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The people we meet along the way

Amy Taloma (M.Ed. ’10) combines counseling with higher ed

Amy Taloma

Amy Taloma

Often, it’s the people you meet along the way who help determine the path you take in life.

Amy Taloma (M.Ed. ‘10) has experienced this many times in her life, including once while pursuing her undergraduate degree in political science at Lynchburg College.

“I fell in love with higher education in general when I was there,” she said. “Lynchburg College had a wonderful dean of students, and I shadowed him. I asked him what I needed to do to get into higher ed, and he said to get a master’s degree and work my way up from there.”

“It’s interesting,” Taloma said, “when someone influential tells you that you can do something in life, you often believe them.”

After graduating, Taloma and her fiancé got married and settled back in their hometown of Richmond, Va. “I remember, I was working at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart across from Monroe Park at the time,” she said. “I signed up for the master’s program in education at a university outside of Richmond and was all set to start.”

It was then that Taloma’s path was unexpectedly influenced by two people. First, a church member at Sacred Heart told her about a master’s program in counseling with an emphasis on higher education. It was within walking distance, at the VCU School of Education (VCU SOE).

Amy Taloma

Taloma with a group of students in the Summer Academic Enrichment Program.

Counseling had been a consistent theme in Taloma’s career since graduation. At Sacred Heart, she had counseled the poor through door ministry and helped church members plan funerals. Prior to that, she had offered support to parents of premature babies while she was community director for the March of Dimes.

Taloma made an appointment with the school’s Mary A. Hermann, J.D., Ph.D., who is now an associate professor in Counseling and Special Education. As they discussed Taloma’s career goals and what options the school could to offer, Taloma could feel her path being influenced by Dr. Hermann – toward VCU.

“I had clearly identified with counseling in my career, and I had been interested in higher ed ever since Lynchburg College,” said Taloma. “I just never put the two together until talking with Dr. Hermann. She assured me that I could achieve my career goals through the school’s higher ed track.

“It turned out to be a perfect fit.”

After being accepted into the program, Taloma discovered that one of the required electives was only offered during the day. It was while she was working. “I had to continue working full time, so I proposed to Dr. Hermann that I take three electives for one credit each, instead of the one elective for three,” Taloma said.

The request was approved, and not only was she able to continue working full time, but the electives she ended up taking gave her experience in a leadership role. “I appreciated the school’s flexibility, and the electives ended up helping to further my career,” she said.

Taloma earned her master’s degree from VCU SOE in December 2010. Today, she’s assistant director for Programs and Partnerships at VCU’s Division for Health Sciences Diversity (DHSD), which helps students from a wide variety of backgrounds become health professionals through summer enrichment programs and career exploration.

Amy Taloma

Taloma with some of her recent VCU Acceleration students.

One of the division’s programs, VCU Acceleration, is a comprehensive year-long program offered to incoming VCU freshmen. It includes a living-learning community with high levels of student interaction and increased interaction with faculty outside of the classroom. Taloma said that her SOE practicum and internship experiences helped to prepare her for working with students in the program.

“My practicum with the Office of Judicial Affairs and Academic Integrity included an in-service project where I worked with Residential Life & Housing on conflict resolution,” she said. “My internship with VCU University Student Commons and Activities included working with student workers on things like time management, budgeting money and setting goals.”

“Both of these things feed into my work now with students in the Acceleration program,” she said.

Taloma now manages three full-time staff plus seasonal staff. She’s proud of the service they provide to students, and equally proud of the results.

“Many of our students are first-generation college students from rural or urban areas,” she said. “They aspire to very competitive, demanding programs like the Schools of Dentistry, Medicine, Nursing and Pharmacy, and they have to hit the ground running.”

Taloma knows that if you don’t feel like you belong – or if society has told you that you don’t belong – it may take a while for you to get a handle on how things work at a large urban university. Without the right guidance, it’s more difficult to catch up.

Despite challenges like these, DHSD programs – and their students – are succeeding. Retention rates for first- and second-year DHSD students are higher than the overall retention rate at VCU. “Our students’ GPA is also higher, which for pre-health students, is super-impressive,” said Taloma.

Are you interested in impacting students’ lives beyond the classroom? Visit soe.vcu.edu to learn how.