All in the family

Laila Hendricks joined VCU’s campus this fall, continuing a Ram tradition

By Penelope M. Carrington

Jason Hendricks (left), Laila Hendricks and Charles Allen (Photo Jud Froelich)
Jason Hendricks (left), Laila Hendricks and Charles Allen (Photo Jud Froelich)

Going to a top arts school that would keep her close to her tight-knit family was the college life Laila Hendricks hoped for. That Virginia Commonwealth University would be the school was a dream fueled by her family’s long history with the institution.

Hendricks’ grandfather Charles Allen (M.S.’90/GPA) and aunt Veronica Hendricks (B.A.’95/H&S) are both VCU alumni. Her father also had a transformative experience there before leaving without completing his degree to join the Marine Corps.

“The fact that I’ve been here for basketball games and the fact that my family has glorified VCU, pretty much all my life, really made a big impact on how I saw the VCU from the beginning,” says Laila, who hails from Chester, Virginia, just down the road from VCU. “And the fact that I can call this my home — my second home — it’s just really special.”

But when it came time to apply, the art major wasn’t so sure she’d get to have the same bragging rights as the other Rams in her family. Friends and co-workers who applied to VCU seemed to get their acceptance letters in no time. Even those who applied to VCU as a backup got accepted, while Hendricks waited.

And waited.

Meanwhile, offers from other schools came through, but Hendricks held out for her first choice. VCU finally welcomed her into the School of the Arts more than a month later.

“Having my family come here, they built their stories on what they came in to do,” Laila says. “The fact that I can do that now, it makes me feel like I can create my own story, my own path.”

Even before setting foot on VCU’s campus, she made a name for herself as one of two students to receive a perfect attendance award at L.C. Bird High School. In 13 years of school, she never missed a day.

This new path is leading to a degree in graphic design, and it’s already intersecting with her father’s past in a way that feels like kismet: Daphne Rankin, Ph.D. (M.S.’88/H&S; Ph.D.’04/GPA), one of Jason Hendricks’ favorite professors (his favorite class with her was AIDS, Death, Myth and Reality), serves as director of the VCU Summer Scholars program Laila attended in July 2021.

“The fact that I had met her over the summer, it kind of clicked,” Laila says. “We had a personal connection at that point, and we were just talking about all the funny, crazy stories that my father had.”

In contrast, her dad’s path to VCU started at another university across town, Virginia Union.

“We would come over to VCU, hang out, meet people, and I started making friends,” says Jason, who relocated to Richmond. “The more I saw at VCU, the more I realized that was the college experience I wanted.”

While the atmosphere and diverse student body appealed to him, it was the more affordable tuition that made him transfer after his first year at Virginia Union.

“I didn’t have a plan. I just knew I needed to come to VCU and try to continue my college career,” says Jason, who enrolled in the dual program for a master’s in teacher education. “VCU, to me, was more of an awakening. It showed me things that I could be … and it gave me everything I could have imagined and then some.”

One moment he was hanging out with students from, say, Africa, and the next minute, it was members of the Latinx student union. In yet another moment, he was protesting police brutality in the wake of the 1991 Rodney King assault, when the unarmed Black man was beaten by Los Angeles police during an arrest for driving while intoxicated.

“I really started to be everything I thought I could. I said, ‘Hey, I want to be a part of a protest, part of a rally and a movement. And I did all those things,” he says.

He also made friendships that remain solid today.

“Laila said we kind of glorified VCU, but it wasn’t so much glorification as it was ‘This is what it did for me, and this is how it impacted me.’ Not just for the moment but for life,” Jason says.

Laila got a head start on her future by earning credits and making friends in the Summer Scholars program that brought her to campus five weeks early. “So I knew the ropes when my friends got here” in August, she says. “I’m still learning, but it’s fun to be the tour guide sometimes.”

After all, she’s been surrounded for years by family guides who have watched VCU transform. “It has really grown over the last few years, and that’s coming from my grandpa saying it started from pretty much nothing,” she says. “That’s an amazing thing to say, and because of all this money put into the school, we can come back and we can look at how far the school stretches from my [dorm] window. I can see every single building and that makes me smile all the time.”

If things work out, she could have company.

“I really, really, really want to go back, not to be there on campus with her per se, but there are [school] things left undone in my past that I want to complete,” Jason says of finishing his degree. “I’ve had a lot of options to go other places, but I really want to go back to VCU. I want her to see what perseverance can do.”

– Penelope M. Carrington is a contributing writer for the alumni magazine.