Chris Bennett: Laurel Ridge grad earns his master’s degree from Columbia University ‣ Laurel Ridge Community College
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Chris Bennett: Laurel Ridge grad earns his master’s degree from Columbia University

Bennett with fellow grads
Christopher Bennett graduated from Columbia University in spring 2023.

After giving up on college a few times over the years, Christopher Bennett decided to come back to Laurel Ridge more than a decade later. Three years after earning his associate degree in general studies – with a human services designation – he is a Columbia University graduate with a master’s degree in social work.

Although he took Laurel Ridge classes through dual enrollment during high school, Bennett admitted he didn’t apply himself, so didn’t do well. While he considered himself intelligent, he rebelled against the idea that a degree was needed to prove it, so only spent a short period of time at Laurel Ridge after graduating from Handley High School in 2004.

Instead, he spent 15 years in the restaurant industry, with about a dozen of those years spent in management.

“But I cooked, washed dishes, served, bartended – pretty much everything,” he said.

Bennett’s stepfather owns Cork Street Tavern in Winchester, along with several other restaurants, including The Springhouse in Woodstock, which Bennett managed for about 10 years.

“My stepfather got tired of me lying on the couch all summer, so he made me go wash dishes in Woodstock,” he said.

Bennett decided to enroll in Laurel Ridge in 2018.

“I kind of always felt there was a little bit more that I could do,” he said. “It’s a very noble profession, but it’s hard.”

When Bennett first returned to Laurel Ridge, he’d been considering going to seminary. But talking to Sociology Professor Larry Friedenberg made him change his perspective.

“He kind of made me understand that there’s a lot of ways to reach people on a secular level, on an earthly level that social work kind of really dives into,” he said.

Bennett took two classes with Professor Friedenberg, and discovered the idea of social work was “preaching to the choir.”

“After managing a bar for so long, I realized my skillset was more towards people you might not find in churches, and showing them kindness, love, compassion,” he said. “Those were the people I truly connected with, so social work made more sense than ministry.”

Another professor who had a strong impact on him at Laurel Ridge was English Professor Jenni VanCuren.

“I loved American Literature, and she did a great job teaching it,” said Bennett, who was also a member of Phi Theta Kappa, the national academic honor society for two-year colleges.

Being able to take many classes asynchronously online worked well with his 50-hours-a-week restaurant schedule, Bennett said.

“I would work a long shift, get off at 1 in the morning and then do homework,” he said. “That was super-helpful with my restaurant schedule.”

Bennett completed an internship at Northwestern Community Services in spring 2020.

“It definitely gave me a full and complete introduction into what social work can look like,” he said.

After graduating from Laurel Ridge in 2020, Bennett transferred to Liberty University and earned his bachelor’s degree in social work in 2022.

“It was a very easy transition,” he said.

While studying for his bachelor’s degree, Bennett completed internships at the Winchester Department of Social Services and the Winchester Rescue Mission.

Bennett was accepted into Columbia University’s advanced standing program, so was able to complete his master’s degree in social work in three semesters. During that time, he had a field placement with The Child Welfare League of America, the nation’s oldest child welfare advocacy organization. He graduated in spring 2023.

“Columbia University has the oldest school of social work in the country, and it’s an Ivy League university,” said Bennett.

He is currently splitting his working hours between the rescue mission and the Child Welfare League, and his goal is to marry social work and restaurant work – have a nonprofit restaurant staffed with employees who are in recovery, or homeless, or coming out of incarceration.

Bennett, who is a first-generation college student, often finds himself recommending Laurel Ridge to others.

“You’re going to save so much money, so much time,” he said.

Laurel Ridge Community College was known as Lord Fairfax Community College until June 2022. For consistency purposes, the college will be referenced as Laurel Ridge going forward.