How we “Make it real”

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VCU School of Dentistry students providing dental service to the community

A few days ago, I had lunch with a group of remarkable entrepreneurs. These creative minds had started companies that engineer life-saving medical devices; grow and distribute healthier foods; create beautiful and original fashion; promote safe, effective and sustainable ride sharing; and more.

These entrepreneurs were brilliant and passionate, and I left this lunch moved by their bright ideas and commitments to changing the world.

And I was particularly inspired because all of them are current VCU students.

It’s not surprising. In a recent survey of our current and prospective students, 80 percent told us the most important thing about higher education is becoming empowered to make a real difference in the world — to solve problems, to tackle issues, to help people who need you — not just to earn a grade and complete a course.

So that’s exactly what we are going to do at VCU. We are asking all of our students to make changing the world a fundamental part of their educational experience.

During last week’s State of the University address, I announced an initiative that will help our students apply their education in a direct and meaningful way, while also benefiting the communities around us. Based on the principles of “Make it real,” all students will be asked to complete a real-world experience as part of a curriculum that is indistinguishable from social issues.

As a premier research university, our focus is tackling issues others cannot or will not through innovation and advancing the human experience everywhere. This mission must include our students, who are our largest population and whose talents and passion are unmistakable.

But how will this “real world” experience work?

Well, as part of their VCU curriculum, students will take what they learn in their classrooms, laboratories, studios and clinics, and apply it to life. What they learn here will become the ways in which they will change the world, even before they graduate. This experience will help our students contribute to their field and their world. It will give them consent to soar, to test themselves, to find themselves beyond themselves.

It’s about making “Make it real” into something real.

This concept is not new at VCU: Many departments and schools already require some sort of hands-on experience as a requirement for graduation. This concept is our starting point, and these great programs will be the foundation we build on as we expand this opportunity, beginning this fall, to every student who chooses to come to VCU. This “make it real” experience will become part of our curriculum, not separate and not an elective, and not a capstone experience that punctuates an academic career. Rather, it will define the academic experience of every VCU student as they join our mission to advance the human experience through knowledge, innovation, compassion and empowerment.

It could be, for example, that a student completes an internship or externship, a practicum, a research project, a creative endeavor or a service learning engagement. As with the students I met last week, it could become an entrepreneurial venture. In whatever form it takes, it will be a real experience for students who want to make a difference, not just make a grade. Which is to say, for all VCU students.

We will announce more details in the coming months.