specific programs and schools, two new software programs have been implemented to help aid students in selecting the right courses and understanding where they stand in their progress at VCU.

DegreeWorks, which was introduced in the spring of 2013, allows students to virtually track their progress at the university with their course requirements. Another new program, Course Scheduler, will be introduced in the fall to help students develop their own scheduling scenarios prior to registration. Freshman advising will see no new changes.

Full-time faculty will also see changes in their paycheck this fall. For the first time in five years, university employees will get a raise. The state mandated a 3 percent increase in salaries for full-time faculty and staff at Virginia colleges and universities during the last General Assembly session.

However, the state will only cover a portion of the cost and the raises will cost the university more than $8 million to implement, Lepley said.

An additional $4 million will be used to hire and retain key faculty at VCU, Lepley said.
The university is also seeking funding from other sources, including private fundraising and entrepreneurial activities, Lepley said.

But even the scheduled changes will not be able to transform VCU in one year, Warren said.

“We will make significant progress toward where we need to be as a research institution that serves students (with these changes),” Warren said. “It is virtually impossible to accomplish the kind of change that we want to see in student support and student success and recruitment of faculty in one year … we think we’ll see a difference year by year.”


Safety on the James: high water levels heading into fall cause concern

Originally published August 12, 2013 on

The James River is known for its beauty and elegance, its adventurous rapids, and its lively shores for sunbathing and swimming with friends. But it can also be a deadly nightmare.

Each year, as many as three people die in the James within the Richmond city limits. The Richmond Fire Department’s Water Rescue Team answers between 70 – 80 calls for rescues each year, and in 2012, the team rescued 73 people from the river waters. From June through August the rescue teams are on high alert and have answered 26 calls this summer already.

“What gets people in trouble the most is the fact that the flowing water is so powerful and most inexperienced people who haven’t been out in the river before…they underestimate the power of the water,” said Captain William Vytlacil of Station 24 Water Rescue team.

The James River Park System encompasses nearly 600 acres in the city of Richmond. Last year, between 600,000 and 1.5 million people visited the park. With the river hitting far above average heights for this summer, safety risks become a huge concern during the river’s prime visitation season.

The force of the water increasing exponentially with the rise in the water, which can create deadly situations for visitors and the water rescue teams.

“Every time we go out on the water we are in danger,” Vytlacil said, adding that nearly every time the team is on a rescue a firefighter slips or is hurt.

Richmond is located on top of the southern portion of the Piedmont-Coastal Plain fall line, a 900-mile ridge formed from continental shifts millions of years ago. From Bosher’s Dam to 14th street, uneven rocks are pushed up into the river, making some of our most fun and also potentially dangerous places to swim.

“One of the biggest issues we’ve been seeing this year especially with the increased flow of water has really been a lot of folks just not respecting the power the river actually holds,” said Nathan Burrell, James River Park manager.

Burrell has been telling people for weeks to be careful around the river during times when the water is high. But the as temperatures rise, the urge to take a dip becomes much more tempting, “and that’s the time when people start getting into trouble,” Burrell said.

Each day, signs are posted near every entry point onto the river that tell park visitors how high the water is that day. At 5 feet, a lifejacket is required to swim in the water; at 9 feet, only users with permits are allowed on the water; 12-foot water is considered flood stage.

With the summer now headed into tropical storm and hurricane season, there may be a lot more water to come for the James.

Although he can’t predict how long the high levels will last, Burrell recommends to take extra precautions when visiting the river: bring a PFD or lifejacket, always put children in life jackets, and respect the power of the river.

“It’s kind of selfish of some people to go out, to play in the river at levels that we have signs…when they decide to ignore that information that’s out there for the public’s good they put other people at risk,” Burrell said.

Call (804) 646-8228 for up to date water-level information before heading out to the James.

RVA’s kindness stories to power street art installation

Originally published August 9, 2013 on

In a new kind of art that combines storytelling, human connection, and light, the Light of Human Kindness mural and campaign in Richmond will use stories of kindness to light an interactive mural going up at the RVA Street Art Festival this month.

The project will be completed in a series of stages beginning August 17th. Stories about kindness that are shared via the project’s website will be painted onto a wall at the old GRTC bus depot at 101 S. Davis Ave during the community-wide Stories of HumanKIND event. Later, artist Hamilton Glass will paint an 80 foot wide mural over the stories, using inspiration from both the light and dark in the stories. Technicians will then install 1,000 LED lights into the side of the wall. As people share their stories on the project’s website or touch conductive paint on the mural, the lights will turn on for an illuminative display that will be powered from September 13th – December 31st.

The project collects stories about dark moments in people’s lives that were changed by someone else’s kind intervention. The anonymous stories can come from all over the world–the first day saw over 60 submitted.

