Ismenia Juarez: G.I. Bill spousal benefits open doors for new U.S. citizen ‣ Laurel Ridge Community College
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Ismenia Juarez: G.I. Bill spousal benefits open doors for new U.S. citizen

Juarez and her husband outside
Ismenia Juarez is attending Laurel Ridge using the educational benefits earned by her Virginia National Guard veteran husband, Alex, who is 100-percent disabled due to his military service.

Her husband’s sacrifices with the Virginia National Guard are allowing Ismenia Juarez to become the first person in her family to attend college.

Veteran Alex is 100-percent disabled, with PTSD, a traumatic brain injury, a back injury and deafness in one ear from his time in Afghanistan. Alex was serving with the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment in Ghazikel, Afghanistan, on Aug. 7, 2004, when his fellow platoon members, Sgt. Craig W. Cherry and Sgt. Bobby E. Beasley, were killed by a roadside bomb.

That would not be the only traumatic time Alex would endure. A little more than 10 years ago, his son with Ismenia, Angel, was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia. Now, 14, Angel is healthy and thriving.

Ismenia is using her husband’s G.I. Bill benefits to attend Laurel Ridge. Before enrolling in credit classes in 2022, she took free ESL classes at Admiral Richard E. Byrd Middle School in Frederick County through the college’s Adult Education program.

“It was really helpful,” she said. “That’s how I was able to get into the college-level classes.”

In 2008, when she was 16, Ismenia left her native El Salvador, “and I’m glad I did because there’s so much opportunity here.”

“There are a lot of opportunities for all people,” she added.

Ismenia, who is now fluent in English, received her GED in 2022. And in November 2023, she proudly became a U.S. citizen. Ismenia said her ESL classes played a large part in helping her pass her citizenship test.

“Being at the college and being in the ESL programs all these years have made my brain be able to grasp more things more quickly than before in English,” she said. “Now, I understand almost everything.”

During the spring 2024 semester, Ismenia is taking English 111, English composition and Spanish II, the latter of which is to improve her writing ability. Her goal is to be a journalist and she would like to be bilingual in her writing.

While Ismenia thought she wasn’t ready for a public speaking class, she was able to get an A.

“Miss Painter said, ‘You see, we just need to build your confidence, we knew you could do it,’” she said.

Miss Painter is Sharon Painter, Laurel Ridge’s military benefits official.

“She’s the most wonderful person I’ve met here at the college,” said Ismenia. “She’s just so helpful. She’s always there for anything you need.”

And, veteran academic advisor/school certifying official Jeanmarie Corrado has been so helpful in making sure Ismenia is on track when it comes to planning for future classes.

“She’s always trying to keep up with me,” said Ismenia. “Jeanmarie has been there for me.”

Angel will also be able to use his father’s veteran’s benefits. He talks of becoming a doctor one day.

“I tell him I don’t want you to be working the work I worked,” Ismenia said. “I want you to take advantage of the opportunities you have. We were struggling for a long time.”

When Alex left the military in 2007, it took quite some time and effort for him to be declared 100-percent disabled.

The couple is devoted to each other.

“He supports me in all different ways,” said Ismenia. “He’s there for me when I need him because I’m always going to be there for him. I’m happy with him, and I really appreciate the moments we have together. Right now, with work and school, there’s not much time together, but the little moments we do have, we enjoy.

“We’ve been a team together, and we’ve grown up together. We were 17 and 21 when we first met. I’m glad that we did and I’m glad that we’re growing together and I want to grow old with him.”

Angel’s early bout with cancer was written about in The Winchester Star and led to community support for the young family, which triggered a passion for journalism in Ismenia.

“That’s my dream job,” she said. “I want to make stories to help others. I want to be the voice for them.”

Ismenia recommends the ESL programs offered through Adult Education, noting the classes are offered at many different locations.

“That’s why I’m here, because of them,” she said. “They motivated me to keep going towards my passion as a journalist. The professors are so helpful. They’re so patient. They help you with anything you need. I love the ESL program. It’s going to open so many doors for you. If you want to have a college degree, it’s the first step you have to take.”

Instructor Victoria Ryles was an especial favorite.

“She’s the best teacher I’ve ever had,” Ismenia said. “If it wasn’t for her, I don’t think I would be at the level that I am right now. She’s strict and she wants you to have your homework done on time, but when they push you like that, you learn. She cares about the students. She wants them to learn and learn the proper way.”

She is not sure of her plans after she earns her associate degree.

“I’m just happy if I can get my two-year degree,” said Ismenia. “No one in my family has a high school diploma or a college degree. To be able to say, ‘Hey, I did it. You guys can do it for the next generation.’ Anything can be possible. You just have to put your mind to it and focus on what you have to do. Never give up. It doesn’t matter how many times you fall. You always pick yourself up and never give up.

“This college is very friendly and everywhere you go, there’s people who are willing to help you. That’s what I love about this college.”

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.