Editor’s note: Predicting the future is always risky business, but inexorable demographic trends are all but certain to change the makeup of students at American colleges in the years to come. Perhaps it was a coincidence that this year’s cohort of VCCS top scholars already seem to resemble our students of the future.
Students participating in the VCCS Fellows program often are called some of the best and brightest, and for good reason. Out of more than 270,000 people who attend Virginia’s Community Colleges each year, only a handful of second-year students are selected for the Fellows program.
Forty-three students qualified for Fellows programs this academic year. And as they described themselves during a leadership training conference in Richmond in mid-September, it was clear that, compared to “traditional college students,” VCCS Fellows face more adult responsibilities.
In addition to their college studies, almost a third of our Fellows care for children or grand-children. Four out of five Fellows work full-time or part-time jobs. More than half of VCCS Fellows are older than the 18-24 year old traditional college-age segment, compared to 39 percent now in that category among all VCCS students.
Almost 40 percent of Fellows are the first member of their immediate family to attend college, almost double the “first generation” rate in the VCCS as a whole.
“Our students face tough choices,” said Glenn DuBois, chancellor of Virginia’s Community Colleges. “We wholeheartedly agree that higher education is a pathway to better careers and better lives, but we also understand it’s not easy to go back to school when you have family obligations and bills to pay.”
The VCCS Fellows program is offered through the Virginia Foundation for Community College Education (VFCCE) and funded through donations from a growing list of individuals and corporate partners: Valley Proteins, Inc., Potomac Health Foundation, Inova Health System, the Davenport Institute for Early Childhood Development, and Dominion Energy Charitable Foundation.
“When I was chairman of the VFCCE, I initially invested in this program for one year,” said Mike Smith, Vice Chairman, Valley Proteins, Inc. “My brother and I were so impressed with the Fellows’ stories of success and their community service outcomes that we supported eight more classes. This philanthropic investment is one of the best ones we have ever made, and I am confident the students who have graduated will continue to give back to their communities.”
Meet a few of this year’s VCCS Fellows:
“One year ago, I never could have imagined where I am now, a nursing student in one of the most rigorous programs at Reynolds Community College,” said Janeen McNeish. “The road to get to this point in my life has been turbulent but worth every tear and every obstacle.
“As a nurse, I want to work with the people who share my story and who strive to achieve wellness. I want to give back to the community that has given me so much. I will continue to smash expectations until I wear a nametag that states Doctor Janeen L. McNeish.”
“This Fellowship is huge, because I had to quit my jobs to go back to school,” said Nathan Hellem, pursuing an associate degree in vascular sonography at Northern Virginia Community College. “And it’s huge for my family, the fellowship support takes weight off of us, it takes stress off of us.
“I will not stop growing. I will not stop learning, and I will not stop pushing myself to become more. My ultimate career goal is to become a cardiac electrophysiologist and perform the same heart surgery that saved my life when I was a teenager.”
“It’s never too late to start over or to accomplish your dreams,” said Stacy Becenti, who grew up on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico and recently served 14 years in the U.S. Air Force.
“Northern Virginia Community College has been a great fit, with small class sizes and a diverse student body. My associate degree in business administration is just the first step. I plan to pursue law or economics with an eye on starting a technology business and eventually returning to the Navajo Nation, as an economic advisor, or president.”
“As a four-time cancer survivor, I never thought I’d be able to go back to school,” said Sophia Kelly, who is pursuing her degree in early childhood education at Patrick Henry Community College.
“It’s going to make me a better person, it’s going to make me understand how important education really is for everyone, not just the kids, but for the parents as well.
“I love it. The kids bring so much joy to me. I don’t have to worry about my sickness. I take my chemo and I go back to work. Some days, I don’t feel like going, but seeing those faces just brightens my day.”
“I know college will open doors for me,” said Brittany Rea, who is pursuing an associate degree in science with an engineering specialty at Wytheville Community College. “With two kids at home, I’m especially grateful that my community college has worked with me on scheduling.”
“My goal is a career in robotics, so I’ll go on to earn my bachelor’s degree in engineering. Finishing my degree at Wytheville is part of my long-term strategy, and the Fellowship is vital because we are a one-income family. I cannot afford to pay college expenses out-of-pocket, and this will help us avoid student debt.”
Learn more about the VFCCE here.
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