2014 NRCC Graduate Profiles
|Excellence is a commonality of many college graduates. But rarely are graduates’ journeys to such merit alike. New River Community College’s graduates are no exception. With more than 300 in the class of 2014, one can imagine the many paths taken to arrive at graduation day. Students Reuben Miller, Ameen Ahmed, Sherri Gallagher, Sungin Jo and Joshua Vaught are just five examples of the varying paths to excellence at NRCC.
During the recent President’s Awards ceremony at New River Community College, one name seemed to be found in almost every category: Reuben Miller.
Miller was honored as a member of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society’s All-Virginia Academic Team, recognized as an Advanced Learners Program graduate and was the Outstanding Student in Education.
Stacking up honors like that might make one think that higher education was on Miller’s mind from a very young age. However, he says it wasn’t until his early twenties that he began considering a college education.
Miller grew up in a traditional Amish community in the White Gate area of Giles County. There, he describes a life that included using a horse and buggy for transportation and eschewing modern conveniences like electricity. But his love of education also began there, while he was acting as an assistant teacher in an Amish Parochial school and participating in homeschooling with his family. “I’ve always enjoyed teaching people,” he says.
Though they still reside in Giles County, Miller and his family left the Amish community when he was a teenager. He describes his departure from the Amish culture as a “very radical change.” “I had to learn a whole new way of dressing, acting and living,” he says.
Along with the multitude of lifestyle changes Miller underwent when he left the Amish was the consideration of a college education. Before then, he says, “I never dreamed I would go to college.” Even after beginning his studies at NRCC, he says he still wasn’t sure how far he’d make it in his education. A bachelor’s degree seemed like a dream, but as he prepares to graduate from NRCC and transfer to Radford University this fall, that dream seems like much more of a reality.
As he reflects on his time at NRCC, he notes that what really stood out to him during his studies was that “the people here are all very willing to help you succeed, especially the instructors.” Asked if he had any advice for future students on how to succeed, he is quick and to the point: “be organized and be dedicated.”
Those attributes will serve him well as he heads to RU in the fall in pursuit of his goal to become a middle school teacher. The reason behind his choice of profession is one his NRCC instructors would no doubt appreciate. “I want to teach because of the opportunity to influence lives,” he says.
With a passion for math, computers and getting good grades, Ameen Ahmed is the kind of self-motivated student who’s well-suited for higher education. But maintaining those top-notch grades comes with an extra challenge in his case. Ahmed, of Blacksburg, is visually impaired.
Ahmed has several adaptive strategies he uses to help him with his classwork including using an audio recorder and a laptop computer with a screen-reading program called JAWS. He also uses audio versions of most of his textbooks. With these tools and other assistance from NRCC’s Center for Disability Services, he says that most classes are made accessible to him.
Even then, however, some classroom activities and homework assignments still present challenges, requiring him and his instructors and tutors to think outside the box. For example, his love of math can be a struggle when it comes to graphing equations. But he recounts some innovative solutions including one that his physics instructor, Dr. Caisy Ho, devised. Dr. Ho used a glue gun to create raised lines on graphs that Ahmed could feel. Another method of visualizing graphs came from a tutor. “I used a whiteboard a lot,” he says. “My tutor would guide my hand as I drew graphs.”
His experiences both in and out of the classroom as a visually impaired student have also influenced his future interests. He’s interested in adapting the screen-reader technology he uses for textbooks and notes for use in video games. He even wrote a speech on the topic for his public speaking class, including information about the difficulties experienced by visually impaired people in a world increasingly populated by smooth touch-screen devices.
Based on his experiences, Ahmed offers some advice for students with disabilities. He says not to be afraid of going to college, but to acknowledge that some things might take a little more time to finish. He also notes that time management is very important.
Now that he has crossed the stage at NRCC, Ahmed plans to attend classes at the Virginia Rehabilitation Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Richmond in the fall. The Center offers several classes and programs to help the visually impaired enrich their lives. He also plans to continue his education by attending Virginia Tech to continue his math studies.
To say that Sherri Gallagher has been a busy person would be a striking understatement. The student, business owner, cattle farmer and mother of two recently graduated from NRCC with not one, not two, but three associate degrees.
She departed NRCC this month with degrees in electrical engineering technology, electronics technology and instrumentation and control automation.
In addition to receiving three degrees, Gallagher was also recently honored at the President’s Awards ceremony for being named to Who’s Who in Among Students in American Junior Colleges, being a member of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society and for being selected as the outstanding student in electronics technology.
Gallagher, of Ripplemead, is a contractor with her own business that does construction, electrical work and commercial build-outs. She got her start in construction assisting her husband, but eventually decided she wanted to become a licensed contractor herself. “So I studied, took the test and got my license” she says. But she didn’t stop there. “I decided I wanted to learn from a master electrician,” she says. After that, she decided to go back to school to “learn even more!”
Gallagher says she decided to pursue the electrical engineering, electronics and instrumentation degrees because “they all relate to each other, but each degree has something special and unique to it that relates to what I do.” Her newly minted degrees top off an associate degree she holds in commercial art and advertising design.
And, as if tackling three degrees on top of her contracting business wasn’t enough to keep her busy, she and her family live on a 140-acre farm where they raise Angus beef cattle.
