Humans of RVA & VCU Interns Bring a Voice to COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter
July 28, 2020

When we welcomed in a new decade with the year 2020, there was no telling on January 1 just how novel the year would become. Before mid-year had hit, the COVID-19 pandemic and a surge in the Black Lives Matter movement had swept the world. In an effort to bring a voice to those events as they played out in Richmond, VA, Spring 2020 Humans of RVA & VCU interns Chloe Sy and Akhila Kunuthuru took the initiative to continue interviewing members of the Richmond and VCU communities well past the end of the semester and into the summer.

At the start of their internship, Akhila, a chemistry major with a concentration in biochemistry, and Chloe, a nursing major with a minor in psychology, were both second-semester freshmen, having decided to become interns as a result of their experiences taking the Humans of RVA & VCU course during the previous semester.

[Left-Akhila Kunuthuru, Right-Chloe Sy]

“I can genuinely say that it is still my favorite course at VCU so far,” explains Chloe. “I also deeply enjoyed being a student of Professor [Ann Marie Gardinier] Halstead’s, so the idea of working alongside her to help run HoRVA was exciting.”

As their internship took a turn, with COVID-19 forcing VCU to move classes online halfway through the semester, Chloe’s and Akhila’s experiences as interns changed drastically as well. “I had no idea that the internship would eventually turn into a primarily virtual interviewing role revolving around the topics of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter,” shares Chloe. However, she continues, “I felt so blessed and fortunate to have been an intern during these significant times in history, being able to hear stories from diverse people who spoke truly on their feelings, reactions, and how their lives were personally affected.”

Despite turning to virtual interviews, Akhila and Chloe were able to forge ahead in their efforts to share Richmond’s many stories. “These stories,” describes Akhila, “spoke of resilience and triumph, even in the face of adversity, especially for small business owners during [the COVID-19] lockdown.”

[Amy, nurse, interview on COVID-19]

Additionally, she states, “when the protests in Richmond were at their peak for the Black Lives Matter movement, we were able to interview protesters virtually and amplify their voices through our social media community… [learning] about their perspectives for what we could do right now as a community to help with the movement and to also become better educated of the issues surrounding systemic racism.” Therefore, expands Chloe on Akhila’s point, the extra work hardly felt burdensome, but rather thrilling and enjoyable as they worked hard to bring people’s stories to light.

To their delight, community members were often willing to open up to Chloe and Akhila, sharing deeply personal subject matter. Akhila explains that for interviewees, “it was the opportunity to express their emotions and share their thoughts without the fear of judgement that allowed these individuals to build trust in Chloe and me and share their deeply rooted experiences and perspectives.” As such, she goes on, “the biggest takeaway, for me personally, from this internship as a whole, is the idea that everyone has a hidden story. That story doesn’t define them, but it is something unique about them that shows a sliver of who they are and the willingness to share this story with others is something I was surprised by.”

[Marshe, owner of Rumors Boutique in Richmond, interviewed on Black Lives Matter movement]

Just as profoundly, those interviews on COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter weren’t merely an opportunity for the interviewees to open up about vulnerable aspects of their lives, but for Chloe and Akhila to grow and tap into their own minds and hearts in new ways. Chloe explains further, writing “Through my time interning for HoRVA, I have both grown as a student and as a person. The uncertainty that arose from the pandemic allowed me to enhance my adaptability skills. [Furthermore,] interviewing people about sensitive topics such as COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter strengthened my view on the importance of listening to people and staying educated especially during these times… These individuals provided the most honest stories about the harsh realities of what is happening behind the scenes of filtered news channels and articles. [Finally,] this internship was a humbling experience that reminded me how important it is to be grateful for what I have and to not take any moment for granted.”

Akhila shares that their experiences as HoRVA interns also have the ability to make a difference in the community as a whole, not just in the participants’ own lives. “Learning about COVID-19 and its effects on the community through articles and the news can only do so much, but these stories are what makes those facts and data have a voice and represent something more than just numbers on paper… In a sense, it seems that Chloe and I were humanizing what has been happening… These stories have pointed out the deficiencies in our city, as well as the great things in Richmond, but we must take the first step of educating ourselves on the issues in our communities to be able to help others.”

Wrapping up their thoughts on their time with HoRVA, Chloe and Akhila have a few notes left to share with others. For prospective interns, Chloe wholeheartedly recommends applying for the internship because in addition to it being a manageable time commitment, she loved how fun and rewarding it was and appreciated the opportunity to work with Prof. Halstead.

Moreover, for future HoRVA students, Akhila has the following wisdom to share: “Take the time to enjoy the course. As college students, it sometimes becomes less about what we are learning and more about the grade we receive, but with HoRVA, take the time to appreciate that the city of Richmond is your textbook and you don’t have any boundaries with learning about Richmond and its people… The individual is taking his/her time to speak with you, so learn about Richmond through their perspective and take advantage of the opportunity to hear many wonderful stories!”

And to the Honors and VCU communities? Akhila notes, “We never know the stories of the people in our community if we don’t actively engage in it, and it is important to just take a moment and appreciate the diversity and culture at VCU and at Richmond. People have amazing stories to tell, and sometimes it is our turn to listen, and one day, we can hopefully share our own stories to those who will listen to us.”

Thank you to Akhila, Chloe, and Prof. Halstead on all of their hard work with Humans of RVA & VCU!