Jonathan Branson ‣ Laurel Ridge Community College
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Jonathan Branson


After 10 years in the restaurant business, Jonathan Branson decided to give college another shot.

He graduated in May with an associate of science degree in computer science.

“I had gone to college after graduating from high school, but it didn’t go so well,” Branson says.

He spent a decade working in restaurants and had been a cook at a steakhouse when he enrolled at Laurel Ridge. His wife, Katie Branson, works for the Laurel Ridge Adult Education Program.

This time around, college went much better for Branson, of Wardensville, W.V.

“It was different because I was more mature,” he says. “I cared more about being successful.”

While he started off attending Lord Fairfax part-time, a few years back, he decided to become a full-time student.

Since the computer science program wasn’t established until three years ago, Branson first earned a degree in information systems technology, plus a certificate in software development. Realizing he didn’t need many more credits to earn another associate degree for computer science, he went for that as well.

While at Laurel Ridge, Branson was a technology tutor, which allowed him to further hone his skills.

Branson has been hired by IBM as an application development apprentice at the Rocket Center, W.Va. Cloud and Client Innovation Center. After a year-long apprenticeship, his title will change to full applications manager. It’s a new pathway for those with two-year degrees.

“You spend a year training, and after that year, you’d be just like somebody who has a four-year degree,” Branson says.

It’s part of IBM’s “New Collar” initiative. A press release from the technology giant says it is partnering with community colleges to prepare more citizens for new collar jobs.

“In these well-paying roles, in-demand technology skills are valued more than credentials, and a traditional four-year college degree may not always be required,” the release says. “In addition to collaborating on curricula design for next generation IT skills, IBM will work with community colleges near its major U.S. facilities to offer more local students the opportunity to participate in internships and apprenticeships within the company, as well as direct hiring for IBM careers.”

“IBM has had real success tapping into a talent pool that doesn’t have traditional degrees,” IBM Vice President of Talent Sam Ladah says in the release. “We’re delighted to be providing more community college students with access to emerging technologies at the forefront of our industry, as well as hands-on exposure to New Collar career paths. Our goal is to make the IT industry more inclusive by helping a more diverse set of candidates understand that if they have the right skills, there’s an opportunity for them at today’s IBM.”

Branson is eager to get started in his new career.

“It’s going to be nice to have a job in the field in which I have a degree, and not have to go back to the restaurant business or factory work,” Branson says. “I’m excited.”

And, he doesn’t think his educational training is done yet. With Computer Science Professor Melissa Stange’s urging, Branson plans to get his bachelor’s degree.

“Eventually it will happen,” he says.

A good option for his four-year degree would be Old Dominion University, which offers distance learning at Laurel Ridge, Branson says. Plus, his Laurel Ridge credits will transfer with him thanks to the guaranteed admission agreement ODU has with the Virginia Community College System.

Professor Stange notes that she and her colleagues in the technology program – information systems technology, computer science and cybersecurity – strive to offer their students real-world experiences and employment opportunities through industry partnerships and rigorous programming. For example, this fall Stange will be leading a cross-disciplinary team of students through a virtual exchange grant with a team of students from Jordan.

“This exercise will provide our students an opportunity to apply their knowledge and creativity to solve a global problem in ways they haven’t yet considered,” she says.

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.