Salgado, who is known for her work in guerrilla goodness was inspired to share her passion for kindness through something more visual and interactive for the city. “One of the things I learned was the difference between being nice and being kind,” she said. “Nice is polite and obligatory, kind is empathy and compassion…kindness makes us part of a human family.”

The project molds up-and-coming technology with art and social change, Salgado said, which she believes Richmond is now striving to be known for.

“I think that we’re deciding right now who we want to be and I think it’s a really pivotal time for our city,” she said. “We are a city of kindness…and I think this is the moment to really dig in…Richmond has always embraced creativity…it feels like we are doing this together,” said organizer Patience Salgado.

The project is organized in part by creative marketing firm The Martin Agency, who helped mold Salgado’s’ original idea and provided the technology to connect the website with the lights.

— ∮∮∮ —

“This isn’t just about a good looking mural,” said artist Hamilton Glass.

The Richmond based muralist was approached by Salgado in January about her idea for the wall. Most of Glass’s murals are community based, but he says this one will break ground for interactive murals across the world.

“I feel like my murals do the same thing but not to the depth that this could,” Glass said. “It’s supposed to be beautiful but it also means so much more because the public has a stake in lighting the lights…It’s something that goes beyond the realm of visual satisfaction.”

The 2013 festival begins September 11th at the retired GRTC bus depot. The festival will feature dozens of street artists, muralists, and sculptors both locally and from around the nation for the four day event. Proceeds from the festival will benefit theArt 180. Contribute to the fest through their newly launched Indiegogo campaign.


  • Now – 8/17 • Stories collected
  • 8/17 • Stories of HumanKIND community art event to transfer stories to the wall
  • 8/19 • Hamilton Glass starts painting the mural
  • 9/2 • Lights are installed
  • 9/9 • Kindness lights/website launch
  • 9/11 • RVA Street Art Festival
  • 9/15 – 12/31 • The Light of Human Kindness exhibit

Adult sport leagues: the new after work social scene

Originally published August 8, 2013 on

Adult sport leagues may be Richmond’s solution to counteracting post-college, young professional, pre-family boredom. As a way to exercise, be social, or even just do something different after work, thousands of people are joining adult sport leagues in the city each year.

Beginning in 2009 with only six teams and a handful of dedicated organizers, Brad Gramlin’s Central Virginia Football Association expects about 3,000 players will have played in the league by the end of the year–most of them looking for a kind of friendliness they’re not getting from their coworkers.

“When people get out of school all of a sudden they go from being around other like-minded people all day every day to in the workplace where they might be the only person in their age group,” Gramlin said. “I think that adult sports leagues fill that camaraderie void for people who have recently gotten out of school.”

There are over a dozen different sport leagues in the city, ranging from casual kickball to competitive volleyball groups to local flag football teams, all with their own status and post-game rituals (i.e. bar hopping).

The 32-year old Richmond Volleyball Club prides itself on being the original adult social sport club in the city, with about 2,600 local players this year alone according to executive director Darcy Collins.

As an active softball player in high school, Collins didn’t feel like she was done with sports after graduation.

“There’s no playing in college, I wasn’t good enough for that. But I just enjoyed the social aspect of it, the camaraderie,” Collins said. “So just playing in sports social leagues allows you the opportunity to do that.”

The RVC is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit that boasts 12 indoor courts and room for outdoor courts. Each 10-week sessions allow players to get their game on no matter the weather or season and also enjoy the 13 beers on tap they have on site after the game. The games combine social activity with healthy competition, Collins says.

“It is an opportunity to be active and get some exercise while it’s also an opportunity to meet other people,” she said. “So instead of the bar scene of standing around…this is comfortable interaction.”

Organizers of the for-profit organization the World Adult Kickball Association are also tapping into the city’s desire to have a life outside of work.

Kickball, which local customer service representative Chris Franzen describes as “basically a child’s game that we make for adults,” allows participants to play in the old-school sport and get exclusive access to after-game social events and deals, similar to its competitor River City Sports & Social Club.

“When I moved to Richmond I didn’t really know anyone and I was looking for something to do after work to make friends but also something different from the standard all-male softball league,” Franzen said. “Kickball kind of filled that void.”

This makes sense, since the average player for most of these sports is between 25 and 40 years old. Franzen met most of his friends and even his wife through the social kickball group.

But as more Richmonders are searching for these out-of-office ways to meet new people in the real world, there’s also a lot of competition for these groups around the city for members, space, and of course, money.

Although it doesn’t seem to be harming the numbers of the RVA leagues yet, Collins says, “When you have a good idea you’ll always have a competitor.”

Work your own way in one of RVA’s creative spaces

Originally published July 29, 2013 on

A handful of places have cropped up around Richmond in the last few years that provide creative and collaborative work environments. From coworking to joint offices, these creative spaces are taking over the modern business world and are competing for the attention of startups and small businesses across the city.

