Erin Burke Brown, 37

Director of VCU’s ASPIRE program

Like many colleges, Virginia Commonwealth University has a problem when some students typically get past freshman year. They become listless, don’t see the relevance of their education and may drop out.

That’s where Erin Burke (she prefers Burke) Brown comes in. She’s director of the special Academic Scholars Program in Real Environment that connects students with their community and gives their studies new meaning.

“We have partners, nonprofits and other community groups. Our students are in 20 to 25 activities such as mentoring or food banks. It makes it more relevant,” says Brown, 37, who has a doctorate and graduate degree from VCU and an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia.

She grew up in Richmond’s South Side. What made the concept of relevance hit home to her was when she was working as a teacher in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She saw many parallels such as the need for security, accessible housing and education.

When she returned home, she wanted to make sure that education was a two-way street. When students reach out to the community, “children might see people who look like them planning to be a doctor, or a lawyer or a nurse,” she says.

When not teaching, Brown is active in services. She’s the chairwoman of a Community Foundation art awards project. Winners get cash that can be used to take school children on educational trips. Her husband is a Richmond police detective and they have two children aged 1 and 8. Her family recently moved into a new home with a marvelous kitchen. “I do my own cooking and love having people over. I am a mom’s mom,” she says.

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