DePillars scholar finds her confidence and future path through VCUarts piano program

Mona Wu is seated at a piano behind an orchestra

By Jenny Pedraza, APR

“I’m inspired by collaborative classical music, such as chamber music, orchestral music and choral-orchestral music,” says Zhiqian Mona Wu, a senior music performance major in the VCUarts Department of Music who graduates this May. “The layers of sound and the chemistry are just incredible. It takes you to a whole other world. Music creates a safe space for me, and I always believed that I could find my own value in the world of music.”

Originally from Jiangsu Province in China, Wu traveled to the U.S. for the first time in 2015 to attend VCU’s Global Summer Institute of Music (GSIM). Founded by Yin Zheng, associate professor of piano and director of keyboard studies in the Department of Music, the institute is an intensive summer program that brings talented young musicians from different cultures to Richmond for immersive instrumental experiences in a supportive environment. Wu loved the experience so much that when it came time to apply to college, VCU was at the top of her list.

As a VCUarts student, Wu studied piano under Zheng. They have worked together in a variety of settings, including private piano lessons, chamber music, piano literature, pedagogy and weekly performance classes.

In addition to her piano studies, Wu was also able to intern with GSIM, helping with the logistics of the institute and facilitating guest artists and young musicians from all over the world. She was also elected president of the VCU collegiate chapter of the Music Teachers National Association, spearheading many workshops and projects with the organization.

“When I first came here, everything felt new and different,” Wu says. “It took me some time to feel comfortable enough to talk, but everyone was always so kind. I feel most grateful to all the professors and staff in the Music Department — it is like my second home. My classmates and friends in the department became a really big part of my life at VCU.”

Zhiqian Mona Wu

When the pandemic upended campus life and classes became virtual, Wu found that her music family was there to support her. Terry Austin, chair of the Department of Music, ensured Wu had a keyboard to use for practice when buildings were closed, and he drove Wu to the airport when she ultimately returned home to China to complete her studies remotely.

Wu was also the recipient of the Dr. Murry N. DePillars Piano Scholarship, which provided $1,500 in financial assistance during each of Wu’s full-time semesters. Named in honor of DePillars, who served as dean of VCUarts from 1976 to 1995, the scholarship was not just about financial assistance for Wu. To her, it was an acknowledgment and show of confidence “that I could do well.”

Looking ahead, Wu plans to enroll in graduate school to continue her studies in music. She’d like to keep playing piano while also exploring paths to help others who are interested in music. She credits her VCUarts experience with perhaps one of the most important aspects of her education: a broader view of the world and her opportunities in it.