804RVA, a “country club for nerds,” according to owner Larkin Garbee, is a coworking space in the Fan that relies on individual members, as well as budding companies to lease space. 804RVA currently boasts 75 memberships, ranging from individual creative tech types to nonprofit companies, and even lawyers looking to use shared space.

“You choose to work here cause there’s a culture and community that people want to have around them,” Garbee said. Since opening in 2011, 804RVA has hosted about 170 meetups for creatives and startups looking to network and expand their business.

Although it seems like a revolutionary idea for some more traditional brick-and-mortar style businesses, working in coworking spaces isn’t exactly a new idea. Coworking is a concept that is built around people who may work from home, or want to get leave the coffee shop and actually work around like-minded people.

But coworking, strictly interpreted, may not allow for the kind of collaborative work environment that other businesses are seeking. At a handful of other places across Richmond, the focus is less about the individual and more about the collaborative whole.

At the Corrugated Box Building in Richmond’s Old Manchester District, about a dozen companies work under the same roof.

“Our building was designed as a place where big and smaller sized companies could be all under one roof and just sort of create an environment for casual interaction with some collaboration,” said Scott Ukrop, one of the partners that refurbished the building in December 2004.

The 40,000-square-foot warehouse was gutted and transformed with a wide open floor plan and a fabric-drapery system that separates tenants. There are also a few enclosed rooms, two conference rooms, a cafe, and multiple spaces for people to interact and share ideas.

“It’s really for like-minded businesses that are all independent, we all sort of feed off each other with creative energy,” Ukrop said.

The space may be beautiful, historic, and full of creative energy, but it may also be pricy for startups looking to just get out of their apartment building (costs for a small business paying month-to-month can exceed $1,000). That’s where Gangplank comes in.

Gangplank RVA is part of a national organization that got its start in Chandler, Arizona. With three locations in Arizona, one in Canada and one here in Richmond,Gangplank is a registered nonprofit that uses “pay it forward” ideology to support their dream.

“We’re really a collaborative workspace, where there are no dues, nobody pays you a dollar to be there, and how you actually pay back is to pay it forward,” said executive director of Gangplank RVA Mike Vizdos.

With no memberships and free infrastructure, anyone can use the space for their business but is asked to actively participate when someone else asks for help. About 40 – 50 people a week drift through Gangplank RVA’s doors and participate in weekly meetups. But part of what makes Gangplank RVA different is the extra focus on mentoring that is lacking in most coworking environments, says Mark Deutsch, a Gangplank RVA co-founder.

“My primary focus was: can we do a better job not providing information to businesses but really holding their hand in the process of starting and driving it?” Deutsch said.

Since Gangplank is a nonprofit, it relies on sponsors and municipalities to support their concept and donate space. Local professional painting company 89paint currently hosts the organization in their space above 2930 W. Broad Street. But Gangplank RVA is looking for a more permanent home.

“There are people that are looking for free infrastructures, those people who want to get out of the coffee shop, there are people who want to network and business building and then there are community builders,” Vizdosaid. “Putting all three of these kinds of personas into our ecosystem really makes a powerful place for all three groups. When all three groups can work together thats when really good things happen, and that’s what’s appealing to people.”

Whether you prefer to work at home, at a coffee shop, in a collaborative workspace, or in a cubicle, there are an abundance of spaces around the city for creative working. And although it might not be traditional, these creative, collaborative workspaces may be the alternative trend that defines the world of business for the years to come.

RVA Startup Weekend 2013

Originally published July 24, 2013 on

Do you think you have the grit for 54 hours of nonstop business building? That’s what over 80 entrepreneurs, designers, coders, and marketers will be doing beginning Friday night, July 26th during RVA Startup Weekend. And even though there are lots of great prizes (including 804RVA coworking memberships, legal advice, logo design, and branding assistance to help get your startup off the ground) success isn’t just about winning.

“It’s not like you’re going to definitely build a business in 54 hours, but you’re going to get really good practice at seeing if this is worth doing,” said Larkin Garbee, co-chair of this year’s event and owner of 804RVA. “You’re in a room full of other people who are crazy enough to spend 54 hours working on ideas for a weekend.”

Startup Weekend, a global nonprofit that sponsors hundreds of weekend events like the one in Richmond, helps empower local entrepreneurs to develop the startup community within their city. During the event, teams organize and develop a business design and work towards a five minute pitch presentation that could turn into a successful business down the road.

Over a thousand startup weekends events have been conducted across the country in 478 cities. Over a third of Startup Weekend startups are still operating after three months, according to their website, and over 80 percent of participants say they plan to continue working with their team after the weekend.

