Virginia Western Community College students who received the first-ever Fralin Futures STEM-H Scholarship were invited to tour the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC on Nov. 22, 2019. Executive Director Dr. Michael J. Friedlander met with the students and described the Research Institute’s target areas and the varied jobs that will support the Roanoke facility as it expands in 2020.
Research Institute doctoral students later met with the Fralin scholarship recipients and offered advice on transferring to four-year schools and pursuing doctoral degrees in research-oriented fields.
The tour was one of several cohort activities scheduled in 2019-20 for the Fralin scholarship recipients. The scholarship is administered by the Virginia Western Community College Educational Foundation. Applications for the 2020 scholarship cycle will be available in March 2020 at virginiawestern.edu/scholarship.
As a 10th-grade English teacher at Cave Spring High School, Colleen Morrison enjoys every chance to encourage and inspire her students. However, she’s noticed that some students shy away from certain career paths because they think those jobs are out of reach. Girls, especially, tend to discount careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
Morrison first decided to pursue a database programming degree at Virginia Western Community College to set a good example for her students. She’s since rekindled her own love for computer-based fields, and opened up potential career paths for herself. Balancing a teacher’s workload with her studies has been challenging, but Morrison has excelled. Her hard work has been recognized with two scholarships. The Business, Technology & Trades Annual Scholarship, provided through Virginia Western, honors the legacy of late dean Deborah A. Yancey; it gives qualifying recipients $500 per semester. The Neall Family Charitable Foundation Scholarship, provided through The Virginia Foundation for Community College Education, gives qualified students $2,160.
VW: How have the scholarships you’ve received helped you while you’re working toward this degree?
Morrison: My husband and I had some money set aside that we didn’t use for our wedding and I figured that it might as well go to good use for education. I ended up not having to pay any of it. We still have that money, which is fairly nice for things like houses and children eventually. And not only is it nice to have that extra padding, but I think it’s really neat to say that I’m going to be in this program, probably, when I become a mom.
VW: How did you become interested in the database programming degree?
Morrison: I always really, really liked working with computers when I was younger. It was just never met by much enthusiasm by anyone other than my parents because I was a girl in the South. I did almost every required science fair project we had to do with computers, and I was always kind of met with, “That’s great for a girl,” and “You’re doing an awesome job, for a girl.”
VW: Any plans for your degree when you graduate?
Morrison: I kind of like the idea of starting some sort of tech ed program or something that can encourage other girls to go do this. I think having influence on the ground floor would be really promising for women in STEM in the future.
VW: Do you have any advice for other adult learners who might want to obtain a new degree while managing a full-time job?
Morrison: If it’s something you’re interested in, there’s no harm at all in trying it out. If it’s a monetary thing, you can always audit classes and see if it’s something you might be interested in before committing to it. This ended up being one of the coolest things that I’ve gotten to do in my 27 years of life, so I think that everybody should have the confidence to try to step off the edge.
For more information on scholarships offered by the Virginia Western Community College Educational Foundation, go to virginiawestern.edu/scholarship. Applications for the fall 2020 scholarship cycle will be available in March 2020.
Returning students in the STEM program at Virginia Western Community College didn’t recognize their learning space when classes began in Fall 2019. The new contemporary classrooms filled with TV monitors, modular furniture and the most modern equipment were a far cry from the classrooms in 50-year-old Anderson Hall, with its traditional wooden desks, chalkboards and projectors.
The new 72,000-square-foot space houses many of Virginia Western’s programs for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), and is now the single largest building on the Colonial Avenue campus. The building and its state-of-the-art equipment represent what STEM Dean Amy White has envisioned to provide students the most ideal learning environment and prepare them for long-lasting careers.
“To me, the building is about preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist,” White said. “The space allows them to focus on critical thinking, problem-solving skills and communications skills. (But) it’s not about the equipment. It’s not about the buttons on the machine. It’s about why the buttons are on the machine, and how the students can solve problems using the latest and greatest equipment.”
Building construction by Branch & Associates began in 2016, but design of the space began years earlier, and input from faculty and students is woven throughout the four-story building.
“Who knows better what students need than the faculty? The space was designed with an understanding of what works best for students and how they learn and engage,” White said.
