The Friends of VCU Libraries book sale funds student projects to tackle community issues
By Brelyn Powell
After the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, that occurred during a racially charged protest in August 2017, Shelby Forosan and a group of her peers from Virginia Commonwealth University’s Emerging Leaders Program saw an opportunity to promote healing when they returned to campus for the fall semester.
“Charlottesville is so close to Richmond, so it felt very close to home,” Forosan says. “It seemed like we needed some kind of event to talk about hate and show that it won’t be accepted on campus at VCU.”
An initiative of the VCU Division of Student Affairs, the Emerging Leaders Program provides scholarship assistance to a select group of students and supports their development as rising leaders on campus through curricular and cocurricular experiential learning opportunities. As part of the program, students work in groups to identify problems on campus or in the surrounding community and then develop projects to solve them.
Forosan and her project group spent the fall 2017 semester planning and organizing an event in spring 2018 to encourage thoughtful conversation about how VCU students could combat hate by embracing diversity and treating others with respect. They set up a booth at the entrance of VCU’s University Student Commons where students could fill out thought-provoking surveys and sign a pledge to respond to hate constructively and with civility.
Before joining ELP in her first year at VCU, Forosan was uncomfortable initiating controversial conversations. Now she mentors other students as an ELP intern and is comfortable not only having these conversations but also encouraging them among others.
“I’m usually shy and reserved,” she says, “but ELP has helped me develop my communication skills and made me feel more confident stepping outside of my comfort zone and speaking up about issues that are important to me.”
Other ELP projects have included a peer mentorship program to help students with disabilities acclimate to the university, a program to help transfer students transition to VCU and an initiative to enhance faculty-student interaction outside the classroom.
In previous years, ELP students were also responsible for raising money to fund their community projects. Fundraising took up many hours, giving the students less time to implement their ideas. But in 2016, ELP entered a labor- and profit-sharing partnership with the Friends of VCU Libraries advisory board that involved promoting and staffing the group’s annual book sale. In return, 30% of the sale’s profits are donated to ELP to cover all expenses for student projects.
“Each group requests funds to support their initiatives,” says Jimmie Gahagan, Ph.D., who oversees ELP as director of VCU’s LEAD living-learning program. “Typically, each group receives between $200 and $400, but the amount can vary depending on the scope of their work.”
Because of this partnership, Forosan and her teammates knew they could dream big for their event without the burden of wondering whether they could afford it. They used their portion of the profits to provide food and refreshments for students who visited their booth.
“Knowing that we had funding from the book sale, we were able to put our focus on reaching out and connecting with students,” she says. “It helped us keep our attention on our project goals.”
LEADERSHIP IN ACTION
Thousands of books, audiobooks, CDs and DVDs, all donated by members of the community, are sold at discounted prices each year at the Friends of VCU Libraries book sale. By partnering with ELP, VCU Libraries now shares what has long been a steady source of funding for their programming with student leaders making a difference on campus.
Preparation for the sale begins several months out and requires many hours of staff and volunteer time. Collecting, sorting and displaying the hundreds of boxes of donated books is a physically taxing process, but having a dependable pool of student volunteers has brought a renewed energy to the effort, says Friends of VCU Libraries member Scott Tilley.
“The book sale is so important to the VCU Libraries community, but it is a major undertaking to pull off,” he says. “The ELPs are an outstanding group of young people. They rise to every challenge, working right alongside us. They’re polite, respectful and true team players – eager to learn from us and each other.”
Volunteering at the book sale gives ELP students an opportunity to practice the leadership skills they are learning in the program.
“We see it as a leadership laboratory,” Gahagan says. “They’re learning about leadership in the classroom, but during the book sale, they get to actually apply those skills in their interactions with patrons, board members and other volunteers.”
Working with the Friends of VCU Libraries also exposes ELP students to examples of leadership in action.
“The Friends of VCU Libraries have such rich, diverse professional backgrounds,” Gahagan says. “Not only do the students get to know them through the partnership, but they get to witness how they voluntarily give their time and energy to benefit the VCU community.”
For ELP intern Joy Tran, a third-year math major and aspiring teacher, this has been particularly inspiring.
“Leading by example is important to me,” says Tran, who plans to graduate in 2020. “It’s nice to see university leaders set that standard in their work with students, and I hope to set a similar example for my students one day.”
The collaboration is mutually beneficial, says VCU Dean of Libraries and University Librarian John Ulmschneider.
“The Friends are thrilled with the opportunity to work with VCU’s energetic and engaged students, and students embrace the opportunity to learn from Friends members,” he says. “It’s an enriching experience for everyone.”
EXCEEDING AND EXPANDING
Friends of VCU Libraries joined forces with ELP in 2016, with the 2018 sale raising $21,360. The partnership has exceeded all expectations, Gahagan says, and their 30% share provides more than enough funding to cover ELP’s student projects. The surplus proceeds are used to purchase promotional and recruitment materials for the program.
“We are actively exploring new ways to use the leftover funds to support experiential learning opportunities for students,” he says. “Funding can be hard to come by for students considering studying abroad or accepting an unpaid internship, so we are developing a program that will use the surplus money to provide small grants for ELP students who are interested in those opportunities.”
This effort, Gahagan notes, aligns with the university’s Relevant, Experiential and Applied Learning initiative, which seeks to engage students in meaningful, hands-on work directly applicable to their personal and professional goals.
“It’s just such a unique partnership,” he says, “and we want to continue using the proceeds in ways that enhance the VCU student experience.”
To learn more about VCU Libraries, contact Kelly Gotschalk (B.F.A.’90/A; M.A.’97/A), director of development and major gifts, at (804) 827-1163 or firstname.lastname@example.org.