Born mentor: Alumnus Stephen Andrews, Ph.D., finds his post-retirement calling helping VCU students

Stephen Andrews (left) and two chemistry students.
Stephen Andrews, Ph.D. (left), at a Younger Chemists Committee event in February at VCU with Matthew Tipton (middle), a junior chemistry student at Longwood University, and Andrews’ mentee, Chanaka Amarasekarage, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the VCU Department of Chemistry.

By Don Harrison

Stephen Andrews, Ph.D. (Ph.D.’87/H&S), spends up to three hours a week mentoring Virginia Commonwealth University students, preparing them for the real world or advising them on the next stage of their education. His volunteer job “is a very small investment of time,” says Andrews, a member of the VCU Alumni board of governors. “But it’s hopefully a nice payoff down the road for the people you help.”

Andrews, seemingly a born mentor, grew up in the Richmond, Virginia, area, graduating from Henrico County’s Douglas Freeman High School. After earning his undergraduate degree at Virginia Military Institute in 1980, he went into the Air Force for three years to fulfill his ROTC commitment. He came back home in 1983 to attend VCU and earn his doctorate in chemistry. Thirty-five years later, he returned home again from Connecticut, with wife Catherine, after retiring from a distinguished career in the chemical and plastics industry.

When their older daughter, Virginia (B.S.’14/H&S), was at VCU getting a dual bachelor’s in psychology and biology, she wanted to live off campus, “and we wanted her to be in a decent setting, so we bought a house here in the Fan.” After she graduated in 2014, they rented the home to other students, until their retirements neared about two years ago. “Our thought was that we either need to sell the place or move into it, so we chose the latter. I love Richmond and always have.”

Not one to sit around, the new retiree got involved with the VCU Alumni organization, eventually joining the volunteer board of governors. “Being on the board, you get to see a lot of the knobs and wheels that run the university.” He became a big fan of VCU Link, which he refers to as a Facebook for VCU people. “It has two purposes: alumni-to-alumni connections and alumni-to-students. It’s the single best connection point that I’m aware of for students to search out businesspeople and retired people in the level of interest to them.”

Through VCU Link, which has become an even more important connection point since the COVID-19 crisis developed, Andrews has mentored a number of students, advising them on everything from writing a resume to negotiating a salary. “You kind of put yourself out there and say, ‘What can I do for you? What are your concerns, what are your interests? How can I help?’”

Andrews also began volunteering with VCU Pre-X, a student mentorship program sponsored by VCU’s da Vinci Center for Innovation. “It’s kind of like ‘Shark Tank’ on TV for students,” he says of the program, which is on hold due to current social distancing measures. “It’s a 10-week program, and every Wednesday evening they have a mentor/student night; there might be up to 60 students in teams that have their own personal ideas for startup businesses or apps or some other moneymaking, hopeful venture of the future, and we rotate around the tables and listen to what they’re doing and offer them advice. The end result for them is to write a business plan and then the top ideas are selected to give a stand-up pitch, like on ‘Shark Tank.’”

The alumni and businesspeople who mentor for Pre-X are a little more nurturing than the judges on TV, he’s quick to add. “We’re just trying to help them see some holes in their logic, gently point out things they haven’t considered and try to use encouraging phrases to steer them in a better direction.”

Andrews is also involved with the Virginia chapter of the American Chemical Society, specifically a mentoring committee initiated by the Younger Chemists Committee, a coalition of college chemistry majors from schools across Virginia, including VCU. He recently coaxed wife Catherine, an analytical chemist, into mentoring there as well.

“He’s passionate about helping and sharing his knowledge with the younger generation,” says committee chair Julian A. Bobb, Ph.D. (B.S.’13/H&S; Ph.D.’18/H&S), a double alumnus of VCU’s Department of Chemistry in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “Steve was very generous in passing along to me, and other mentees, his knowledge of chemistry and how to successfully navigate a career path.”

Andrews has learned a lot as well: “The students today are, for the most part, very savvy, very driven. These are 18- to 20-year-old people coming up with ideas to get investor funding for startups. When I was in college, you were hoping to find a job bagging groceries or cutting lawns to earn money, and these kids are coming up with startup businesses,” he says with a laugh. “That just blows my mind.”