Alif Hill, a second-year mechatronics major, was excited to see the building open and was deeply invested in the space, as he offered suggestions on the design and selection of some equipment in the new Fab Lab, including new 3-D printers. “The new building feels personal. I feel like a kid on Christmas, with all new toys,” Hill said. “I’m so excited to use the new equipment in the space.”
Tucked in the corners of each floor is space dedicated for student study, both independent and collaborative, as well as an office for walk-in tutoring where students can get peer-to-peer tutoring.
Classrooms in the $37 million facility were designed to be open and flexible, allowing students and faculty to easily move from lecture-style learning to group-work. White boards cover the walls and 80-inch TV monitors mounted in corners replace traditional chalkboards.
“It may sound simple and small, but I’m excited with how the seats are arranged in the new building,” said Assistant Professor of Mechatronics David Berry, noting the more open space with movable tables and chairs. “I hope it will allow me to reach my students in a better way. The new space offers us a chance to all work together, where everyone can touch things and collaborate.”
This concept of collaboration offered by the new space extends beyond the faculty and students to the community. Virginia Western leaders envision other students at other colleges, community organizations and companies across the region using both the space and new equipment. The new biotechnology suite may draw use from students and faculty from the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC to utilize new microscopes that they may not have or when use of their own equipment is overtaxed. Startup companies across the region who may not have access to state-of-the-art equipment could also partner with VWCC to access the equipment.
“I really see it as a way to network and engage with community partners and local industries,” said Stacie Deaver, Program Head of Biotechnology Career Studies Certificate. “This could be an avenue to open opportunities for the science economy in the area.”
Entering the new Fab Lab on the first floor, you can immediately see the incorporation of real-world environment. The black-painted ceiling and cement floor offer an industrial design to the space. A garage door allows for additions of large equipment like a robot or over-sized machine for students to work on. It also extends the Lab to the outdoors with a patio offering students outdoor space and gives visibility to the activity to those passing by on Colonial Avenue.
Tapping into industries and understanding the current and future needs for employment and skills has been a long-term goal of the STEM program, and the new space reflects this commitment.
Wages and employment opportunities are known to be higher in STEM fields. According to the Pew Research Center, the average full-time STEM worker earns $54,575, or 26% more than a non-STEM worker.
“Through our community partnerships, we are able to offer access to an employable workforce both to existing industries and those looking to come to the area,” said White. “We see great opportunity to increase the visibility of the employability of our students through current and future partnerships.”
Leaders across the community agree that the new building and equipment will better prepare VWCC students and offer them greater employment opportunities.
“Harnessing innovation is essential to a forward-thinking institution — and that’s what Virginia Western makes possible,” said Neil D. Wilkin Jr., CEO of Optical Cable Corp. and Chair of the Virginia Western Community College Educational Foundation. “With the opening of its new STEM facility, the College is poised to meet our region’s business and community needs with invention, flexibility and an eye to what comes next.”
New equipment in the STEM Building includes:
Phase Contrast Fluorescence Microscope: Detects the presence of materials, such as protein, and identifies the location of materials in relation to other structures in a cell or tissue.
Multiphoton Confocal Microscope: Provides high-resolution fluorescent imaging of cellular processes or other materials and generates 3D images of structures using laser scanning to improve resolution.
Scanning Electron Microscope: Provides visibility at 250 to 500 times the magnification of most light microscopes, with focused electron beams to show detailed features of samples and composition and topography information. This microscope allows visualization at the nanometer level.
4 new spectrometers: Used in analytical chemistry to determine information about an object or substance, these sophisticated instruments employ a variety of methods to identify and characterize materials and molecules.
Collaborative Robot: Much like industrial robots that are common in manufacturing, the largest difference between the two is that collaborative robots are designed to safely work with human operators rather than in lieu of operators. The robot can easily be taught new processes and tasks as operators or operations change, without safety concerns.
Before 2017, Kris Collins never thought about a future in automation and robotics. But after the electric company he had worked with for a dozen years closed its doors unexpectedly, he decided to go back to school. Collins settled on Virginia Western Community College’s mechatronics program — a major he chose, at first, out of practicality rather than passion.
“When I was younger, I started a program doing civil engineering and architecture. Mechatronics was the major that would take most of those credits,” Collins said. “Then I started doing it and I realized I had a big interest.”
Soon, 35-year-old Collins found an internship with Systems Technology of Virginia, a small robotics and automated machinery company located in Eagle Rock. By fall of 2019, he had only two more semesters to complete, and was well on his way to a promising new career. When his wife became pregnant with their second child, however, he realized that the upcoming birth might force him to forestall graduation.