Despite her busy schedule, she says her children – a 13 year-old son and 16 year-old daughter – enjoyed competing with her to see who could get the best grades. “It was motivating for them when we got good grades,” she says. “And I could also sympathize when they struggled with a difficult subject.” Gallagher also says that after several visits to campus with her daughter, she’s expressed an interest in attending NRCC after her high school graduation.
That’s an idea Gallagher can get behind, praising her NRCC instructors for their help and dedication. “The instructors are incredible, they really work with everyone,” she says. “And things I anticipated not being the most ‘fun’ subjects turned out to be some of my favorites!”
Gallagher also offers some advice for future students, especially future female students following her path into fields traditionally dominated by men. “Don’t be intimidated,” she says. “The men in my classes have been very welcoming and helpful and you really build a bond with everyone.”
Though she graduated with three degrees, Gallagher hints that she might not be finished just yet. “I keep thinking of another class I want to come back and take!”
If there was an award for the longest distance traveled to study at NRCC, accounting graduate Sungin Jo just might win it.
While South Korea is his home country, the Blacksburg resident was working in a chicken processing plant in Australia when he decided he needed to make a change in his life. “I knew I couldn’t spend the rest of my life in the chicken plant,” he says. An internet search and responsive admissions staff helped him decide to cross the 10,000 miles from Australia to NRCC in Dublin – his first trip to the United States.
Jo’s interest in accounting stems from a dream he had as a youth to own his own business. Now, he’s jumped headlong into the field, having already passed the first portion of the four-part Certified Public Accountants exam. He notes that extra time studying with one of his accounting instructors, Ray Wurzburger, has been key to helping him get through the exam. Jo is scheduled to take the second exam section at the end of May and his goal is to be finished by December.
Reflecting on his time at NRCC, Jo says one of the most difficult parts of coming to the U.S. to study was the language barrier. He had studied English previously, but still found the language difficult to comprehend and write. “It’s very difficult, grammatically” he says.
He has high praise for NRCC’s academic assistance program, noting that tutors not only helped him with his accounting course work, but also with his English. He also credits his interactions with other students for improving his English speaking abilities and advises other international students to do the same. “Have an open mind and mingle with students from other countries – and speak English, it is the best way to learn,” he says.
Despite the complexities of accounting and the English language, Jo is lauded by his instructors as an exceptional student and was recognized as the 2014 Outstanding Student in accounting.
Now that his studies at NRCC are complete, Jo is looking for a job in the U.S. – a complex task for a non-citizen. He explains that while he’d like to live and work here, his student visa only allows him to remain in the country for one year after graduation. That is, unless a company hires him and decides to sponsor his work visa. “That costs money,” he says. “Which is why many companies don’t do that.”
While he maintains a realistic view of the job market and challenges for a non-citizen in finding a job, the U.S. is still his first choice for his future career. However, he has worked and studied in other countries including the Philippines and is open to settling there as well.
Unfortunately, Jo missed NRCC’s graduation ceremony, but for good reason – he was in Washington, D.C., for a job interview.
For many students, going to college is a natural next-step after high school. Parents and other family members share stories of their college days and encourage applications to their alma maters. For Joshua Vaught, the decision was his alone – he has just become the first member of his family to graduate from college.
His family’s reactions to his decision to attend college were a combination of “excited and worried.” Excited to see him further his education, but worried about how it would be paid for. Affordability, in addition to close proximity to his home in Pulaski, was one of the reasons Vaught chose NRCC. He says he considered starting at a four-year school, but that “at New River, you get the same education and you save so much money – it was a good fit for me.”
He also speaks highly of the faculty support he received during his studies at NRCC. “The teachers are amazing here,” he says. “The office hours instructors have are great – they’ll give you one-on-one attention if you don’t understand something, or they’ll even just chat and get to know you better.”
Vaught also got to know one of NRCC’s most well-known first generation students – college president, Dr. Jack Lewis. “He’s a remarkable guy,” says Vaught. Lewis invited Vaught along with student Reuben Miller to share his story at a local rotary club meeting. He describes the experience as “intimidating,” but also “pretty cool.”
Vaught completed his general studies degree at NRCC and will be off to Radford University in the fall where he plans to major in criminal justice. That degree will take him one step closer to his ultimate goal of becoming a juvenile probation officer.
Juvenile probation officer is a pretty specific career goal, but Vaught has his reasons. He describes his living situation growing up as “rough.” He moved around a lot and didn’t get along well with his mom. His “second chance” came when he moved in with his father and stepmother. “If I hadn’t moved in with them, it’s hard to tell where I’d be,” he says. “I feel like, as a juvenile probation officer, I could give young people a second chance and help them turn their lives around.”
While there may have been some rough spots in his younger days, this first generation college student has most certainly turned his life around. He was recognized at the recent President’s Awards ceremony for being named to Who’s Who Among Students in American Junior Colleges, being part of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society’s All-Virginia Academic Team and for being a member of NRCC’s Advanced Learners Program.
With associate degree in hand, he reflects happily on his time at NRCC, but he’s gearing up for the next step.
“In today’s society, education is the way to go,” he says.