VISTA corps member Michael Rogers’ work supporting mentors at the University of Richmond is fueled by his fascination with the city of Richmond.

Ask Rogers, ’11, about his favorite cities, and he is immediately enthusiastic.

A native of “sprawly” Texas, Rogers began to take note of Richmond’s space his freshman year at UR. “Exploring these topics furthered my interest in cultural norms, rhetoric, and history,” he said.

He blended these topics to create an interdisciplinary major called the American city, which focused on Richmond.

During Rogers’ sophomore year, Dr. John Moeser, senior fellow at the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, encouraged Rogers and a group of fellow students to study Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood for a class project. The group interviewed locals involved in urban renewal to complete a short documentary.

“We learned that when Interstate 95 was built on top of the historically black neighborhood of Jackson Ward in the 1950s, 8,000 people were displaced,” Rogers said.

Startled and angry, Rogers determined to face hard questions about Richmond’s history. “For the next two years, I was exposing this story,” Rogers said.

His work culminated in a thesis on the history and policy behind the construction of Interstate 95 in Richmond.

Experiences at UR like Dr. Amy Howard’s Civic Engagement House, a living-learning community; Dr. Thad Williamson’s Social Movements course; and a Burhans Civic Fellowship with the Partnership for Smarter Growth, a nonprofit dedicated to responsible, balanced growth in the Richmond region, provided a foundation for Roger’s current work as a VISTA.

The Virginia Mentoring Partnership (VMP) hired Rogers to fill one of its grant-funded VISTA positions and then placed him at the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement to recruit, train, and support UR mentors to work in the community. The nonprofit VMP works to provide a mentor for every Virginia school-age student who needs one.

“I am working to make mentoring better and more common at UR,” Rogers said.

Reflecting on service and mentoring deepened Rogers’ understanding of social justice and the city as a student. He helped jumpstart the SEEDS Project and mentored at Church Hill Activities and Tutoring (CHAT), a nonprofit that works with underserved children in a historic East End Richmond neighborhood.

Rogers interned with CHAT for a year after his graduation, working as a teacher and mentor. He still mentors at CHAT one night a week. 

“A lot of my work in college focused on history in America,” Rogers said. “I had to find out what happened. Every time I hung out with kids in the city, I was also thinking about their heritage and the stories of their parents and grandparents.

“If we can’t think fondly of the past, we’ve been robbed of something. Mentoring helps kids create positive memories in their neighborhoods.”

Likewise, UR students who mentor children and teens benefit by investing in their city and in relationships, Rogers said.

“Mentoring has value because you have to grow up a little every time you mentor someone younger. You revisit your childhood—its joys and challenges. In college, it’s common to be self-centered. As a mentor during college, I realized my mistakes when someone else was depending on me.”

During the 2012-2013 school year, Rogers is a resource for new and current UR mentors.

As Rogers knows from experience, mentoring is experiential learning at its best—mentors learn not only about the city and their student, but also about themselves.