Fortunately, Collins found an advertisement for the Fralin Futures STEM-H Scholarship program while hunting for financial aid online. The scholarship program has not only allowed Collins to attend his final classes, but has provided him with funds he and his wife can use to support their growing family.
“If it wasn’t for the Fralin scholarship, I wouldn’t be able to finish,” Collins said. “It’s allowed me to not have to work overtime and try to do school at the same time, just to try and make everything work.”
The Fralin Futures scholarship program, which began its inaugural year in Fall 2019, was created with students like Collins in mind. At Virginia Western and at other community colleges, students frequently juggle family and career demands on top of their course load. An unexpected life event — a new baby, a sudden death, a car malfunction — can derail a scholar’s plans, making it difficult to graduate without delay, or in some cases, at all. By funding a recipient’s final two semesters and providing an equivalent stipend, the Fralin Futures Scholarship lowers a student’s risk of dropping out.
Unforeseen life events can especially pose a significant threat to academic success for adult learners, many of whom are already balancing full schedules and slim budgets, said Marilyn Herbert-Ashton, Virginia Western’s Vice President of Institutional Advancement. Most adult learners have full- or part-time jobs in addition to their educational responsibilities; some are single parents or care for aging relatives. Unlike younger peers, they may not be able to defray educational and living expenses with parental support. In some cases, they might even be the first in their family to pursue a postsecondary degree.
“A lot of the time, it’s the life circumstances that keep them from finishing their programs of study,” Herbert-Ashton said. “It’s not so much academics, it’s just everything that goes on in life because they’re balancing and managing so many other priorities. They could be out of the door over a flat tire, or if they become ill, it will cause them to leave the college.”
Ebony Lynch-Thomas, 44, said she decided to go back to school after she was inspired by her eldest daughter’s graduation from New York University. She had achieved the top salary at the small massage company where she works, and wanted to pursue a career where she could earn more, receive benefits and have more opportunity for advancement. After enrolling in Virginia Western, Lynch-Thomas said she decided to study nursing in hopes of eventually working in one of the Southwest Virginia’s emergency departments. Although returning to school was an adjustment at first, the decision provided Lynch-Thomas with an extra confidence boost and a better sense of control over her life.
“I was nervous at first, going back, ’cause I knew there would be younger kids. But the younger people were actually very helpful to me,” Lynch-Thomas said. “Age really didn’t matter, and I wasn’t the only one my age going back to school.”
The Fralin Futures scholarship has given Lynch-Thomas the ability to cut back her work hours without worrying about how she will be able to cover her living costs. Without it, she said, she might not be able to complete her schooling as easily, or at all.
“Being in a nursing program requires so much study time, and some people can’t work and complete their classes, and I’m just not one of those individuals that can afford not to work through school,” Lynch-Thomas said. “Having the scholarship helps take away that stress, knowing I won’t completely worry about, ‘Where’s the money coming from?’ “
On average, more than a quarter of Virginia Western’s student body is considered an adult learner, meaning they are 25 years old or older, according to data collected and published by the college. Adult learners make up nearly half of those enrolled in the college’s evening classes, and more than a third of those taking courses online.
While some of these challenges are more commonly faced by older students, Herbert-Ashton said they can affect students in any demographic.
“Really, our adult learners are even 20 years old, sometimes,” Herbert-Ashton said. “So many of them are coming here and they already have families, they’re already working.”
Funded through an endowment provided by the Horace G. Fralin Charitable Trust, the Fralin Futures program is limited to STEM-H majors with 3.0 GPAs. That limited focus allows the program to better ensure recipients can secure well-paying jobs in high-growth fields, Herbert-Ashton said. At the moment, Virginia Western plans to offer scholarships to about a dozen students each year, but as the endowment grows, Herbert-Ashton said the college hopes to see the annual cohort size increase. For its first year, 12 students have been selected. Those students represent a wide array of future career paths, including mechanical engineering, radiation oncology and dentistry.
“This is our first year, and in the first year, there’s always bound to be some tweaks down the road,” she said. “Our intent, however, is to fund it forever and grow enough of the endowment to have even more students accepted.”
