We all have barriers in our lives that we face and must deal with. As I reflect on my life and time at Laurel Ridge Community College, without any doubt, my largest barrier was my epilepsy.
I have suffered from epilepsy since I was a baby. For periods of time things were not so bad, but then my seizures would come back. During high school, I was on an ever-rotating cocktail of drugs that left me lethargic. By the time I was finishing high school, my parents were no longer sure that going away to a four-year institution would be the right fit for me. While there was some back and forth on this, it didn’t take much to conclude that Laurel Ridge Community College was the college I needed.
When I began college, more than 20 years ago now, I was excited. I loved my classes. I enjoyed the attention my professors could give me, but there was a growing problem: my seizures were increasing in frequency. The real issue with my seizures at that time was that I would study, learn the information, know it cold… but then I would have a seizure and all that new knowledge was wiped from my memory, taking me back to square one. Try studying for a test, having a seizure the night before, then walking into the classroom with no recollection of the subject matter. This was my weekly life. My mounting frustration was simply brutal.
At that same time, I was coming to terms with the other major issue I was letting become a barrier in my life, the truth about my sexual orientation. Anyone who has ever come out to family and friends will tell you that the anxiety from deciding to come out is complicated, deep, and unique. It touches every facet of your life, and certainly that includes school. Everyone’s coming out story is different, and while my family and friends were supportive, there were still many moments of adjustment.
It might not be surprising that my academic career hit the rails. Even with the best doctors and swallowing what felt like a pharmacy of meds every morning and evening, the cycle of study-learn-seizure-forget everything just wouldn’t stop repeating. In addition, I was experiencing new anxieties because, for the first time in my life, everyone knew the real me. Ultimately things got so bad that I was placed on an academic probation, but not before having a meeting with Dean of Instruction and Student Services Susan Short.
Unbeknownst to me, that meeting would change my life. As the meeting drew near, I was so nervous with a million thoughts going through my head. Was I a failure? Would I be kicked out of school? What would my family think? The list went on and on. As I walked into the dean’s office, I had no idea that she knew who I was, let alone that she was having this meeting with me because she truly cared about what was going on with me, wanted to know what my struggles were, and ultimately how she could help get me back on course. I’m a private person by nature, but as we talked, I could see that her interest in me was genuine, so I shared everything with her, and she listened for what seemed like hours. As I finished, unloading, she shared with me, “This is how it is at Laurel Ridge. We want to help you succeed. Let’s figure this out.“
We adjusted my schedule, dropping my course load to two classes the following semester. This in turn reduced my stress, which reduced my seizures. I also agreed to meet with a school counselor once a week, and it benefited me greatly. She explained that by doing this Laurel Ridge could make sure that I would be successful not only in academia, but in life as well.
This meeting was pivotal to my future success at Laurel Ridge Community College and helped shape who I am today. Dean Short made me feel that I wasn’t just a number, but a member of the college family.
From there I would go on to have a very successful time at the college. I made lifelong friends, helped start the Gay-Straight Alliance, became the president of the Student Government Association, mentored other students, and eventually graduated. Afterwards, I transferred to another institution where I earned my bachelor’s degree in business administration and then went on to attain a master of science degree in strategic leadership, as well as many other professional certifications. All the while, I never forgot the strong educational foundation and individualized support, I received while attending Laurel Ridge Community College.
Then one day almost two decades after I entered here as a student, the opportunity arose for me to serve as a board member for the college! I couldn’t wait to give back to the college that wouldn’t give up on me. I’m so proud to see the many ways the college continues to grow, meeting the unique, ever-changing demands of our students and the local community. Laurel Ridge plays a vital role in preparing the well-educated workplace of tomorrow, improving the lives of local residents by giving them the education they need to put well-paying jobs within reach, while preparing students for the next rung in their life.
As I close, I want to bestow some advice that has helped me through life:
1) You matter! Don’t be afraid to share what is going on in your life, or the barriers that might be keeping you from doing great things. It is okay to ask for help and share what you are going through.
2) Don’t assume how others will respond to what is going on in your life. Presume that the knowledge and listening ear that they share are coming from a positive place.
3) Kindness and empathy go a long way in solving problems. If someone comes to you sharing the challenges they are facing or asking for advice, listen and respond with kindness, you might be their last hope.
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.