RVA Startup Weekend debuted in Richmond last September with the help of Garbee and a few friends.

“For anyone that has an early stage idea it’s one of the best things you can do because an idea will stay an idea forever until you actually execute it,” Garbee said.

After attending a Startup Weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia in early 2012, both Garbee and her partner, Greg Hofbauer, were revved up and ready to bring the concept back to their own Richmond community.

“More than anything this event is about building your network in the startup community; while the entire event is around the concept of coming up with an idea … the bigger goal is really helping these participants know they have a network [in the community],” said Hofbauer, this year’s event chair and CEO of Nimblepitch.

With only a few months of planning and a small handful of volunteers, the weekend was able to bring over 80 participants and set the bar high. Several projects went on to create actual companies including Speakeasy, last year’s winner. The company’s smartphone app (to be publicly debuted soon) helps restaurants and customers communicate with one another. The team’s concept placed in the Tech Challenge Hanover last fall, won the Greater Richmond Chamber’s second annual i.e* Start-up Competition this past April, and recently completed the Lighthouse Labs accelerator program.

“For me, is all about the experience,” said Speakeasy co-founder Jacques Fuentes.

But the technology-focused event isn’t just for coders and developers, Hofbauer said. “It’s really about proving you can work as hard as the weekend asks you to work. It’s about digging in and especially for people who’ve been on the fence about ‘I’ve got this idea I don’t know if I’m a good fit for startup world,’” he said.

This year’s event will be held at the offices of CRT Tanaka and expects to draw over 80 participants. Registration is open till the day of the event and participant tickets cost $99, with $20 tickets for the Sunday night pitch presentation at the University of Richmond.

— ∮∮∮ —


1. Pitch an idea. Any idea

“I think you should pitch something, not just because you think you have a good idea … it’s kind of a way to get used to pitching yourself. Because if you do build something you’re going to have to do that a lot,” Fuentes said.

2. Be open to evolution

“You should realize that the idea can easily change into something else and that’s generally what’s going to happen. You might start out with a poor idea and it changes a little bit as you guys talk through the weekend … So don’t be as close-minded to the initial idea, be willing to accept that it will change,” Fuentes said.

3. Meet new people

“I think finding a good team or good people to work with is incredibly important while finding a good idea that you’re interested in…Talk to people before they start doing pitches to find out who you gel with,” Fuentes said.

4. Get out of your comfort zone

“It’s just a really exciting event. I would encourage folks to step out of their comfort zone and give it a try. I’m not going to sugar coat it, you work your butt off throughout the weekend but it’s unlike anything you’ve ever done before. You are so exhausted by the end of the weekend but on such a high from what you were able to accomplish that for the next few days you’re going to be giving some serious thought on how you can do the next great thing,” Hofbauer said.

5 reasons to catch a Squirrels game

Originally published July 22, 2013 on

Summer is a time for many all-American things; apple pie, fireworks and of course, baseball. Here are five reasons you should go to a Richmond Flying Squirrels game.


Like, really cheap. General admission tickets are only $7 a piece, which is much cheaper than a typical concert or movie (fly balls are also free). You can pay with either cash or plastic for concession fare and although it may not feature the healthiest of options, who doesn’t love some Squirrelly fries (delicious curly fries topped with cheese that you have to eat with a fork).


I’m not exactly sure how Parker the Rally Pig and Dancing Disco Drag Queens fit into baseball, but they sure do amp up the crowd. Twenty-eight game day interns willingly subject themselves to games like Wack-an-Intern (a life-size whackamole game where interns wear colored jumpsuits and let children hit them with soft mallets) or racing around the diamond in nut costumes for the entertainment of fans between innings. And yes, it’s still OK to take pictures with the Squirrel’s mascot Nutsy, even if you’re over the age of 11.


The Flying Squirrels are a Double-A minor league team affiliate of the San Francisco Giants; if you don’t know much about baseball, Double-A and Triple-A leagues are stepping stones for the majors, and devoted fans often track the progress of players as they advance from hometown leagues to the higher ranks of professional baseball. But if this is not your preferred hobby, you can still talk with your friends, look out for fly balls, and catch the occasional t-shirt.


If you didn’t get enough of fireworks during your 4th of July celebrations, the Diamond hosts a 24 Firework Extravaganza after the games on Thursday and Saturday nights so you can continue to soak in patriotic flair for the rest of the season.


Practically every home game features some kind of promotion or giveaway, ranging from $1 hot dog nights, to $2 domestic drafts every Wednesday night, to free bobbleheads, snow globes, and even a Six Pack Cooler Giveaway by Budweiser. There’s even a Kroger Squirrel Tails Kids Club that lets members eat free on Sundays as well as free admission to some games. Check out the Squirrel’s schedule for special nights and promos.