In addition to two semesters worth of tuition and an equivalent stipend, recipients also receive the opportunity to earn two $500 cash incentives, Herbert-Ashton said. One is granted on graduation; the other is earned if the student updates Virginia Western on their educational or employment status six months after completing their degree.
On top of the financial incentives, Fralin scholars will be given the opportunity to go on several educational trips, both within and outside of Virginia. For example, the College is planning a spring trip to the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Herbert-Ashton said the cohort is planning to attend one of the Maury Strauss Distinguished Public Lecture events held by the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at Virginia Tech as well. Recipients will also be paired with mentors who can help them further their academic and professional ambitions.
Virginia Western is not the only community college to acknowledge that adult learners may need help avoiding the more ruinous effects of happenstance. In a 2018 case study published by the Harvesting Opportunities for Postsecondary Education (HOPE) Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Temple University, researchers looked at the programs created under the No Excuses Poverty Initiative launched at Amarillo College in 2010. The mid-sized, Texas-based community college has launched several initiatives aimed at its most vulnerable students over the course of a decade, including a fund to cover the cost of off-campus emergencies and a low cost daycare parents can use during class.
Empirical numbers are not yet available to show what kind of an impact these programs have had on Amarillo’s students, but researchers have applauded the school’s efforts to shift on-campus priorities to meet the student needs. The study also noted similar programs at other colleges and universities, though most have provided students with help through other forms of help, such as food banks or housing and transportation vouchers.
By allowing the student to decide how best to spend financial aid, solutions like the Fralin Futures scholarship more directly address the problems caused by emergency costs. Students are given more control over how the scholarship and the cash incentives affect their lives. They can use the money to bolster savings, or to pay off an existing loan. Students can even use the money to cover any credentials needed for the student’s professional field, Herbert-Ashton said.
“When a student graduates our nursing program, they have to take the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCLEX) licensing exam ,” she said. “And that’s expensive at a cost of $450. So this particular scholarship provides funding for this exam, for example.”
In some cases, the scholarship can simply provide the peace of mind a student needs to calmly complete her courses. Tori King, a 23-year-old Fralin scholar studying server security and administration, said that after experiencing poverty as a child in Nebraska, she promised herself that she would seek out a future with more financial stability. She recalled how her grade school teachers would sometimes give students a bag with peanut butter and other nonperishables in an effort to ensure their pupils had enough food to get through the weekend.
Even as a working adult, she’s sometimes had to struggle with thin budgets. In the past, the former Navy machinist mate said she’s had to get by with as little as $20 a week. Now, with the help of the Fralin scholarship and the income she earns from the Roanoke-based accounting firm Brown Edwards, King has enough money to cover both routine and unexpected costs.
“I can have $100 to get me through the week, and that is even just a blessing in itself,” she said. “I feel like I’m actually a normal person. If I want to go to the movies — if I want just a popcorn, and generally a smaller popcorn — I’m able to reward myself for the hard work I’m doing. It’s not like I’m not getting anywhere.”
King said she sometimes has felt guilty in the past for accepting even small amounts of financial assistance. She encouraged other Virginia Western students, however, to ignore that guilt, and to apply to the Fralin program when applications open up again in Spring 2020. Imposter syndrome or a sense of unworthiness, she added, shouldn’t prevent a student from getting the help she or he needs to graduate.
“If you apply for it and you get it, don’t feel bad about it,” King said. “You were meant to get that scholarship. You wouldn’t have been chosen otherwise.”
The following students make up the scholarship’s inaugural cohort:
Tori L. King (IST: Network & Security Administration)
Ebony Lynch-Thomas (Nursing)
Laura Montemurro (Dental Hygiene)
Katrin Polcuch (Radiation Oncology)
Allison Smith (Science – Health Sciences)
About the Fralin Futures STEM-H Scholarship
In 2019, the Educational Foundation launched a pioneering new scholarship program for students in STEM-H (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and health care) programs of study. The Fralin Futures scholarships:
Focus on the “finish line,” funding the recipient’s last two semesters before graduating
Recognize academic excellence in STEM-H programs of study (3.0 GPA or higher)
Offer cohort activities and mentorships affiliated with Roanoke’s Fralin Biomedical Research Institute
The scholarship will support:
The total cost of tuition for up to 2 semesters
An additional monetary stipend equal to the cost of tuition each semester
A cash incentive upon graduation
A second cash incentive 6 months post-graduation, after reporting employment status