Taking action may not always be easy, but it’s always rewarding, as the winners of this year’s Presidential Awards for Community Multicultural Enrichment demonstrated.
From studying the impact of the AIDS epidemic and raising money for children in Ghana to raising multicultural awareness of medical students and increasing enrollment of minority nurses, this year's PACME winners illustrate myriad ways of taking action.
“Action is a word that applies so well to this university and to the recipients of this year’s PACME awards,” said Virginia Commonwealth University President Eugene P. Trani, praising the exemplary actions of each recipient. “They are making very real, very important contributions to our academic and health care communities through their commitment to the mission of higher education and to VCU’s vision of diversity.”
Trani and Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Stephen Gottfredson presented the annual PACME awards during a ceremony on April 8 in the University Student Commons.
The PACMEs recognize university and health system members who have contributed significantly to multicultural relations and diversity. Each year a PACME — and $500 — is awarded to an individual or organization in each of four groups: faculty, administrators, staff and students. In addition, one recipient earns the Riese-Melton Award, a capstone award that includes an additional $250.
There were two winners of the faculty award this year: This year saw two winners of the faculty award: Helen Ruth Aspaas, Ph.D., and Randi Buerlein.
Aspaas, associate professor in the Bachelor of Urban Studies and Geography Program in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, has studied the impact of the AIDS epidemic as well as the effect of environmental degradation on women. She received a Fulbright Research Grant to study in rural Kenya during the 2005-06 academic year. Most recently, she was one of a select group of people chosen for inclusion in the VCU 40 Acts of Caring for 2008. Aspaas also received the Riese-Melton Award because of her efforts to better the university community and the example she has set as a service-minded faculty member, Trani said.
Aspaas thanked her colleagues, friends and students.
“The PACME award makes a statement about our commitment to diversity. To me, it’s a symbol of the true heart of VCU,” she said.
Buerlein, assistant director of field instruction in the School of Social Work, was instrumental in VCU’s FOR AFRICA benefit that raised nearly $50,000 for the children of Ghana. This project received VCU’s first “Currents of Change Award” from the 40 Acts of Caring nominees. Buerlein has led groups of VCU students, alumni and supporters to Ghana for years. Since 2002, she and her students have supported the work of Sovereign Global Mission, a nongovernmental organization that serves homeless street children and rural children who can’t afford to go to school.
“It is really an honor to win this award because it represents the ideas that many of us strive to build at VCU,” Buerlein said. “Working with people who have different values … forces us to evaluate our own values. It takes a bit of courage. The experience can be transforming because it is personal and it is real.”
School of Medicine Associate Dean of Admissions Michelle Whitehurst-Cook, M.D., earned the administrator award. Throughout her tenure she has been committed to enhancing the diversity of physician practitioners and the multicultural awareness of her students.
Whitehurst-Cook is the principal investigator of the School of Medicine’s highly successful Inner City/Rural Preceptorship program, in which select medical students are exposed to patient populations in either inner-city or rural environments.
“We look at the student body at the VCU School of Medicine and it is diverse,” Whitehurst-Cook said. “And we love it and they love it [because] when they graduate and go out and take care of patients who don’t look like them, they’re very comfortable.
“I encourage each of you to reach out to the community and do whatever you can to help, because there’s a lot of help that needs to be done.”
School of Nursing Hispanic Coordinator Milagritos “Millie” Flinn received the staff award, which recognizes contributions that go above and beyond routine expectations. Flinn’s role has been to increase enrollment and retention of Spanish-speaking nurses. She more than achieved that goal by increasing target minority enrollment over three years by 240 percent. Recognizing a need to communicate more effectively to minority audiences, Flinn underwent media training at the School of Mass Communications and launched a public relations campaign in both English and Spanish.
“After working at VCU for six years, I am so thankful that I decided to join the university,” she said. “I’ve had the opportunity to open doors for minority students … and to work with people whom I really respect.”
China-native Chenfang Hao, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership, won this year’s student award. Hao has twice been elected president of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, where she organized several events to promote Chinese culture and improve cross-cultural communication. In addition to participating in campus-wide events, such as the VCU Intercultural Festival, she volunteers in several community organization and activities, including the League of Women Voters, teaching Chinese at the Central Virginia Chinese School and lecturing on Chinese Culture at the Sabot School at Stony Point.
“As an international student, it is harder to adjust to life here,” Hao said. “Even though I’m far away from my parents and my sister, I have never felt alone here, because of the love I’ve felt from the people here. This award encourages me to work harder for the VCU community.”
Gottfredson eloquently described the importance of the PACME awards by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“When Dr. King urged us to ‘rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity,’ he challenged us all to take a stand. These awards represent more than mere tolerance of our differences but a call to the entire community to be proactive and to be vigilant,” Gottfredson said.
“It takes courage and strength to make this kind of commitment — and that commitment is what you will see in those whom we honor with the 2009 Presidential Awards for Community Multicultural Enrichment.”
The PACMEs were created in 1994 to recognize and encourage those who promote civility, build community, establish effective cross-cultural initiatives, advocate for equity and nurture openness and inclusion within the university community.